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Doing Mitzvah Projects Right

Don’t just ask for donations at your bar or bat mitzvah. Do some homework and find a cause with meaning.

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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)
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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.”

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I’ve had the same sense as you, Marjorie, about the “please give me money toward my mitzvah project” requests. Even if a project is required, if it is meaningful, you never know where it will lead. A young lady I know spent 3 months beyond the “required” 3 months to volunteer, one-on-one, with an elderly woman who was losing her sight and her hearing. Did that lead to a career in medical care, with a gentle and funny and much-appreciated way with older patients? Or did her interest in helping others lead to her choosing that mitzvah project? I’m not sure it matters. But the opportunity led to a powerful experience, both for her and for the woman she helped.

Shelley Schachter-Cahm says:

A Bar/Bat Mitzvah is a milestone, not a starting point or destination so choosing a project to nurture a longer term view of social good should start well before a “project”. My Daughter Mindy has chosen her bat mitzvah project by watching her family work for a number of philanthropic causes through good times and bad – it’s never been about simply clicking the “donate now” button. She decided to ask people to go to their favored charity shop and buy a few second hand toys or books or board games instead of buying her a present. She is coming with me to the Philippines in December to distribute these items through The Toy Drop to schools and orphanages I have been supporting for a decade. The best gift I have been able to give her is using her mind to stretch an individual donation by (1) asking for people to buy second hand stuff from charity shops which will not distinguish the donors who “have” or “have not” and allows them to continue to support their chosen charity (2) potentially allowing donors to just give their own kids old stuff, or unwanted sheets and towels (3) using donated stuff, bought for a (tax efficient) donation or simply unpacked from the back of a cupboard to donate onwards with full supply chain integrity (4) Mindy will get to see how at the age of 12 and almost no budget, she can multiply good and see an end result. It’s not a project she came up with solely on her own but before her Bat Mitzvah it is precisely the time in life she is still ready to seek guidance and encouragement. For her 13th birthday it will be entirely up to her what she does.

These article is what Areyvut http://www.areyvut.org is all about. We help celebrants personalize Mitzvah Projects that add to their celebration while making the world a better place at the same time. We appreciate you highlighting this and creating an important dialogue for educators and parents.

Aimee Yermish says:

We had encouraged our daughter to find a project that involved actual *doing* of something that was actually meaningful to her and that actually served the needs of the charity she was helping. She researched a national charity that gets good ratings for the effective use of the money donated, but chose to spend her actual time at a local equine rescue, shoveling manure and cleaning hooves, because she is passionate about her care for animals, and because she quickly came to care also for the humans who do the hard work.

This process began long before most kids are asked to do a mitzvah project (which was not required at our shul) — it’s just that doing mitzvot is what Jews do. She continues to work regularly at the barn and expects to do so through her high school years. (In fact, the person in charge of the barn has had bad experiences in the past with short-term “mitzvah projects” because of the effort involved in training someone who would then disappear a few months later.)

In her invitation, we included the names of the two charities, not “in lieu of gifts” and not “in addition to gifts,” but just as information for those who might want to know what charities were meaningful to her. Some people made donations instead of gifts, some made donations in addition to gifts, some gave gifts and made no donations, some made donations to charities other than those we had mentioned, and it is all good in our hearts.

jessica226 says:

until I saw the check saying $4000, I did not believe …that…my mom in-law woz like they say trully bringing home money in their spare time at their laptop.. there aunt has done this 4 only about eighteen months and at present repayed the morgage on their place and bourt a brand new Lancia Straton. this is where I went, jump15.comCHECK IT OUT

Additionally, Bar/Bat Mitzvah students may find meaningful mitzvah projects on http://www.themitzvahbowl.com

Thanks so much for your post! I direct a mitzvah project program and am challenged with the points you bring up on a daily basis. But, at the end of the day, every kid (and parent for that matter) is different, some are more proactive about their projects than others are. Some will want to continue with their organizations, while others would rather just do the requisite project and call it a day. I don’t know if there is an easy ‘one-size-fits-all’ solution to inspiring every bnai mitzvah kid to want to do a meaningful, personal project that still benefits the organization they choose, but if there is one I’d love to learn more about it!

And what about more personal mitzvot?

How about volunteering to help make a minyan at one’s own shul on a weekly basis? Putting on Tefillin? Checking with the synagogue office to see if there are senior members who could use a bit of help in the home or running errands on a regular basis? Checking to see if there are new parents that could use an extra set of hands or eyes?

Does one really need to go halfway around the world to the Philippines for Tzedukah?

david says:

:-D Mickey toys liztoys is my favorite,so I bought a lot toys from there.http://www.liztoys.com

Great article!
We would love to be a resource to any teen seeking a meaningful Mitzvah Project.

We support three schools in Israel for visually impaired children.
learn more at http://www.eliyausa.org

Yesterday my daughters hosted a Cheese Day at Children’s National Medical Center for their Mitzvah Project, in honor of their friend who had been a patient there. It was a tremendous experience that they will never forget. Nor will I.

Gigi says:

My temple does the projects well. They ask the students to put in 18 hours of volunteer time to help a worthy cause. My son chose to help sort food at a Food bank. He also sorted clothing for the homeless. He was required to create a presentation of his mitzvah project at the temple. Lastly, he did NOT ask any of his guests to make a donation. I think this was done right.

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Doing Mitzvah Projects Right

Don’t just ask for donations at your bar or bat mitzvah. Do some homework and find a cause with meaning.