On a recent afternoon in late spring, two groups of boys met on a bare-bones basketball court in Hawthorne, N.Y., to play pick-up and gorge on pizza as they’ve been doing every three weeks since the fall. Almost automatically, the boys gathered, lined up and formed teams that mixed the two groups together. The lucky ones started to play while the others, hunched on the bleachers waiting for court time, pelted each other with questions.
“Are you Jewish?”
“Are you Christian?”
“How long are you in here? When will you get out?
“Is that your mom over there?”
“Those shoes are sick!”
The boys live only about a five-mile drive from each other on the Saw Mill River Parkway, but the proximity is deceptive. About a dozen of them are schlepped from their homes in Chappaqua to Hawthorne by their mothers.
The other dozen or so live there, in the J.M. Goldsmith Center, an adolescent mental health facility on a Jewish Board of Family and Children’s Services campus of squat, decades-old dormitories and trailers.
Most of the boys came to Goldsmith from a psychiatric hospital and will leave it for a group home run by the state. Their dorm walls are cinderblocks; some store their possessions in shoeboxes. Eighty percent of them are African-American or Hispanic.
These games started as the bar mitzvah project of Chappaqua boys. Such community service requirements, devised by synagogues to transcend the frenzy of parties and gift-giving, nonetheless often deserve their reputation as “wishy-washy,” as one mom put it. This one has become an important part of all the boys’ lives.
“They’re good at basketball,” said a Goldsmith boy, 13. He was the one who wanted to know more about the moms chatting courtside, and also whether the Chappaqua boys had their own basketball courts and gyms at home. Some did. “They’re nice,” he added. “They’re nice to me.”
Goldsmith asked The Jewish Week not to identify any of the residents by name because of possible concerns for their safety.
At Goldsmith, friends who show up when they say they will are more than nice — they have therapeutic value.
“The things we take for granted every day are the things these kids never had,” said Deborah Mondello, Goldsmith’s associate director. “Who’s going to play basketball with them? Who’s going to buy pizza for them?”
One of the Goldsmith boys saved the box from the birthday cake the Chappaqua crew had brought him.
“It was the first cake he ever had,” recalled William Gregson, 13, the hoops fanatic who originally had the idea of a basketball-themed bar mitzvah project. “That really got to me.”
For the Chappaqua boys, the pleasure lies in the game, and in the new feeling that they can help someone else.
“It feels like we’re doing the right thing, and it’s fun,” said Ethan Kahn, 13.
They are also learning how lucky they are, and starting to think about why that is, said Michele Gregson, William’s mother and a UJA-Federation of New York board member; along with staff at the “Mitzvah and Milestones” program, she helped put the project together.
Participation in Mitzvah and Milestones offers federation supporters both the chance to pick the recipient of their gift — a minimum donation of $1,800 is required — from a roster of federation beneficiaries, and the chance to volunteer there. Goldsmith will use the money to build a covered gazebo fitted with a grill.
“In our house, we do spend a lot of time talking about the inequalities that exist,” Michele Gregson said. “About how when a child is born, he or she doesn’t control who his parents are, or where he lives.”
That kind of learning distinguishes high-quality service projects, said Rabbi Jill Jacobs, director of Rabbis for Human Rights and the author of “There Shall be No Needy: Pursuing Social Justice through Jewish Law and Tradition.”
“They should be useful to the people being served, and they should be a learning opportunity,” she said. “These could be kids who are really aware of issues in the foster care system, issues in the mental health system, issues in poverty. Perhaps they will make career decisions accordingly. … There’s a chance for some real education here.”
Tuesday’s game was the last one of the year. The Chappaqua boys have promised to come back in the fall, although almost all of them have already celebrated their bar mitzvahs.
“It’s the right thing to do,” said William Gregson. “We wouldn’t just drop this.”
Yet at the beginning, the boys’ mothers wanted to do just that. The Goldsmith staff was wary, too.
The Chappaqua moms knew that some Goldsmith boys lack family altogether, while others lack family that can take care of them. The owner of the “sick” sneakers shut his mouth, raised his hands and made a bewildered face in response to a question about his family. Where had he lived before the hospital that discharged him to Goldsmith? Same gesture, same expression. All of the Goldsmith boys are on psychotropic medications. Most of them are on three or four.
“If you’re a Chappaqua kid, and you have a slight chemical imbalance, your parents are going to get you an early intervention. You’ll have the best school, and the best medication, and you’re going to be fine,” Mondello said. “If our kids have a minor chemical imbalance, they’ve also been born [exposed to illegal drugs], and in foster care from birth and exposed to physical and sexual abuse. Their profile is going to be a lot different.”
But the Chappaqua moms hadn’t realized that many of the Goldsmith boys were already well into their teens.
“There was this big gasp, and [some] said, ‘OK, we’re done, this isn’t happening. They’re emotionally disturbed. They’ve got psychological problems. This is not what we signed up for,’” recalled Mindy Unger, also a federation board member and one of the project’s organizers.
One trial game reassured the moms. But the Goldsmith staff had to stay alert on behalf of their charges, who are fragile in large part because so many people in their lives have let them down. Even well-meaning volunteers can cause emotional harm.
At least since the Peace Corps, service projects have raised the question of whether volunteers sometimes inadvertently exploit those they purport to help. That is not a concern here, because the Chappaqua boys visit frequently, have been doing so for months and even plan to stick around.
“You come once or twice, and we never see you again, that has a real impact on a child,” Mondello said. “Our boys are so used to people coming and going. The most special thing about this is the consistency.”
As the months went by, and the boys kept enjoying themselves, the grown-ups relaxed.
“When I get in the car and I say, ‘What are we going to do after school, and I hear basketball, it’s not a chore,’” said Brian Unger. “It’s, ‘Yay, this is going to be fun.’”
It can also be sad.
“They must always be thinking in the back of their mind, I wish my mom was here,” William Gregson said. “I get to talk to my mom whenever I want to. But they don’t get to do that.”