Under the auspices of Milken Community High School's YOZMA social action leadership initiative, the 11th-grader and more than 100 of her classmates spent four days clearing away debris in parts of Natchez, Miss., and in New Orleans, which was still reeling from the hurricane's destruction. She also built homes with Habitat for Humanity, and, with money raised by her Milken peers, replenished provisions at food shelters unable to meet the ongoing need for assistance.
"It made everyone feel good about themselves, that we can make a difference," Batscha said. "In my school, we're taught to give back, even when we're younger. We're taught not to be selfish. In Judaism, it's important for everyone."
More and more, Jewish kids are taking the lessons they've learned about tikkun olam, Judaism's spin on community service, and translating it into action. Through school-based programs like YOZMA, b'nai mitzvah service projects or simply their own initiative, children are finding creative ways to channel their interests and desire to help others into unique, personal contributions to those less fortunate. In so doing, they are building a reservoir of critical skills and laying the groundwork for a lifetime of compassion and civic responsibility in the Jewish tradition.
"Doing mitzvot and tikkun olam are in everything we do in Judaism, in every book we read," said Daniel Gold, director of the Los Angeles Bureau of Jewish Education's (BJE) Sulam Center for Jewish Service Learning. When children perform charitable acts, Gold added, they connect teachings from God with the work they do on earth, and to their own identities.
Josh Lappen's work on behalf of Jews in Ethiopia has played a formulative role in the development of his Jewish awareness. Since the age of 5, Josh, now 12, has been fundraising under the auspices of the North American Conference on Ethiopian Jewry (NACOEJ), a nonprofit group that helps Jews survive in Ethiopia and reach Israel.
He accompanies his grandparents, active NACOEJ members, to local festivals where they sell Ethiopian handcrafts, and he recently began his own initiative selling cookies at his Hebrew school.
"My work gets me involved in the community. I almost feel like I'm getting to know them," said Josh, who has studied the history of Ethiopian Jews and occasionally speaks with groups to raise awareness of the challenges they face. While he has never seen the fruits of his labor firsthand, Josh feels a deep connection with Ethiopian Jews and is planning to participate in NACOEJ's bar mitzvah twinning program with an Ethiopian boy in Israel next year.
Realizing tikkun olam as a central pillar of Jewish practice, synagogues throughout the country require children to perform service projects before becoming b'nai mitzvah, sensitizing them to their growing responsibilities toward others as they approach adulthood. In many cases, these projects have been the inspiration for ongoing philanthropic endeavors.
Clara Clymer had intended to donate books to a neighborhood school for her bat mitzvah project. Instead, on the advice of Hebrew school staff at Leo Baeck Temple, she decided to become a tutor for KOREH L.A., The Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles' youth literacy program. The 12-year-old from Brentwood now meets once a week with a first-grade student, helping to strengthen her reading and comprehension skills. And while Clara was only required to fulfill five hours of service, her satisfaction knowing that she is making a difference in someone's life has been all the encouragement she needs to continue as a KOREH L.A. volunteer for the foreseeable future.
"If everybody helps somebody who needs help, it makes it a nicer place to live," she said.
In addition to the religious benefits, studies show that children who volunteer have higher self-esteem than those who do not, are happier and feel empowered by the knowledge that they are bringing about positive change, BJE's Gold said. On the academic side, they consistently demonstrate higher test scores and rates of school attendance. Community service also helps children develop good work habits and job skills, such as leadership, planning and organization.
"Kids who participate in community service must determine what they want to achieve and figure out creative ways of meeting their goals," said Sande Hart, who facilitates youth volunteer workshops for the Orange County BJE.
Hart saw proof of this when her son, Matt, organized "Shoot Away Cancer," a basketball tournament to raise funds for pediatric cancer research at Children's Hospital of Orange County, as his bar mitzvah project three years ago. Matt secured support from a local basketball league and brought together 180 elementary- to high school-age students for a day of three-on-three play in Santa Ana. While teams paid a $30 registration fee, most of the $7,200 Matt raised came from raffled gift certificates and donations he solicited from local businesses and attractions.
Now 15, Matt continues to volunteer to help those in need. For the past five years, he has been traveling to Mexico where he spends time with orphaned children and helps build houses for homeless families on behalf of the Irvine-based Corazon de Vida Foundation.
"Volunteering gives you a warm feeling that you're dong something right," the Rancho Santa Margarita High School sophomore said. "It has changed me as a person. If more kids would go out and do this, I think the world would be a lot better."