While most 13-year-olds gleefully rip wrapping paper off their abundant bar/bat mitzvah presents and dream of ways to spend their gift money, a growing number of teens are opting to make their bar/bat mitzvah more meaningful. By donating all or some of their gifts to worthy causes, these teens are putting the "mitzvah" back into bar/bat mitzvah.
"I think that there is a greater savviness on the part of our teenagers," said Rabbi Aaron Benson, of Congregation Beth Meier in Studio City. "They want to make the bar or bat mitzvah experience mean something to them ... so that it has some sort of a meaning beyond a service and party. This is a good, very tangible way to add a sense of importance to this milestone occasion."
While Beth Meier requires all its students to participate in some kind of mitzvah project before they are bar/bat mitzvahed, a few take their project further, not only raising money, but donating from their own pockets. Jessica Sara, whose bat mitzvah is Aug. 14, decided to collect blankets for the homeless, donating them to various shelters in the Los Angeles area.
"What I've been doing is collecting and buying blankets. When we go out to buy them, if they cost more than what we've raised, I pay the difference with my allowance money or gift money I've already received," she said.
Sara's Torah portion is about helping the needy, which inspired her to help the homeless and learn what tzedakah (charity) really means, she said.
"It's always been in my heart to help the homeless, because it's just something that touches me," Sara explained. "It's always been a fear of mine -- becoming homeless; I thought that if I, God forbid, become homeless, someone will help me too. The first thing when I go to sleep, I reach for my blanket. Homeless people can't do that. I want to provide them with something they can get a lot of use out of. It gets cold at night, no matter where someone is, even in California, so I thought that would be the best thing to give."
Brother and sister Tal and Ariel Porat, also members of Beth Meier, chose to donate a portion of their gift money to some renovations that were being done to the synagogue's Hebrew school, Benson said.
"As a family, generally speaking, we like to give back to places that give to us," the Portats' mother, Malka, said. "We get a lot from that temple; the rabbis are amazing. We talked about donating to an organization, but Tal and Ariel decided ... to help people directly, not strangers who are so far away."
Tzedakah was the theme of Allison and Juliana Gale's b'not mitzvah; they asked guests to donate to Vista Del Mar Child and Family Services in lieu of gifts and included self-addressed, stamped envelopes with their invitations, thereby allowing guests the tax deduction. Not only did the girls raise, more than $18,000, but they also asked guests to bring stuffed animals for donation to homeless children at Gramercy Place Shelter.
Grateful for his mother's good health following two kidney transplants, Joshua Goldberg donated $2,000, a quarter of his bar mitzvah gift money, to UCLA's Renal Transplant Research and Education Fund. Encino's Valley Beth Shalom does not require mitzvot of b'nai mitzvah, but Goldberg presented the gift in April to the man who treated his mother, Dr. Alan Wilkinson, professor of medicine and director of kidney transplantation at the David Geffen School of Medicine at UCLA.
"Josh was very grateful to my doctor and wanted to give back to the UCLA transplant center because they gave him his mother back -- twice. He knew he was going to do this and he had been thinking about this for a long time: what he could do to contribute because other people weren't as lucky," said Maureen King-Goldberg, Joshua's mother.
"I really wanted to help in the education of kidney transplants because I don't want anyone to go through what my mom and my family went through," he said.
For her bat mitzvah, Molly Williams chose to commemorate her 13th birthday by giving back to the hospital where she spent the first weeks of her life. Born eight weeks early and weighing less than 3 pounds, Williams spent two months in the neonatal intensive care unit at Encino-Tarzana Regional Medical Center.
"I wanted to give something back to the hospital that took care of me when I was born. I have heard so many wonderful things about this place from my parents," said Williams, who donated $500 to the hospital.
Not only did Dylan Schwartz donate $500 of his bar mitzvah money to a nonprofit family and child development center, but he told them what to use it for: a video camera and tripod so that the organization could tape treatment sessions enabling parents to see what their kids are doing. Schwartz has also spent his summer volunteering at the center where he has been able to see how much his gift has done, his mother, Temi Seller, said.
"I wanted to give money to a good cause. I was originally going to give it to Childrens Hospital, but after working in the office for a week, I decided that that was where I wanted to donate," Schwartz said.