WESTFIELD, NJ — It’s 10 a.m on Saturday. Much of Westfield is just waking up.
But the Westfield Fun Club at Temple Emanu-El is already buzzing with activity. Families are arriving, greeting each other with hugs and kisses. The younger kids are running to teenage volunteers, who are whisking them away to get a snack and then guiding them to the art room, to play games or wait for karate and music. The older children are heading into the homework room for some extra help with the week’s schoolwork.
The Westfield Fun Club, which is entering its third year, is designed to help ease the transition for refugee families. The Fun Club began with just four families, and the roster has grown to 25 families from Syria, Iraq, Central and South America and Africa. On any given Saturday morning, about 10 to 15 of those families join the 25 or so volunteers for ESL (English as a second language) training, driving lessons and citizenship test prep, along with fun and educational activities for the children.
Mustafa is a seventh-grader who loves science and has plans for a career in engineering. His family has been in the country for about 5 years. While he waited for his favorite volunteer, Spencer, to arrive and help him with homework, he discussed what he likes most about his Fun Club Saturday mornings.
“I’m always happy to play with friends, and I love playing Connect Four. I also like to get help with my math homework, and Spencer is the best at explaining everything,” Mustafa said, before introducing his sister Zahraa, who is, like her twin brother, in kindergarten.
“I like art the best,” said Zahraa. “Especially painting, but my brother likes LEGOs.”
Spencer Feinstein, a senior at Westfield High School, has been volunteering with Fun Club for two years.
“I had some time, and really wanted to help,” Feinstein said. I’ve gotten close to them, and after seeing the impact of the program, I couldn’t not come.”
The program recently earned the Fain Award by the Religious Action Center in Washington, D.C., which recognizes effective and innovative social justice programs at Reform synagogues throughout the U.S. The Religious Action Center also recently awarded the program a grant.
Westfield residents Alissa Berger and Jenny Tananbaum started the Fun Club with the goal of helping refugees help themselves create a foundation of success. Many program participants fled their countries without speaking English, leaving behind careers, possessions and family.
“I’m most proud of the progress that these families have made from the time they arrived here three years ago until now,” Tananbaum said. “Most of the men are working, and most of the women are learning to drive, which gives them added independence. We’re seeing the older kids apply and get into college. My pride is not in how the program has grown, but how our families have grown.”
“This has turned into a Saturday morning family for all of us,” continued Berger. “The Fun Club has brought together all races and religions as one family as we all help each other each week.”
Berger and Tananbaum stress that it doesn’t matter where refugees have come from; the program is about people helping people, and puts politics aside.
“It would be easy for them to be sad about what they left behind. But they’re really taking every opportunity to make their lives successful here,” added Tananbaum.
Families leave Fun Club each week with a “goody bag” filled with essentials — toiletries, paper goods and more — and the knowledge that many Americans embrace them in their new land.