November 17, 2009
Repairing the World, One Book at a Time
Finding the true meaning of the word “mitzvah” can be a difficult task, especially as a newly minted teen. While the Hebrew word means commandment, it’s also come to mean an expression of loving-kindness. And luckily for seventh-grader Jacob Tobias, 12, he knew right away what his mitzvah was when he set out on a mission of good deeds.
Jacob has chosen to donate books and dance shoes, and his mitzvah project has taken on a life of its own. To date, Jacob has found new homes for 2,610 books and 89 pairs of dance shoes. His latest goal is to collect 7,500 books by his bar mitzvah in May.
To prepare for a bar or bat mitzvah, many synagogues encourage their students to do a mitzvah project — a community volunteer effort — which can include anything from feeding the homeless to cleaning up beaches to reading at retirement homes.
At first, Jacob, who has been a dance student at the Agoura Hills Dance & Performing Arts Center since 2006, wanted to be different and chose to donate dance shoes to the Lula Washington Dance Theatre in West Adams as his project.
“When I got home to tell the rest of my family that I’d decided on my project, my Mom suggested to me that I might want to donate books, too, because I’d just started loving to read. I thought it was a good idea, because who doesn’t love books?” Jacob said.
After donating the first 437 books to the Ventura Unified School District, Jacob met a representative who explained that the donations were going mostly to Title 1 schools, which have at least a 40 percent population of children from low-income families. Ever since then, Title 1 schools in Ventura and Oxnard have been the primary beneficiaries of Jacob’s donations.
Organizations like the Agoura Hills and Oak Park Public libraries have made Jacob’s project a success with large donations, but help has also come from individual contributors whom Jacob has found from passing out flyers at school and at his synagogue, Temple Adat Elohim in Thousand Oaks.
Jacob sees this project as an opportunity to encourage underprivileged children to read — and maybe even try their feet at dancing.
He’s received letters from children in the Title 1 program who have already put his donations to good use. One of these thank-you notes came from a third-grade class, whose teacher used the 500 books Jacob donated as a reward to students for doing their homework. Of the 11 students who regularly failed to turn in their homework, nine of them began to keep up with their work so that they, too, could earn a book to take home as a prize. Jacob has also received accolades from California state Sen. Fran Pavley (D-Santa Monica), who championed his good work for those in need.
Serena Tobias, Jacob’s mother, is, not surprisingly, proud of her son. As a volunteer for Temple Adat Elohim, she’s always encouraging children to help in any way they can, whether it’s for their seventh-grade mitzvah project or beyond. Her motivational strategy seems to have worked on her family in particular. Her other son, Joshua, now 15, volunteered at the synagogue’s homeless shelter, which they host annually from December through April for his mitzvah project.
“We started the shelter in 2007 and I was in charge of the committee that coordinated the making of lunch bags, the cleaning of laundry and all the other aspects of being a chaperone. Our temple really stresses tikkun olam,” Serena said, referring to the Hebrew phrase that means “repairing the world.”
Thanks to Serena’s influence on Jacob, he plans to continue collecting books and shoes beyond his bar mitzvah date of May 8. Jacob says that giving is not only a good deed, but it also promotes a great feeling.
As for what else his future might hold, Jacob says he plans to send his own dance shoes to New York City — with him in them, of course. He’d like to be a Broadway performer and then spend the end of his days as a tap-dance instructor.
“Aside from my family and friends, dancing is the most important thing to me,” he said.