Teens’ nonprofit helps students in need

The Wonder Wheelers wow the crowd with their unicycling and juggling feats during a Performing for Pencils event.

By Ellen Futterman, Editor

In September, Ohr Chadash, the monthly section in the Jewish Light written by St. Louis-area Jewish high school students, will start back up for another school year. While similar sections in newspapers across the country have come and gone, Ohr Chadash, now in its eighth year, continues to improve in quality and expand across all media platforms, thanks to its enormously dedicated teen staff and adult advisors.

The caliber of teens writing for Ohr Chadash is top-notch, and in most cases their involvement in projects and activities outside of school is dizzying. Take 16-year-old Jessica Goldberg, for example, who has been writing for Ohr Chadash for three years.

A couple of years ago, Jessica, who will be a junior at John Burroughs School, along with classmate Ethan Orchard, started Performing for Pencils, a non-profit organization that combines the talent of St. Louis-area high school students with the desire to help fellow students in need. 

Since their freshman year at Burroughs, both Jessica and Ethan have worked as teaching assistants at Aim High, a tuition-free academic enrichment program for motivated middle-school students, most of whom come from challenging circumstances or environments. The program was started in 1991 at Burroughs by two teachers there, but has grown to include a second campus at St. Louis Priory and now serves more than 250 students over a five-week period each summer.

“What we learned pretty quickly getting to know these kids is that they don’t have school supplies,” said Jessica. “As we started looking into this we realized that there are tens of thousands of kids in the St. Louis area who can’t afford them. We wanted to be able to address the problem and help.”

Figuring out how to do just that was easy given that Jessica and Ethan both love to perform. Jessica takes tap lessons with Tony Award nominee Lara Teeter, who heads the musical theater program at Webster University. She’s part of an annual school dance show as well as in community theater productions. Ethan is a member of the men’s a cappella group at Burroughs.

“The two of us know amazing performers from all St. Louis,” said Jessica. “So we decided to gather the most talented high school acts and put on a free show so audiences could donate school supplies.”

Thus was born Performing for Pencils, which now benefits thousands of students in the St. Louis area who go to school with inadequate supplies. The first talent show, said Jessica, held in June 2014, raised roughly $10,000 in school supplies and monetary contributions for youngsters attending the St. Louis School District. This year’s show, held last Saturday (Aug. 15) at Burroughs, brought in more than $25,000 in school supplies and monetary gifts to help students in the Ferguson-Florissant School District.

About 400 people attended the most recent show, bringing with them bags of pencils, pens, rulers, erasers, backpacks, notebooks, calculators and other school supplies. They were entertained by more than a dozen acts featuring singers, pianists, unicyclists, tappers, hip-hop dancers and jugglers from 30 area high schools. 

Shelby Ringdahl, Miss Missouri 2013, served as emcee for the first show in 2014 and returned this year as “emcee emeritus” while Jasmin Alexander, Miss Black USA, flew in from San Antonio, Texas to donate her time as emcee this year.

Of course the amount of work that goes into successfully executing this kind of show is mind-boggling. “We only had one dress rehearsal the night before because it’s so hard to coordinate performers from 30 different schools,” said Jessica. “But we had seen all the acts so we knew how long each would run. We planned the program so that there would be balance in terms of length and variety of the performances.”

When asked what gives her the greatest pleasure about Performing for Pencils, Jessica said: “It’s equal parts raising money and school supplies for these kids who desperately need them so that they can have every advantage to be successful in school as well as the community building aspect. We are involving so many St. Louis communities and school districts in the show and bringing them together to work for a common cause.”

Thankfully, Jessica again will be among those high school students writing for Ohr Chadash when the first issue of the new school year runs Sept. 9. And if you would like to contribute to Performing for Pencils, donations are accepted year-round at performingforpencils.org.

A most observant summer 

Just because your parents observe Judaism a certain way doesn’t mean you have to follow suit. Take the case of 14-year-old Shawn Pernick, who just began his freshman year at Ladue Horton Watkins High School.

During the summer, Shawn, whose family identifies as Reform and attends Congregation Shaare Emeth, amps up his Jewish learning while attending Camp Nageela Midwest, an Orthodox sleep-away camp, in Marshall, Ind.

“I like that I learn more about who I am Jewishly,” said Shawn, who has attended the camp for the past four summers. “Before I went to this camp I had never eaten only-kosher before, never celebrated Shabbat strictly, never wore a head covering all time. I never stopped using electronics on the Sabbath.”

Shawn says the camp offers many of the same activities as other camps, such as boating, swimming, tennis, volleyball, football, arts and crafts and the like. The main difference is that those activities stop on Shabbat when the focus turns to reflection and learning. In addition, all meals and snacks at the camp are kosher.  

“We also say the three daily prayers every day and put on tefillin,” added Shawn, who celebrated his bar mitzvah at United Hebrew. 

Shawn says when he returns home from camp he isn’t as observant, though he tries not to eat milk with meat and stays away from pork. He also goes to Sunday school at Aish HaTorah and likes to attend Nusach Hari-B’nai Zion, a Modern Orthodox shul in Olivette, with a friend.

Shawn’s mother, Ella Pernick, says she and her husband are respectful of their son’s more observant leanings. “We have spoken plenty of times with Shawn and told him as he gets older, if he wants to be more observant, that is his choice and we are fine with that,” she said.

“But right now,” she added with joking nod, “it’s my house and my rules.” 

Play ball

Looking for something fun to do Labor Day weekend? The International Jewish Men’s Slo-Pitch Tournament will be in St. Louis Sept. 4-7 at the Bridgeton Municipal Athletic Complex, 13212 Ferguson Lane, in Bridgeton. The tournament features teams with more than 175 Jewish men from the United States and Canada, including Toronto, Montreal, Winnipeg, Chicago, Detroit, Las Vegas, Indianapolis, Denver and of course, St. Louis.

The last time St. Louis played host to the IJMSPT was in 2008. For game schedules and more information, go to jewishsoftball.com.