Robert Leeds’ bar mitzvah party last February was something special.
During the cocktail hour, Cirque du Soleil entertainers roller-skated on a half-pipe. The celebration — which had a British invasion theme with English guards, a teahouse and traditional pub food — also featured Leeds playing electric guitar with a Beatles tribute band and participating in a breakdance routine with his brothers, Jonathan and Andrew, and an ensemble of dancers.
But Robert will remember it for all the good it helped him do. On the invitations, he decided to ask 800 guests, in lieu of gifts, to donate money to purchase an ambulance for Israel. He ended up raising enough funds for two. One, a standard ambulance, costs $100,000; the other, valued at $125,000, is a mobile intensive care unit.
“I wanted my bar mitzvah to be more than just a party. It became an educational experience for people to [learn how to] do good,” he said.
At a dedication ceremony for the standard vehicle on Jan. 8 in Sacramento, Robert explained part of the motivation behind his mitzvah project.
“Becoming a man to me meant standing up for my brothers and sisters in Israel and helping to cushion the blows that they experience on a daily basis,” he said. “I wanted not only for the ambulance itself to save actual lives, but I also wanted the very action of sending it to be the message that you do not stand alone and we love you.”
The bar mitzvah wasn’t the first time Robert has given to charity. When he was in elementary school, he saved up $60 and, unlike most kids his age, didn’t spend it on Pokémon cards or bubble gum. Instead, he gave tzedakah to help a man who couldn’t afford a wheelchair, his mother said.
The 13-year-old, who plays basketball and chess and devours books on the weekends, was moved by the concept of tikkun olam (repairing the world) as well as the examples set by his mother, Dina, and father, Fred, president of Fred Leeds Properties.
“My parents are board members of every single charity,” Robert said. “I was just trying to do my part.”
The ambulances were provided by the American Friends of Magen David Adom (AFMDA). Magen David Adom is Israel’s national emergency medical response service. It also runs the only blood bank in Israel, according to AFMDA CEO Arnold Gerson.
“This is a critical moment for the history of Israel,” he said. “[It’s] faced by potential threats. We deal with everyday situations, from childbirth and car accidents to major crises. Our focus here is to make sure that people are aware that we are working on preparing for any emergency and that we are increasing our resources.”
Robert, of Los Angeles, is the youngest person ever to donate an ambulance, according to Gerson.
Months after the bar mitzvah, Robert had the chance to decide exactly where in Israel the vehicles would be sent. Ultimately, he chose to donate the standard one on behalf of the city of Sacramento to the coastal city of Ashkelon in Israel, which California’s capital made a sister city in August.
Dina Leeds had written to the Sacramento City Council, urging it to vote for the sister-city resolution, and was impressed that she received a prompt response. She and her husband are board members of StandWithUs, an Israel education organization that supported the resolution, and she is a board member of AFMDA.
The mobile intensive care unit has not been built yet. It is expected to be completed and delivered to Israel in the spring, according to Erik Levis, a spokesman for AFMDA, but has not been assigned to a particular geographic region.
Gail Rubin, StandWithUs’ Sacramento-Davis area coordinator, said that what Robert did “is an incredible recognition by a bar mitzvah boy about the importance of Sacramento approving the sister-city relationship with Ashkelon. Sister-city programs are all about goodwill. He was honoring us for doing the right thing and keeping the spirit alive of what sister cities is all about.”
The relationship with Ashkelon will promote cultural and student exchanges, but Sacramento City Councilman Steve Cohn said he hopes there will be business and economic opportunities as well.
“The sky is really the limit. The donation of an ambulance is something we wouldn’t have anticipated when we started the relationship, but it really shows how things can grow from a seed.”
Cohn also said that what Robert did was the very definition of tikkun olam.
“For a young man to give a nice gift and put such a substantial portion of his bar mitzvah gift to the good of others is what it’s all about,” he said.
Dina Leeds said that she could not be prouder of her son.
“I’m speechless. There are no words to express my joy. I’m elated,” she said. “You hope to raise children just to be good upstanding citizens and to serve humanity. When you see a young kid present such leadership, it makes me feel inspired.”
For his part, Robert was overjoyed at the amount of money he was able to raise for Ashkelon. Paraphrasing the Beatles, he said, “It was great to see what I was able to accomplish with a little help from my friends.”
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