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Jewish Journal

Bar and bat mitzvah projects spread tzedakah worldwide

by Lilly Fowler

November 19, 2008 | 12:55 am

From left, Rebecca and Lori Gray

From left, Rebecca and Lori Gray

From an early age, Erica Kitchin loved to read. So books were an obvious choice when it came time to select a bat mitzvah project.

"I felt that if I could give others an opportunity to read it would make their lives a lot better," said Erica, 14.

But by "others," Erica wasn't thinking local children or adults. Rather, Erica sought to reach people half way around the world.

The decision was informed in part by her father's involvement in Point Hope, an organization that aims to be "the voice for forgotten children."

Point Hope is dedicated to helping people living in Buduburam -- a refugee camp in the West African Republic of Ghana, established in 1990 by the U.N. Refugee Agency when Liberians -- many of who are descendants of freed American slaves -- were forced to flee their country during two civil wars. The U.N. Refugee Agency withdrew services in 2007, four years after the end of the second civil war, and aid to the camp now comes from Liberian and international aid organizations.

Erica began knocking on neighbor's doors, asking for book donations. She also collected books from educators and friends.

One month after Erica celebrated her bat mitzvah, she was able to ship approximately 50 boxes of books, including many textbooks for the school children of Buduburam.

"The project opened up my mind, and it made me see how many kids don't have things that I take for granted," Erica said.

It's also not unusual for adults to take the charitable giving of children for granted. Many synagogues have made the mitzvah project an important part of the b'nai mitzvah experience -- a kind of tzedakah lab -- but when it comes to tallying the Jewish community's largess, the contributions from these sons and daughters of Torah are often overlooked.

Event planner A.J. Steinberg has seen many b'nai mitzvah projects over the years, and she said that adults don't often consider the profound impact the students make, or the impact that's made on the students.

"These kids are realizing that it's their responsibility to bring forth the best of the Jewish culture to the world at large," Steinberg said.

The Gray family is a case in point. Sisters Rebecca and Rachel Gray grew up in affluent Malibu. But as older sister Rachel approached her bat mitzvah, the world of East Los Angeles became more of a priority for the family.

The sisters focused on the Weingart Center, a Skid Row organization dedicated to helping the area's homeless.

"I wanted them to truly understand the complete cycle of homelessness," said Lori Gray, the girls' mother.

Those on Skid Row go to Weingart for shelter or assistance with substance abuse issues, but most of all, they seek out the agency for long-term solutions, said Tammy Metzger, Weingart's communications director.

For many on Skid Row, the ticket out of homelessness is gainful employment. Unfortunately, many of Weingart's clients lack the right clothing to wear to that first job interview.

But Rebecca and Rachel have both helped bring Malibu business attire to Skid Row by spreading the word about the need and taking in donations. In fact, Lori Gray said part of her garage has permanently turned into a clothing rack for Weingart.

Rebecca said she has also spent days at the center helping people choose the right shirt, skirt or tie that might help them get the job that turns their life around.

For "a lot of these people, just something went wrong, and they've lost a lot," Rebecca said.

Steinberg also believes it is important that families like the Grays consider that they will be representing Los Angeles' Jewish community.

"They're the first Jewish people that many of these people have ever met," Steinberg said.

In addition to reaping the benefits of the work done by Los Angeles' Jewish teenagers, local businesses have also benefited from the activism of Jewish teenagers living elsewhere.

When Chicago resident Annie Schwab traveled to the Bahamas to study tropical coral reefs with some of her classmates, she knew she had found one of her first passions.

"I already knew global warming had had an effect on coral reefs, but I didn't know it was that severe," Schwab said.

After her return from the Bahamas, Schwab spent two years selling products at an art market to raise money for Reef Check, a Pacific Palisades-based organization dedicated to protecting and rehabilitating reefs worldwide.

"Coral reefs are a very large part of the environment," Schwab said.

Pollution, overfishing and other human activities have damaged coral reefs worldwide, endangering the livelihood of complex marine ecosystems.

After asking people to donate money to Reef Check at her bat mitzvah in lieu of gifts, Schwab was able to give nearly $6,000 to Reef Check, with an additional $800 coming from her summer work at the art market.

And Steinberg said that if impacting the world in an immensely positive way weren't enough, Jewish families who actively engage in b'nai mitzvah projects also create an opportunity for parents and children to work closely together -- at a time in a teenager's life when many are otherwise somewhat alienated from their parents.

But Gregor Hodgson, executive director of Reef Check, said the main message mitzvah projects send out to the larger world -- and do so loud and clear -- is that "one kid can actually have a significant impact."

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