Westfield Fun Club assists refugees


Photo Jenny Tananbaum

ESL lessons at Temple Emanu-El

In the midst of the season of giving, most people are frenzied with holiday shopping for their friends and family. But for Westfield residents Alissa Berger and Jenny Tananbaum, the season of giving never ends with their program: the Westfield Fun Club.

In 2016, families at Temple Emanu-El joined a coalition in which they each adopted a Syrian refugee family. After working closely with their refugee families, Berger and Tananbaum knew that there was much more to be done.

“In 2016, news reports of the Syrian Civil War and the refugee crisis left us heartbroken,” said Tananbaum. “It would be easy to turn away from the pictures and go about our lives here, but when we learned that there was a growing refugee population in nearby towns…we knew we needed to help.”

And so, the Westfield Fun Club began in 2017. What initially started as a program focused on helping children with their homework has now grown into a community that helps refugees of all ages. The program, which is held Saturday mornings from 10:00 a.m. to 12:00 p.m. at Temple Emanu-El, currently assists 18 families, with more joining on a consistent basis.

One main goal of the club is to provide assistance for the parents of refugee families. There are a plethora of ways adult volunteers help refugee parents, such as providing driving lessons, job assistance, citizenship preparation and help navigating the local school systems.

Not only do adult volunteers assist the refugee parents, but teen volunteers also work closely with their children. While the adult volunteers focus on helping refugee parents adapt to life in the United States, teen volunteers interact with the kids through art, games and homework help. Every child is given support at the club no matter their age; the club currently assists children ranging from 2 months old to 19 years old.

WHS senior Rachel Saxon, who has been a volunteer for over two years, said, “It’s important to make sure that kids are doing okay in school, which  will help them in their future.” She hopes she is supporting the kids by “giving them a safe and comfortable place to grow, since they haven’t had safety and security in a really long time.”

Tananbaum elaborates on the idea that all people are deserving of love and support. “These families are no different than our own. They just want the chance to live in peace,” said Tananbuam. “But starting over can be overwhelming [and] scary, so it’s up to us to help…We are determined to show others that we will never turn our backs on those who need us [and] that we are all just human beings.”

Berger and Tananbaum are aware of the stigma that surrounds refugees coming into America. Nevertheless, their mission of inclusivity and teaching people about the refugee crisis remains the same: “The Westfield Fun Club [has the] chance to educate the community at large about dispelling stereotypes. We are two Jewish women leading a group of mostly Muslim and Christian refugees, [but] we are truly a family at the [club]; no one cares that we are of different faiths and backgrounds,” said Tananbaum.

With an issue as urgent as the ongoing refugee crisis, it’s important to remember that refugee families in the community have suffered many hardships. “When you put an actual face to the crisis, [it] makes it real,” Berger said. “When you hear the stories from our young children about running down into the basement to escape bombs, it’s impossible to ignore the facts. They are the perfect example of why we must continue to fight for refugees, to push for our country to remain a place of refuge.”

If you are interested in donating to the Westfield Fun Club, donations can be sent to Temple Emanu-El at 756 East Broad Street, Westfield, NJ.  On the memo line, please write “Westfield Fun Club.” Volunteers are always welcome at the temple on Saturday mornings.