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May 17, 2020 6:55 am

In a Time of Need, Jewish Teens Give Back

avatar by Deborah Fineblum / JNS.org

Opinion

A bar and bat mitzvah celebration for 80 Deaf and hard-of-hearing children from throughout Israel, Sponsored by the International Young Israel Movement and the Jewish Agency for Israel, was the culmination of a year of programming. Photo: Nachshon Philipson.

JNS.orgTutor a kid in math. Paint a community center. Distribute challahs to the homebound. Raise money for trees in Israel. Upgrade your school’s (or shul’s) recycling program. Save the manatees.

It seems that there are as many variations on the bar/bat mitzvah “mitzvah project” as there are teens that go through this Jewish rite of passage. And now, at this time of increased needs everywhere that could benefit from boundless young energy, there’s also more time to focus on these undertakings and involve the whole family in the process.

Indeed, in recent years, the mitzvah project has become as much a part of bar and bat mitzvah journeys across much of the denominational world as the speech that typically thanks “everyone who came to celebrate with me from near and far.”

The mitzvah project typically begins months prior to the big day. For Rabbi Peter Stein, while having that first meeting with a new bar or bat mitzvah student at Temple B’rith Kodesh in Rochester, New York, the conversation soon comes around to the central idea of this journey: learning to take responsibility.

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Even though a big part of that is learning the service, says Stein, “a lot of their preparation is fairly standard, so introducing the mitzvah project means asking them, ‘What’s your passion? How do you want to improve the world?’ For many kids over the years, these projects allow them to connect with Israel in a very direct and personal way.”

Take Ari Schwab, for instance. Since he was small, Ari has loved animals, especially dogs. So when his dad, Rabbi Michael Schwab, was in Jerusalem and saw the Israel Guide Dog Center, he had a hunch it would be a good fit for his son’s bar mitzvah project.

And he was right. Ari not only raised money for the center by selling dog treats that he’d made and dog toys, but also began soliciting donations by hanging up posters, including at his dad’s synagogue, the North Suburban Synagogue Beth El in Highland Park, Illinois, and at Keshet, the day school for students with special needs where his mom teaches.

“His goal was $1,000,” says his mother, Erica Schwab. “So he was really surprised when he ended up raising more than $19,000.”

The project was a great learning experience for her son, adds his mom. “He could see everything that goes into training a single puppy and the tremendous impact these dogs have,” she says. “He also saw our community come together to support this important cause as a way to celebrate his bar mitzvah with him.”

For Beriah Lester, the project was closer to home. The family saw that a congregation in their Jerusalem neighborhood that meets in a bomb shelter was in what mom Chaya Lester describes as “pretty sad shape.” With the leadership’s enthusiastic support, Beriah took up a collection, raising more than $2,000 that went to much-needed repairs. The family also hosted a pizza party at the shul for neighborhood youngsters who had gathered to power clean the synagogue’s chairs.

Working on a project that’s close to the heart is especially important now, says Daphna Yeshua-Katz, who teaches communications at Ben-Gurion University of the Negev. “Now that they’re away from school and their friends, a bar or bat mitzvah project can make them feel stronger,” she says. “When they use the time and access to social media to reach out and help,” she says, “it empowers these kids to feel like they’re doing something good, that they’re having an impact.”

The time of coronavirus isolation offers an unprecedented opportunity for teens and their families to reach out to isolated seniors, she says. “Wherever you live, organizations are looking for volunteers to pick up and deliver groceries, to be in touch with those who are alone,” she says. And parents can set an example, she adds. “It’s good for the kids to see you reach out to provide a lifeline to someone who needs it.”

Her own teenage son and daughter are lending a hand with grocery shopping for seniors and baking cookies to distribute to area seniors.

Whereas many bar and bat mitzvah kids try to gauge how much they can get, Elias Kirshner is trying to maximize how much he and his donors can give. When plans for his bar mitzvah had to be scrapped, the teen from Closter, New Jersey told his parents, Rabbi David-Seth and Dori Kirshner, that he wanted to use his missed event as an opportunity to help feed the hungry in Israel — a population that’s increased since the onset of the coronavirus.

With parental assistance, Elias set up a virtual food drive through the Jerusalem-based organization Pantry Packers. In just two weeks, he raised more than $24,000 to put food on Israeli tables.

It’s what his dad calls “the highest form of charity — when the people getting the food don’t know who gave it and the donor doesn’t know who’s receiving it.”

It’s a principle that applies to Daniel Dressin. A current focus for the Baltimore-area youngster’s bar mitzvah project is continuing the cause that his late friend, Ariella Stein, began three years ago when she was diagnosed with Ewing sarcoma. That cause is Ari’s Bears, which “brings bears and smiles to children in hospitals,” and helps fund research; it is a partnership with the American Childhood Cancer Organization.

“It’s the kids who follow their passion who come away most changed by these projects,” says Rabbi Andrea London of Beth Emet, The Free Synagogue in Evanston, Illinois. With 24 years of rabbinical experience, London is proud of all the countless youngsters she’s shepherded through the process, including her nephew Eli Coustan, who’s taken on a rather different type of project as part of his upcoming bar mitzvah. The fact that the congregation-based soup kitchen generates plenty of food scraps that were winding up in the garbage bothered Eli, a budding environmentalist. So he proceeded to raise the funds for a composting system and also began teaching congregants how to set up a composting system at home.

“Raising money is important, but we encourage them to do something in addition,” says London. “It’s all part of the goal: helping them work towards their highest purpose through the three pillars of Judaism: Torah, prayer, and acts of loving kindness, and teaching them that taking responsibility needs to be a habit for life.”

Deborah Fineblum is a journalist, book author, memoir editor, and Bubbe based in Pardes Hanna, Israel.

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