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.
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.”
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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Rabbis have long tried to persuade us of the benefits of parting with some of our money. Are we listening?