Last fall, for her bat mitzvah, Sarah Yamina Ifrah asked her guests to give her nothing. Well, not exactly nothing. She asked them to make donations to protect the rainforest.
Ifrah, a petite 13-year-old with big brown eyes and a disarmingly friendly smile, became a bat mitzvah at Kehillat Israel in Pacific Palisades on Sept. 23. Each bar or bat mitzvah candidate at the Reconstructionist congregation is required to undertake a "mitzvah project," performing 15-20 hours of community service, and then reporting on the project during their speech. According to Cantor Chayim Frenkel, teens have chosen projects such as preparing meals for the homeless and shooting basketballs to raise money for breast cancer research. However, "Sarah decided to take things a step further," says Frenkel.
In her speech, printed on her Web site SarahsBatMitzvah.com, Ifrah wrote, "My goal is to have the expression tikkun olam [repair the world] the foundation on which I can build my future."
"As a beginning, I am performing a mitzvah to the rainforest, to buy a share of rainforest land, which will not be harmed. I care about the earth in which we live, about the crisis of global warming, and the destruction of essential flora and fauna."
Enclosed in her self-designed invitation (printed, in case you doubted, on recycled paper) Ifrah included a card asking guests to make a donation to the Rainforest Alliance instead of gifts, in order to ensure the future of the Mesoamerican Biological Corridor.
"I decided that I wanted to preserve a certain area of land connecting Panama with Mexico. This would create a corridor where the animals would be left alone. The trees would be left alone," explains Ifrah.
Not only did she raise over $10,000 in donations from her celebration guests, Ifrah made sure nothing was put to waste. Flower centerpieces were rented, and other decorations, including rainforest-themed stuffed animals, were donated to the City of Hope.
Ifrah's interest in nature and the rainforest developed when she visited the rainforests in Costa Rica during the summer after third grade. "That was the most memorable trip that I've ever taken," she said.
Many children donate a percentage of their bar or bat mitzvah money to charity, and many perform community service projects as part of a graduation requirement, but Ifrah's sweeping gesture is rare. Of course, some guests insisted on giving Ifrah presents, even though she really and truly didn't want any.
"I have everything that I'll ever need to live and more," she said. "I have all these excess things, and I can afford to give some of it away."
In May, the Rainforest Alliance will honor Ifrah at a special dinner in New York. The purpose of the event, say organizers, is to inspire other children to contribute as she has.