Jewish Journal

Bark mitzvah goes to dogs in unique tzedakah project

by Rachel Heller

Posted on May. 8, 2008 at 6:00 pm

In honor of their bar mitzvahs, friends Jonah Resnick, Zachary Miller and Harris Girocco wanted to do a tzedakah (charitable giving) project that wasn't all bark and no bite.

When the boys decided to raise funds for developmentally disabled children in Israel, they made an effort to involve their families, their community and even their four-legged friends.

"All three of us have dogs and love dogs," said Jonah, 13, who shares his Tarzana home with a white Labradoodle named Ringo. "We thought if there was a way to connect fundraising with our dogs, it would be fun."

The answer? A bark mitzvah.

Friends and family members gathered at Serrania Park in Woodland Hills on March 30 to walk their dogs, bid on pooch-themed raffle items and donate to Beit Issie Shapiro, a school and therapy center for disabled Israeli residents in Ra'anana. By the end of the day, Jonah, Zach and Harris had raised $5,600 for the cause -- and not only from invited guests.

"People who were just there walking their dogs came over out of curiosity, and they would donate $10," said Bess Resnick, Jonah's mother. "This became more of a community event that expanded beyond just our little circle."

After they hold a joint bar mitzvah service at the Jerusalem campus of Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion in early July, the three boys and their families will visit Beit Issie Shapiro to meet the children they are helping to support. There, they will "twin" with a classroom and share their coming-of-age celebration with kids who might not have had the experience on their own.

"We feel, as parents, that our children are so fortunate," said Laura Miller of Sherman Oaks, Zach's mother. "Part of becoming a bar mitzvah and being part of the Jewish community is learning to help take care of others."

The concept of tikkun olam (repairing the world) is not new to the boys. They've been friends since kindergarten -- when their parents enrolled them in Hebrew school at Encino's Valley Beth Shalom -- and are now seventh-graders together at Milken Community High School's middle school.

When they started thinking about their bar mitzvahs last year, they knew tzedakah would have to play a role. At first, the boys didn't know where to start. Then Bess Resnick suggested Beit Issie Shapiro, and the center's mission struck a nerve.

"They're kids in need, and we wanted to help," said Harris, 12, of Sherman Oaks.

According to Amy Slater-Ovadia, Beit Issie Shapiro's regional director, a little help goes a long way for the center's children, many of whom live with autism, Down syndrome, cerebral palsy and other developmental disorders.

Of the 45 bar and bat mitzvot across the United States who have collected funds for the center so far, most simply send the money they raise and don't visit the children in person. "These three boys are willing to do both pieces of the puzzle, which is phenomenal for us," Slater-Ovadia said.

When she first spoke to the boys about the project, she recalled, they were a little hesitant.

"Dealing with people with special needs -- especially for those who aren't familiar at all with them -- it's strange, it's different," Slater-Ovadia said. "It's not run of the mill."

Jonah admitted that he initially didn't know what to think about going to meet the children in Israel. "In the beginning, I was kind of nervous, but now I'm getting excited. It's going to be a fun time for us, and a fun time for them," he said.

Joining a classroom of children ages 10 to 12, the boys and their families will take part in a morning bar and bat mitzvah ceremony with blessings and a Kiddush. Then the whole group will head out to the playground to play games and interact.

"The families will get to see Beit Issie, and the children will get to know them," Slater-Ovadia said.

But the experience will also endow the boys with life lessons that won't end when they receive their program certificates, she added.

"The boys will learn something along the way about special needs," Slater-Ovadia explained. "Whatever they become in their lives -- whether they become actors or lawyers or dentists or garbage men -- they will have room in their hearts for someone different in their community. Raising that awareness at this age is so important."

Zach, 12, already has an inkling of what he might take away from the kids at Beit Issie Shapiro.

"I think I might learn how lucky I am to have the abilities that I have, and I'd want to help them in any way I can," he said.

That's the philosophy that spurred the center's establishment 27 years ago in memory of South African special-needs services pioneer Issie Shapiro. The philanthropist's work has special meaning for Bess Resnick, who is a distant relative of Shapiro.

"When he arrived in Israel 30 years ago, there weren't many places to help these children. They were sort of hidden," she said.

Beit Issie Shapiro now provides treatment and a socially inclusive environment for about 20,000 children and adults each year.

The $5,600 the three families raised will fund services such as hydrotherapy, physical therapy and education for the children, Slater-Ovadia said. But the act of donation fosters a connection that transcends the monetary realm.

"A lot of families with special-needs children feel very locked up and alone," she said. "The fact that they are meeting friends and making relationships allows them to feel that they are part of the community."

Until they head to Israel in late June, the three boys are "having a blast" preparing for their joint bar mitzvah, said Julie Girocco, mother of Harris and owner of a Boston terrier named Rocko the Rocket.

Keith Miller, Zach's father and longtime cantor at Kehillat Ma'arav in Santa Monica, has been prepping the friends on trope, their parsha and their speeches at the Miller's home -- shared by a brown Labradoodle named Samson -- every Monday after school.

After the success of the bark mitzvah, will the boys undertake more tzedakah projects in the future?

"Definitely," Jonah said. "Raising that money felt so good, because it's going to help support those children."

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