Tutor 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 journey 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, N.Y., the conversation soon comes around to the central idea of this journey: learning to take responsibility.

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.”

‘They’re having an impact’

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, Ill., and at Keshet, the day school for students with special needs where his mom teaches.

Ari Schwab of Highland Park, Ill. visits the Israel Guide Dog Center in Jerusalem, which he dedicated his mitzvah project to last year. Credit: Courtesy.

“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 which went to much-needed repairs, recovering the couches and to paint. The family also hosted a pizza party at the shul for neighborhood youngsters who had gathered to power cleaning the synagogue’s chairs.

“When you’re praying, you want the atmosphere to feel good,” says Beriah, whose parents made aliyah from California 14 years ago. “So we found colors that would look good and feel good there—mostly blue, which,” she adds, “is also one of my favorite colors.”

Beriah Lester took up a collection, raising more than $2,000 which went to much-needed repairs, recovering the couches and to paint for a bomb shelter in her Jerusalem neighborhood. Credit: Courtesy.

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. “It gives kids who are naturally restless the chance to use their energy for good and feel grownup because they can bring a smile to someone’s face and really make a difference.”

Daphna Yeshua-Katz’s children, Itamar (left) and Stav, baked cookies to deliver to older people living alone and isolated in Lehavim in southern Israel. Credit: Courtesy.

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.

Because when plans for his bar mitzvah had to be scrapped, the teen from Closter, N.J., 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 number 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.

“I love Pantry Packers; we visit it every year when we’re in Israel, and it’s always my favorite part of the trip,” says Elias. “When I think of the people who aren’t as lucky as me, who are really hurting and can’t feed their families, I really want to raise as much as possible to help feed them. That would be the greatest gift for my bar mitzvah.”

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.”

‘Kids follow their passion’

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. Ari’s Bears (arisbears.org) which “brings bears and smiles to children in hospitals,” and helps fund research, is a partnership with the American Childhood Cancer Organization. Using the Build-A-Bear Workshop, each child has the chance to assemble his or her own bear.

“When they make the bears, for a little while it takes their minds off the treatment,” says Daniel. “This has made me think more about what people have to go through, so at my school, when people make a joke about cancer, I tell them not to joke about it—that  people die from it. If the money I’m raising helps finds a cure and just eases the pain for a while, that’s enough for me.”

“They were friends since they were small, so when Daniel said, ‘This is what I want to do for my bar mitzvah project,’ we knew it was the right thing,” says his mom, Rachel Dressin. And now that Ariella’s first yahrtzeit has come and gone, Daniel is determined to “make a difference in her name,” she says. “It’s taught him even more about compassion, gratitude and the greater good, and it’s strengthened him through his grieving process.”

Daniel Dressin with his late friend, Ariella Stein. Credit: Courtesy.

“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, Ill. 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 lovingkindness, and teaching them that taking responsibility needs to be a habit for life.”

That’s what’s happening with Kirshner in New Jersey, who says that his future career will need to reflect a core value. “Whether it’s as a first responder, or a doctor or an emergency ambulance worker, whatever I end up doing, it’s going to be helping people,” he says.

Rabbi London offers a bit of advice to parents: Now that families are experiencing an unprecedented amount of family togetherness, it’s an opportunity for the entire family to participate in their child’s bar/bat mitzvah project, “as long as the parents don’t take it over but limit themselves to advising and helping.”

And as Rabbi Stein in Rochester puts it: “At the end of the day, we want them to come back and read Torah, and we also want them to go out and make the world a better place.”

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