Jack Kessler, 14, completed his mitzvah project last summer by working at a Friendship Circle camp for teens on the autism spectrum. He says the volunteer effort, which some synagogues require of their b’nai mitzvah students, helped him realize his priorities.
“School is the top priority,” Kessler said. “I actually chose to do my project in summer so it wouldn’t interfere with classes. But if you’re done with schoolwork, and have a choice between working on your mitzvah project and practicing your [Torah] portion or slacking off, you have to work.”
Kessler belongs to IKAR, a progressive, egalitarian Jewish community in West Los Angeles that encourages its members, young and old, to participate actively in social justice programs.
“When you join IKAR, you join because you’re interested in social justice, so it doesn’t occur to any family that their child wouldn’t have to complete a mitzvah project,” said Rabbi Rebecca Rosenthal, the congregation’s director of education.
“We’re not very strict with the requirements,” Rosenthal added. “The main requirement is that it’s hands-on — not just fundraising. For example, if the kids are going to collect cans, they take them, sort them and then help out at the food bank.”
Rosenthal understands that sometimes it’s overwhelming to be focusing on a mitzvah project right before the actual bar or bat mitzvah. “The kids can do it after their bar mitzvah if they’re super stressed,” she said.
Some synagogues and b’nai mitzvah are doing just that. From implementing group projects, which removes the pressure of coming up with a unique mitzvah project idea, to delaying the project until after the simcha, congregations are looking at ways to make sure that the mitzvah project’s lesson has a receptive audience when it comes to stressed-out students with overscheduled lives.
However, IKAR’s Rosenthal says that the stress that comes with learning to balance priorities isn’t necessarily a bad thing.
“I think that for kids who are overscheduled, being required to do a mitzvah project is rewarding. It helps them to push pause on their hectic life, carve out time, and say ‘I’m going to do this project because it’s important — even if it means I have to cut something else.’ It’s a lesson about priorities as well as about social justice.”
At Temple B’nai David-Judea, a Modern Orthodox synagogue in the Pico-Robertson district, Rav Yosef Kanefsky decided not to implement a mitzvah project requirement for the bar mitzvah ceremony. Instead, the eventual completion of a mitzvah project is an implicit expectation within the congregation’s culture.
“Almost all of the kids take part in a yearlong course where the main emphasis is relating toward the wider community,” Kanefsky said. “For that reason, the majority of our kids do mitzvah projects. It’s part of the culture, and as a synagogue, we have tons of tikkun olam programs for our congregants to participate in, and most of them are designed for people of all ages.”
Atara Segal, a 36-year-old congregant at B’nai David-Judea, agreed with the more hands-off approach to getting kids to participate in the community.
“I feel that becoming a bat or bar mitzvah is about finding a personally meaningful religious experience which may include learning, leading services and/or a mitzvah project. I think that the most important part is that the child feels she is a contributing member of the Jewish community, and that the experience is authentic — something the child can genuinely relate to and is not ‘artificially imposed’ and is positive.”
At Temple Kol Tikvah in Woodland Hills, the clergy has tried a different approach to engaging the kids in its community. Earlier this year, the congregation spearheaded a new social action project, Kemach, to help kids get involved with the community, while assisting them in balancing their busy lives.
“As of this year, because of the development of the program, 10 hours of tikkun olam are required of our enrolling sixth-grade students. They can also opt to create their own project if they so desire,” Rabbi Jon Hanish said.
“By starting the kids in sixth grade, they can participate without the pressure to rush through everything in the few months leading up to their bar mitzvah,” he added.
The program features different monthly social action projects in which students can participate.
“Some of the kids come up with great projects on their own, but others need a little more guidance,” Hanish said. “The clergy agreed that many children didn’t have the time or knowledge to create a mitzvah project because they didn’t have a background in tikkun olam or tzedakah.
“We also saw that, often, creating a mitzvah project became stressful because many seventh-graders are too busy with school, after-school curricular activities and bar mitzvah preparation to also create their own original projects. Sometimes, the burden of the project fell on the parent because the child just didn’t have time to do it,” he added.
The Kol Tikvah clergy determined that five two-hour experiences would give the kids a well-rounded idea of the Jewish concepts of tikkun olam and tzedakah. The programs are held on weekends, and the synagogue provides transportation.
Tyler Noble, 14, began participating in Kemach after his bar mitzvah. He chose not to do a mitzvah project before his simcha because the homework demands in seventh grade were too great. “That, mixed with studying for the bar mitzvah, was too much to do on my own along with a mitzvah project,” he said.
He’s also joined Kemach to act as a role model for younger students. “I’m sure the program will help make their lives, and the mitzvah project, a lot easier to handle,” he said.
Noble added that becoming a bar mitzvah doesn’t mean your service needs to end.
“You don’t have to quit, and should keep going to religious school and helping out the younger kids. If you stay active, it teaches the kids to remain active in helping out the community as well.”