When Jason Soll started preparing for his bar mitzvah in 2003, he had a clear goal in mind, and it wasn’t developing a deeper connection to his Judaism. What he wanted, really, was an MP4 video player. “I had my heart set on it,” Soll, a self-described gadget freak, recalled the other day. Along with studying his parasha, he made a wish list, but as the big day approached, he noticed that at least a few of the items on it already felt passé, even before he’d gotten his hands on them. “I suddenly realized that I have no material needs in terms of living a healthy and enriched life, and all the things I wanted were going to be obsolete in a matter of months,” said Soll, who grew up in Columbus, Ohio. So instead of requesting gizmos, he sent a letter asking his guests to contribute to a fund he set up through the Columbus Jewish Foundation—and, for good measure, threatened to return any presents anyone tried to give him on the side. The result was a $24,000 seed fund that Soll, now an unusually eloquent 20-year-old junior at Claremont McKenna College, periodically draws on to donate to causes as varied as humanitarian relief after the 2008 Chengdu earthquake in China and Magen David Adom, the Israeli emergency service.
Over the past decade, many Jewish schools have added mandatory “mitzvah projects” to the curriculum for their 12-year-old b’nai mitzvah students—designed in part as a counterweight to the increasing extravagance of bar and bat mitzvah celebrations, which at their most outrageous have come to include custom-built “synagogue” pavilions on the grounds of five-star resorts and, in the case of Elizabeth Brooks, a $10 million gala at Manhattan’s Rainbow Room headlined by Aerosmith and 50 Cent. Even for teens of more modest means, the remote-controlled airplanes and private telephone lines that once made for memorable gifts have given way to luxuries like strands of Mikimoto pearls—gifts that might turn into heirlooms, sure, but that can still feel disconnected from the idea of passing into adulthood. And with a new Torah cycle getting underway, a new crop of b’nai mitzvah will decide whether to not only include an element of tzedakah in their big day but perhaps to to do the once unthinkable and forgo gifts altogether in favor of increasing their charitable contributions.
“My bar mitzvah should be about me doing something for the community,” said 13-year-old Daniel Kessler, an eighth grader in Potomac, Maryland, who used his low-key luncheon last June to raise $5,000 for a seeing-eye-dog training center in Israel. Kessler was following in the footsteps of his 15-year-old brother, David, who used his own bar mitzvah luncheon two years ago to collect about 1,500 used English books for an Israeli school. “I thought my bar mitzvah isn’t about me getting things, but I really like books, so it would be good to give other people the opportunity to get the love of reading,” he explained—and while he kept the Barnes & Noble gift cards a few guests gave him along with their book donations, the handful of checks pressed on him by particularly insistent relatives and family friends went to defray the costs of shipping the library to its new home in Kfar Saba. “I really think I did something meaningful, and I’m glad.”
Lital Firestone, a 15-year-old from Rockville, Maryland, decided to go a step further and ask her guests to give not just money but time—specifically, to help serve food at a brunch for patients at Walter Reed Army Medical Center while she and her theater group put on a musical performance. “My bat mitzvah was seven months after my birthday, so I said, ‘Please do this in lieu of gifts,’ ” said Firestone. “I just felt like it should be a celebration of what I should be working toward as a person, and not just like another birthday party with presents.” She raised more than $3,000, more than covering the cost of sponsoring the brunch, and sent the extra funds to a program at the Tel HaShomer army base hospital that provides support to wounded Israeli soldiers.
The idea of using Jewish life-cycle events—brit milot, bar mitzvahs, weddings—to raise money or awareness for charitable causes can be traced to the founding of Mazon, the Jewish hunger-relief organization, which started in 1985 with a request that celebrants give 3 percent of the money they were spending on parties to help feed those in need. The organization now has an annual budget of about $6.5 million. “It was a way to balance out what we were spending on mitzvah celebrations,” said Rabbi Jeffrey Salkin, the author of Putting God on the Guest List, a guide to integrating spiritual traditions into the modern bar or bat mitzvah ceremony. A new wave of philanthropic organizations specifically targets b’nai mitzvah students; one Boston-based group, jchoice.org, recently launched an online registry that allows teenagers to specify the causes they’d like their guests to support in their honor. But, Salkin noted, charity can be as prone to inflation as parties. “I keep waiting for a kid to say that for his bar mitzvah project he worked out a compromise on the territories,” Salkin said, referring to contested settlements in the West Bank. “It’s like a law of physics—we’ve got to compete with each other, so instead of competing with glitz, we compete with meaning.”
For some parents, though, the logical corollary to eliminating gifts is scaling down the size of the accompanying party. “We didn’t want to contribute to this culture of excess,” said Lisa Eisen, a mother of three in a Washington suburb and national director of the Charles and Lynn Schusterman Family Foundation, which focuses on Jewish youth programs. “We wanted to contribute to a culture that focuses on values and making a difference for others.” When her eldest daughter, Ariella, now 17, was preparing for her bat mitzvah, Eisen suggested she choose a charity rather than make a wish list. In the end, Ariella and her younger sister Tamar collected more than $15,000 between them for a nonprofit founded by their uncle that provides medical services in developing countries, along with money for the American Jewish World Service and a Down Syndrome group, and celebrated with low-key dessert receptions instead of full-scale dinners—and balanced even those events with donations to Mazon. Both girls carried on their volunteer work after their bat mitzvahs, and the whole family has since replaced the tradition of exchanging Hanukkah gifts with picking two charity projects, one in Israel and one at home, each December, Eisen said. Now, with her 11-year-old son beginning to prepare for his bar mitzvah, Eisen said she’s hoping to replace the American-style party with a family celebration in Israel. “I want to commemorate him reaching this milestone without it being about the party and the presents,” said Eisen. “But we’ll see.”