Local synagogues help stuff 530 backpacks for Head Start

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Sydney Meckler always looks forward to shopping for school supplies. So when the 13-year-old heard about a project that would outfit 530 Head Start students with backpacks, crayons, scissors, pencils, glue, erasers, paper and notebooks, she knew she wanted to help out.

She even decided to donate part of the money she received as bat mitzvah gifts.

"I find it fun shopping for school supplies and I feel kids less fortunate should have the opportunity to have supplies that every other kid has" said Meckler, a student at Katherine Delmar Burke School in San Francisco.

Meckler, who celebrated her bat mitzvah at San Francisco's Congregation Beth Sholom last October, gave one-third of the $1,300 she received.

"That is a lot of money for a 13-year-old to keep track of. I figured there's a lot of people out there who needed it more than I did."

Meckler was one of scores of San Franciscans who helped with the project for children in Head Start, a federally funded program that provides free preschool to low-income children.

Children received their backpacks at their "graduation" ceremonies in mid-June.

Susan Rothenberg, a community representative on the Head Start Policy Council and a member of Congregations Sherith Israel and Beth Sholom in San Francisco, helped organize the project.

"It recognized the hard work of the children at Head Start to get prepared for kindergarten. I think often, people with more affluence don't realize how difficult it can be for families for whom English is not a first language and who are worried about money," she said.

Rothenberg co-chairs Sherith Israel's Weekly Reader program, a collaboration between Sherith Israel and the Ocean Merced Ingleside Head Start site. Six years ago, Sherith Israel members began volunteering at the Head Start site. Today, the Weekly Readers group has six volunteers.

Rothenberg initially suggested donating graduation gifts to the children at the Ingleside site. With the help of Sandy Prusiner, co-chair of Weekly Reader, and Bill Shore, chair of Sherith Israel's social action committee, the project grew to include all of the nearly 20 Head Start sites in the city.

Rothenberg, who also serves on the San Francisco Interfaith Council's child-care task force, turned to that group for help. In all, 13 churches and synagogues representing eight faiths pitched in.

Backpacks were obtained at a discount and were paid for by local businessman Don Kahn as well as Sherith Israel's religious school tzedakah fund. The 13 participating congregations' members, including children, contributed the school supplies and funds to purchase them.

Volunteers stuffing the backpacks included members of Sherith Israel's Leisure League and third- through seventh-graders at Beth Sholom and San Francisco's Congregation Emanu-El.

Debra Yrkin Perloff, education assistant at Beth Sholom, said the project served a two-fold function for children.

"It got them to do hands-on mitzvot and also to get acquainted with communal service activities. They got enthusiastic. I don't think they had any idea that some people's homes were so bare of things they don't even think of as worth thinking about. We hope that it started some awareness," she said.

Rothenberg, who attended one of the graduations, said the backpacks were a big success.

The children had "big smiles on their faces. They started comparing and it wasn't 'I got better.' They were really excited for each other."