When Becca Yuré turned 13, her enthusiasm for pandas became the focus of her Bat Mitzvah celebration. Her Torah portion provided a neat tie-in to her message: the importance of caring for endangered species. At her party, stuffed panda toys graced the tables, and teenaged guests took home panda T-shirts. In honor of the simcha, Yuré and her family wrote a check to the World Wildlife Foundation.
But it's the rare 13-year-old who spontaneously decides to use a Bar or Bat Mitzvah as an occasion for doing good deeds. That's why synagogue B'nai Mitzvah programs encourage young teens who are being showered with gifts and attention to try thinking beyond themselves. Many rabbis and B'nai Mitzvah teachers suggest to their students that a portion of the gift money be put toward a worthy cause. And celebrating families are routinely urged to donate 3 percent of the amount they are spending on their parties to MAZON: Jewish Response to Hunger.
Some synagogues have devised more formal ways of promoting charitable impulses among their B'nai Mitzvah candidates. Adat Ari El in North Hollywood, for one, has in place a voluntary "Thirteen Mitzvot" program. Students who choose to participate engage in a set number of ritual and ethical acts of their own choosing. In the category of gemilut chasadim (acts of kindness), they might tutor younger students, assist in synagogue events, or perform the mitzvah of bikur cholim by visiting the sick. Those credited with all 13 mitzvot receive a gold pen during the B'nai Mitzvah ceremony.
Sephardic Temple Tifereth Israel in Westwood incorporates the concept of tikkun olam (healing the world) into its B'nai Mitzvah curriculum by asking seventh-grade students to take charge of several classroom tzedakah projects. This year's students have chosen to organize a school-wide book drive, toy drive and canned-food drive. They make classroom presentations urging younger students to pitch in; once the drive is over, they vote on the organizations that will receive the items they've collected. These same seventh-graders are also staging a read-a-thon to benefit the Jewish Braille Institute.
At Agoura's Beth Haverim, targeted charitable giving is first emphasized in the year preceding Bar and Bat Mitzvah. Teacher Heidi Rich has introduced to her sixth-grade classes the notion that they can choose the recipient of their weekly monetary tzedakah contributions. This year, one of her classes has picked MAZON; the other has selected Pet Assisted Therapy, a program that brings dogs to visit hospital patients. Representatives of the chosen organizations visit the classroom, explaining what their work is all about. Filled with a new sense of purpose, Rich's students tend to give generously. When $100 has been collected, Rich sends a check to the chosen beneficiary and rewards her kids with a pizza party. Then the tzedakah box begins making the rounds again.
By the time Beth Haverim students are seventh-graders, they are ready for more hands-on giving. Rabbi Gershon Johnson encourages all B'nai Mitzvah candidates to participate once a month in an interfaith consortium that feeds the homeless of the Conejo Valley. They also collect Chanukah gifts for needy Jewish families as part of a project co-sponsored by the synagogue and Jewish Family Service. Beyond this, each B'nai Mitzvah student is expected to research a Jewish charitable organization to which he or she will make a monetary gift. Part of the B'nai Mitzvah speech must be devoted to the reasons behind the student's selection. One unusual entry on the synagogue's B'nai Mitzvah tzedakah list is the Therapeutic Riding Club of Israel, which provides equestrian experiences for Israelis suffering from physical and emotional injuries. This organization has proved a popular choice, because it plays into many teens' love of horses, while also giving them a chance to connect with one aspect of modern Israeli society.
Michael Raileanu, now religious school director at Westwood's Sinai Temple, was until recently director of education at Beth Haverim. He believes it's essential that students "donate somewhere that has some meaning," so students are asked to make inquiries about chairtable organizations prior to the Bar or Bat Mitzvah day. By creating phone or pen-pal relationships with these organizations, they establish personal stakes in them, perhaps paving the way for long-term involvement. Raileanu notes that most B'nai Mitzvah celebrations tend to be dominated by the wishes of the parents. He feels that the choosing of an appropriate charity "can be one area where the kids still have a little bit of control."
At Sinai Temple, students commonly make charitable donations with their gift money. But religious school Judaic studies coordinator Michal Freis also hopes to inspire her B'nai Mitzvah students by taking them on monthly field trips. They have learned first-hand about charitable work by wrapping gifts for the homeless at the Chrysalis Center, planting a garden of native plants at the Malibu Nature Preserve, and signing prayers at a service held by Temple Solomon for the Deaf. One important aspect of Freis's program is the time that students spend in the classroom, making a connection between Torah and the social problem that each organization is designed to address. Before visiting Temple Solomon, for instance, they studied traditional Jewish views of the disabled. Freis says, "We teach the lessons from the Torah, then take them out of the Torah into the world. The Torah and the world aren't separate."
Sinai's approach is to bring B'nai Mitzvah students into the community, hoping that among these class excursions, each teen will find a cause that stirs his or her passion.
At Kehillat Israel in Pacific Palisades, where congregants have a long-standing commitment to social action, each seventh-grader is required to devise a personal mitzvah project. Nancy Levin, director of religious education at Kehillat Israel, explains that students must devote at least 18 hours to their projects and must incorporate them into their B'nai Mitzvah ceremonies whenever possible.
So when Steven Yates opted to help stock the shelves at SOVA, the kosher food pantry became the leitmotif for his Bar Mitzvah day. Yates' invitations contained literature about SOVA, and all guests were asked to bring a can of food to the ceremony, where the bima was colorfully decorated with bags of fruit and beans, all of them purchased by the Yates family for donation to SOVA when the day was over. Most important, Yates' project became a family affair that still continues. Although his Bar Mitzvah was in June 1999, Yates, parents Ken and Leslie, and 10-year-old sister Lauren still make the trek to SOVA almost every Sunday morning.
Kehillat Israel students tend to get creative, choosing projects tailored to their personal interests and concerns. The Auerbach-Lynn family likes athletics, so Brett (now 18) decided to raise funds for SOVA by entering a series of 5K races. By appealing to the local business community for sponsorship, he raised $1,300 over a period of five months. His sister Berit, knowing that her grandmother had died of breast cancer, put her energies into assembling a large team of women to enter the Revlon Run-Walk, dedicated to the cause of breast cancer research.
For Lilah Sugarman, choosing a project was easy. Because her young brother Alon has been a cancer patient at the City of Hope, she knows how much other young patients enjoy receiving toys for their birthdays or before major surgery. So her Bat Mitzvah this past November became the occasion for a toy drive. Now she looks forward to distributing the items personally. Her mitzvah project has brought her much personal satisfaction to go along with her pride in becoming a full-fledged Jewish adult. Sugarman says, "It makes you feel good -- helping people."