Toward the end of my son's class in 2003, we attended the bar mitzvah of our friends' son, Dylan Chodos. I entered the synagogue and found my way to my seat in usual fashion. Once settled in comfortably next to my friend, I shifted my gaze toward the bimah, where I imagined I'd feast my eyes on a spray of splendid summer blossoms.
"Those aren't flowers," I whispered to my friend.
"I know," she replied. "They're balls."
Giant baskets overflowed with volleyballs, playground balls, baseballs, basketballs and soccer balls. The fabulous decorations were the beginning of a mitzvah project that would live on long after the bar mitzvah boy had read his haftorah, celebrated his milestone, opened his gifts and written all those thank-you notes.
The balls from that day, along with nearly 300 additional balls donated by guests, ended up in the Lomita sheriff's station, which in turn passed them out to children in the communities it serves. Dylan also used a portion of his gift money to purchase more balls to donate.
Due to Dylan's hard work, leadership and dedication, the mitzvah project has lasted four years and will soon be handed off to another student. Since his bar mitzvah, Dylan has collected more than 3,000 balls for sheriff's deputies through the A.R.C. (At Risk Children) Angels ball-collection program, according to the Daily Breeze.
"One little ball makes a big difference," said Dylan, who is now 17.
Los Angeles County Sheriff's Cmdr. Jay Zuanich, a Lomita sheriff's station captain at the time, remembers the donation his office received shortly after Dylan's bar mitzvah.
"I get e-mails from my deputies saying that kids get the biggest smiles on their faces when they receive the balls, especially when they make a connection with the officer, with the person, not just the uniform," Zuanich told the Daily Breeze.
Dylan promised Zuanich that he would continue the program through his senior year in high school. True to his word, not only has Dylan kept up with ball-collection drives, he has brought in a young apprentice to take over for him next year when he graduates and goes off to college.
Dirk Durko, 10, has been helping as Dylan's assistant since 2005, learning how the program works. Together, they coordinate ball drives at elementary schools.
After handing out fliers to students announcing the upcoming ball collection, the two show up at the school a week or so later with Dylan's truck. Students who wish to contribute line up and throw their balls into the truck bed until it's full.
According to Zuanich, they collected so many balls at drives last year that the Lomita station was unable to store them all. He called the nearby Carson sheriff's station, which was thrilled to have the balls for deputies to pass out on their beats.
Ami Berlin, director of education and youth programs at Congregation Ner Tamid in Palos Verdes, has known Dylan since elementary school and is very proud of his commitment.
"We see many wonderful mitzvah projects embraced by our students," Berlin said, "but not very often does a teenager continue the project years afterward. And the fact that Dylan has ensured that his project will live on through the work of another person demonstrates that he truly understands the meaning of tikkun olam (heal the world)."
For information about starting an A.R.C. Angels ball-collection program, call (310) 265-1777.