In Leviticus, Chapter 19, the Torah tells us: “Rise before the aged and show respect to the elderly.”  For the second year in a row, students at the Hebrew Day School of Ann Arbor are fulfilling this mitzvah by participating in a penpal project with older Jewish adults in our community.  The project is known as Mitzvah Mail.

Through our partners at Jewish Family Services of Washtenaw County, students in the third and fourth grade are paired with older adults to whom they send, and from whom they receive, letters throughout the year. The letters cover a wide range of topics, including family and friends, the events going on in the lives of the correspondents, and the role of Jewish holidays and traditions in their experiences, past and present. When the letters arrive at HDS, our students’ faces light up, as they are treated to vivid accounts of their penpals’ lives and are presented with thoughtful questions about their own. The students excitedly show their letters to one another. They discuss the connections they share with members of another generation, as well as the differences they observe between their experiences and those of their penpals.

The Mitzvah Mail project is an important part of the HDS curriculum in at least two ways. First, it is a real-world writing project. Letter-writing encourages self-reflection–it requires our students to decide what people or events from their lives are appropriate subjects for this kind of communication–and it provides students with an opportunity to work on writing at the level of craft. Once a student has decided what is worth communicating, he or she must take the time to figure out how best to communicate it. Second, the project is steeped in Jewish values, in particular the value of Hiddur P’nai Zaken: respect for the elderly. By creating a framework within which the children can share with and listen to the elderly, we show that we value the wisdom and experiences of these members of our community; and we signal to the students how much they might learn from intentionally and thoughtfully connecting with older adults.

The capstone of the Mitzvah Mail project is a year-end party, at which the students meet face-to-face with their penpals. It is fascinating to watch the students as they see the people behind their letters come to life, and it is rewarding to see them listen to and interact with their penpals in a way that showcases the values of respect and caring that the project is designed to instill. One of our fifth graders who participated in the project last year remarked that he hadn’t previously realized how much he could have in common with an older person, and I am confident that many of our students feel just the same.