Your email is not valid
Recipient's email is not valid
Submit Close

Your email has been sent.

Click here to send another

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.

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

In Lieu of Gifts

Forgoing the usual bar and bat mitzvah swag, some teens are asking guests to contribute to charity

Bat Mitzvahs Get Too Glitzy

Women fought for a ceremony to mark a Jewish girl’s passage into womanhood. Now the ritual’s meaning is often lost amid flashy parties and clothes.

Becoming Women

Bat mitzvahs tell us less about tradition than they do about how girls create rites for coming of age, as the new book Today I Am a Woman shows

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.

***

Like this article? Sign up for our Daily Digest to get Tablet Magazine’s new content in your inbox each morning.

1 2View as single page
Print Email

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.

2000

Your comment may be no longer than 2,000 characters, approximately 400 words. HTML tags are not permitted, nor are more than two URLs per comment. We reserve the right to delete inappropriate comments.

Thank You!

Thank you for subscribing to the Tablet Magazine Daily Digest.
Please tell us about you.

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.

More on Tablet:

Study Says All Ashkenazi Jews Are 30th Cousins

By Stephanie Butnick — Researchers identify 350-person founding population of Ashkenazi Jewry