Charity fundraisers range from bake sales and learnathons to marathons and bikeathons, but social service agency Ohel decided to go over the top to raise money. Literally.
On May 20, 83 men and women rappelled down the 20-story Heritage Building in Newark, NJ, to the cheers of building tenants and an enthusiastic crowd of 150 below. Each registrant had to raise a minimum of $1,000 to face the challenge; many raised more, with the event netting more than $100,000.
“It was absolutely thrilling, exhilarating, terrifying and awesome all at the same time,” said Cedarhurst resident Jonathan Nierenberg, a senior vice president at IDT, who rappelled off the building with his son Benjamin, a junior at the Hebrew Academy of the Five Towns and Rockaway High School. In homage to James Bond and to the British-born president of Nierenberg’s division at IDT, Nierenberg dressed in a white dinner jacket, tuxedo pants and bow tie. Some of the other participants dressed as Superman, Spiderman and Robin.
The Nierenberg family has a history of extending themselves for charity. A few years ago they spearheaded two bone marrow drives for a family member and a friend. More than 18,000 people from the Five Towns and Far Rockaway community were swabbed as possible donors with the Gift of Life resulting in saving hundreds of lives through bone marrow matches.
Nierenberg works in the building and his fifth floor office mates put up signs to cheer him on. He said he tried to count the floors as he lowered himself down the side, but focused on what he was instructed to do and lost count.
After ten tense minutes standing and looking over the edge of the building with their backs towards the street while he and his son were told “trust the ropes” and replying “we are not trusting the ropes, we are trusting gravity” they gave in and climbed down the side. The Nierenbergs are an athletic family; all are involved in team sports, basketball or hockey and Jonathan is a certified fitness instructor.
Ohel Children’s Home and Family Services, a large social services organization, provides foster care in Jewish homes, homes for developmentally delayed children and adults, mental health services, care, assistance and management for family members with chronic disabilities, home-bound and seniors, training workshops and seminars, and Camp Kaylie-a sleep-away camp for developmentally disabled and typical campers. The fundraiser was “a big Kiddush Hashem,” Nierenberg said.
Laurie Szenicer, Ohel’s senior development coordinator, and chief development officer Robert Katz both went over the edge. They told The Jewish Star they were grateful that Steven Greenberg and his brother Jeff, owners of the building, offered it for the event.
“Not every building owner is jumping to do this,” Katz said. In the case of the attendees, “some people got cold feet but we talked them into it. No one pulled out.” He said that participants included a girl with a broken leg in a cast and a man who came in “confident and cocky,” taking “six attempts until he conquered his fear and went over the edge, humbled by the experience.” Most participants said that they were anticipating facing the wall again next year, Katz said.
Katz and Szenicer saw the event as a metaphor for what Ohel does. “Our organization is very much involved in overcoming stigma, just like people overcoming fear of heights.” Katz cited “the stigma in our community associated with many areas of mental illness [that observers] don’t know what it means, are they going to hurt me; when they see someone managing their mental state, at the end, they are drawn to be with them and get to know them.”
Ohel is the first Jewish organization to use Over the Edge, which has worked with 120 other groups, to stage a rappelling event. “We wanted to be ahead of the curve,” Szenicer said.
The company set up two ropes on one side of the building to enable two people to rappel down simultaneously, with two heading down every eleven minutes — stretching the event to about eight hours.
It’s “overcoming challenges” said Katz, “what people at Ohel deal with every day, 24/7.”
Nirenberg said his wife, Alissa, an early childhood teacher at HAFTR, was in denial that her son was going to do it. Now that’s it over, “she thinks we’re a bunch of crazies who did a wonderful thing for tzedakah.”
At the end of the day, father and son agreed that they would never look at his office building the same way again. Passing other buildings they now say, “Do you think we can jump off of that one?”