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Congregation Micah 2012/2013 seventh-graders literally “Fill the Backpacks” with school supplies for kids connected with JFS and YES programs. (Rachel Tawil Kenyon)

You know from mitzvah projects, right? They’re a relatively new thing—compulsory social-action projects run by synagogues for 12- and 13-year-olds as an official part of bar and bat mitzvah prep. The intent is lovely: Teach kids about the responsibilities of Jewish adulthood, encourage the values of tikkun olam and giving back, raise funds for good causes, and be so awesome that you don’t even need Ne-Yo in your bar mitzvah video.

In practice, though, mitzvah projects often fall short of their intended goal. It seems to me that most of these projects involve asking your guests to give to some random charity, sing-songing about your deep dedication to it in your speech, and then forgetting about it a few weeks after you’ve put away all your today-I-am-a-man pens. Meanwhile everybody (or maybe just me) resents you and your stupid parents for making us pony up extra cash in addition to buying you an iTunes gift card.

Not long ago, I received a mass email on behalf of a bat mitzvah girl I’d never met, asking me to donate to her mitzvah project, the Jewish National Fund, which I find repugnant. Vey iz mir. In some communities, doing a mitzvah project (a phrase that did not even exist when I had my bat mitzvah, back before the walls of Jericho came tumbling down) involves little more than putting an extra thermagraphed card in the tissue paper festival that is the invitation, mentioning the name of the kid’s charity. (And guess what, kid—your mother ordered those cards. Not you.)

So, it’s time to ask the obvious: Is forced mitzvah-doing really mitzvah-doing? Is there a way to do mitzvah projects right, so that they benefit both the kid and the organization that he or she is seeking to help, without making people (or again, maybe just me) grit their teeth while hitting the “donate now” button on the puppy-rescue website? Don’t get me wrong: I believe that giving tzedakah is essential. But I already give tzedakah, and there are a zillion additional worthy causes of my own choosing I wish I could help. I feel bushwhacked when a kid noodges me to give to an organization he may or may not have researched extensively, that may not be well-reviewed on sites like Charity Navigator, and that the kid may or may not be able explain why he chose over other groups with similar philanthropic goals.

Surely, you suggest, I’m just bitter about the economic power of tweens with wealthier families and classmates than my kids’. And you may be right! When an eighth-grader’s James-Bond-themed bar mitzvah at the Mandarin-Oriental hotel raises $30,000 to buy a food-allergy-testing machine for the Mount Sinai School of Medicine, who am I to kvetch? Yet I can’t help wondering what $30,000 would mean to New Yorkers who don’t have enough to eat, rather than those who have excellent health insurance and the privilege of asking the waiter at Le Cirque what’s in the pesto. (As someone with a mega-fatal food allergy, I get to ask these questions.)

Fortunately, people far wiser than I are pondering similar issues. Rabbi Jill Jacobs of Tru’ah: The Rabbinic Call for Human Rights has written a book called Where Justice Dwells: A Hands-On Guide to Doing Social Justice in Your Jewish Community, about effecting meaningful change through advocacy, direct service, philanthropy, and community organizing. It’s an excellent resource for thinking about how we can help ourselves and help others by doing social justice work that actually makes a difference.

“One key thing is that the mitzvah project should be something the student really has thought about, that it comes from somewhere inside of them, and that they learn something about how to interact with communities that are in need,” Jacobs told me in an interview. “Students need to talk to people who work at an organization—I mean, without taking up too much of their time—and make a long-term commitment to helping rather than just putting a collection box in the synagogue. The gold standard is a project that studies the issue through a Jewish lens and doesn’t end as soon as the kid has checked off the service requirement; the ideal is a combination of service, advocacy, and study.”

But if kids are forced to do something, I asked, is it really volunteering? “I don’t have a problem with requiring it,” Jacobs replied immediately. “Tzedakah is an obligation, just as showing up to a shiva house or going to a minyan is an obligation. It’s important in Judaism to know that you don’t just do things because you feel like it.”

Fair enough. But we have to consider how to be effective in fulfilling this commandment. “It’s not about what can you give, it’s about what’s needed,” Jacobs said. For instance, sometimes attempts at volunteering actually make more work for the organization you’re trying to help. (Showing up on a nonprofit’s doorstep with 15 teenagers isn’t necessarily a thrill for that nonprofit, what with teenagers being teenagers.) And while money is usually the best thing for an organization, it’s not always the best thing for the moral development of a kid. If the point of social justice is to help the doer as much as the do-ee, we have to think about finding the teachable moment in mitzvah projects.

Making bookplates for the books collected for the Lee Academy LibraryMaking bookplates for the books collected for the Lee Academy Library
Temple Israel students make bookplates for the books collected for the Lee Academy Library.

I’m impressed with Jewish schools that do group projects thoughtfully, as part of the curriculum, in a way that meets existing needs (as opposed to we wanna help hunger, let’s collect cans of old beets!). At Temple Israel in Boston, bar- and bat-mitzvah-age kids are building a library for a small elementary school in Roxbury. They’re collecting books, making bookplates, building shelves, and creating paintings for the walls; they’ve also been reading to the kids once a month. (My friend Deb’s son Will, who is part of the project, is asking each of his bar mitzvah guests to donate a book.)

At Congregation Micah in Nashville, Tenn., teacher Rachel Tawil Kenyon ensures that there’s Jewish perspective and pedagogical value to mitzvah projects. She told me, “Stuff is more tangible to kids than money. We just did a collection for Children’s Family Services and the YES program that ended up with maybe $1,000 in school supplies, but that doesn’t mean much to kids. What matters to them is seeing the pencils, and carrying the backpacks out to my car. They can wrap their brains around that much more easily than [the abstract notion] of a dollar.”

Last year, Kenyon’s seventh-graders did a project to help a local shelter for battered women. “We started with an education component, talking about domestic violence,” Kenyon said. “What you learn about relationships as a teenager affects your relationships later. We’ve had a representative from a shelter and a former resident come speak. The kids learn about what you might need if you flee your house with nothing but a backpack. Even upper-income women may not have access to money. So, we make care baskets—personal hygiene stuff. The girls get really into getting hair products. Kids will say, ‘iPhones!’ and then we say, ‘OK, if we can’t give them iPhones, what can we do?’ We get them calling cards. And we keep impressing on the kids that our projects are not about going home and asking your parents for money, though they may choose to give some of their bar or bat mitzvah money.”

Kenyon has her students do independent research and interviews, then do a Shabbat presentation to the group about their cause. “Suddenly they feel personally connected,” she said. “I grew up in a theater family, and I know that for adults who don’t go to the theater as a child, it’s like pulling teeth to get them to go as adults. But if you start as a kid, you grow up to be a theatergoer. Doing something well now makes it become second nature.”

It’s vital, too, for upper-income Jewish kids not to see themselves as heroic rescuers of downtrodden people of color, ennobled by consorting with the rabble. “Kids need to see people working in their own communities to make change,” Jacobs said. “And they need to know those people are heroes, not victims. It’s not about wealthy white people coming in on their white horse.” (As the Midrash says, “More than the wealthy person does for the poor, the poor person does for the wealthy.”)

The Talmud tells us that the world rests on three things: Torah, avodah, and gemilut chasadim: Torah, work, and acts of lovingkindness. So does a good mitzvah project. And it’s inspiring to hear about some of the projects spearheaded by individual kids, initiatives that are truly thoughtful and immersive rather than pro-forma.

For her bat mitzvah, San Diegan Tallulah Strom ran a series of 5-kilometer races to raise money for people displaced by massive floods in Pakistan. Tallulah’s parents, Elizabeth Schwartz and Yale Strom, have a music ensemble with Sufi rock star Salman Ahmad; through Ahmad, Tallulah learned about the flooding in the Swat valley and wanted to help. “She thought it would be very cool as a Jewish girl to help Muslims in a part of the world most kids never think about,” her mother said. “And she hoped that in so doing, Pakistani Muslims would look at Jews in a different (i.e., positive) way. She also felt that there were many causes that didn’t need her, but this one did.”

Elias Eberman with coats
Elias Eberman.

For his bar mitzvah next month, Elias Eberman of Providence, R.I., ran a coat drive for kids at his former elementary school (polling the teachers about individual needs and then finding used coats in the right sizes and donating the extras to a shelter) and is now building a computer for that school’s teachers’ lounge at Free Geek Providence, an organization where his dad volunteers. “It’s very needs-based, concrete, and specific,” said Elias’ mom, my friend Jill Davidson. “And it’s been amazing to see him develop a new relationship with his former principal.”

Tal Sadeh of San Raphael, Calif., loves to cook. So he volunteers at the Ceres Community Project, which matches teen volunteers with adults to make wholesome meals for cancer patients. “He volunteers on average six hours a week,” his mother Wendy told me. “Though he became bar mitzvah in July 2012, he continues his work there. He loves this place! If it weren’t for the requirement of giving back, he never would have sought out this organization. He now understands deeply how joyful it is to do something for others … especially if you love doing it yourself.”

Amie Diamond of Westfield, N.J., has been dancing since she could walk, attending a specialized arts school and performing with professional dance companies. For her mitzvah project, she collected gently used and new jazz, tap, hip-hop, and ballet shoes, as well as dance skirts and costumes, for the National Dance Institute, which brings dance into New York City public schools. “It made her feel good because she was giving other kids the ability to do what she loved,” her mom Tracey said. (Tracey is the sister of my brother-in-law Neal.)

Josh Lopez-Binder was into art; for his bar mitzvah, he learned to weld and made a metal sculpture, an interpretation of his Torah portion, as a gift for his synagogue, Nahalat Shalom in Albuquerque. “My dad made me wear all this extra safety stuff,” he recalled. “I felt like an idiot around all those tough welder guys.” Josh loved that his shul encouraged students to be innovative. “It wasn’t really in my nature to collect cans for the homeless shelter,” he told me. “I stink at organizing things.” Today, as a mechanical engineering student at Carnegie Mellon, he’s still sculpting.

Ben Levitt (whose mom, my college pal Beth Gamulka, is a pediatrician) volunteered with Toronto’s Ve’ahavta Mobile Outreach Van, distributing sandwiches, blankets, coffee, socks, and clothing to the homeless last fall. He then put together a poster on the organization and talked about it in his speech. And since his bar mitzvah was on Purim, he gave people the opportunity to donate in the spot and fulfill the mitzvah of matanot l’evyonim. Crafty!

Olivia Varkul, whose bat mitzvah was this past weekend (mazel tov!), credits Toronto’s Heschel School for instilling in her the values of Torah, avodah, and gemilut chasadim. As a former security-blanket devotee, she decided to support Project Linus, which donates homemade blankies to hospitalized children. She visited a local neonatal ward to see how the blankets were used there, then took 13 friends and her brother to the Sewing Studio (which donated instruction time) and had a blanket-making party with material donated by Fabricland. She asked for donations to Project Linus instead of gifts. Her mom, Joanna Shapiro, told the Canadian Jewish News that the experience “has shown her how she can take on mitzvot going forward, not necessarily just giving money, but actually doing something.”

While I’m blown away by these kids’ initiative and creativity, I don’t think you need to do something wacky to have a meaningful mitzvah project. Just hanging out with a senior citizen once a week for a year can have a powerful impact on both the tween and the older person. And if you can get up on the bimah in front of your guests and convey your passion and kindness, whatever your cause, I’ll open my checkbook joyfully.

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