Esther D. Kustanowitz
When Elie Klein was 13, he knew that giving back meaningfully and making a mark on the community was part of becoming a Jewish adult; this translated to donating about a tenth of his gift money to charity, he told eJP. But today’s “mitzvah project model” is more effective as an educational tool, he said, “because it highlights personalization and promotes advocacy and action.”
Now the North American director of development at ADI, an organization that cares for and empowers Israelis with disabilities, Klein listed some of the ADI-based projects that b’nai mitzvah have participated in: twinning with an ADI resident of a similar age, running bake sales, bike-a-thons and other small-scale fundraising projects to help the organization secure equipment, therapies and opportunities for those who benefit from ADI’s services, adding that these experiences will enable young leaders to “choose their own adventures.”
As Jewish youth learn the cantillation for their Torah portions, worry about the notes of the haftarah and navigate the social pressures of the parties, they are also giving back to their communities as part of their b’nai mitzvah training, raising funds and awareness for favorite causes or new initiatives, learning new skills and developing their passions.
The mitzvah project has even been in the pop culture spotlight recently: “You Are So Not Invited to My Bat Mitzvah,” which debuted on Netflix in August and is still a subject of conversation in the Jewish community, featured a throughline of protagonist Stacy’s search for a mitzvah project that spoke to her. The film portrays the mitzvah project as a one-off event, more like a single good deed. Stacy considers making friendship bracelets for dogs or volunteering at a retirement home (where her crush just happens to regularly visit his grandmother). But Rabbi Rebecca, Stacy’s quirky, tough-love-wielding Hebrew school teacher, tells her that “the sooner you do your mitzvah, the sooner you’ll find things falling into place.”
“Mitzvah projects are the norm in hundreds of Reform, Conservative, Reconstructionist, and Renewal communities, but very few synagogues dictate the exact nature of the mitzvah project,” Rabbi Daniel Brenner, vice president of education at Moving Traditions, told eJP. He explained that the “project” designation encouraged students to do something beyond writing a check to charity, and gave it additional visibility by making it a part of the d’var torah or b’nai mitzvah speech.
Rabbi Jason Miller, who has been officiating private and customized bar and bat mitzvah ceremonies for more than two decades, told eJewishPhilanthropy that the mitzvah project can be a space to be creative and discover new passions. When in-person volunteering was not possible during the pandemic for health reasons, Miller said, two students whose b’nai mitzvah were a month apart joined forces on their mitzvah project: they volunteered to cook food for parents staying at a Ronald McDonald House in Ann Arbor, Mich., whose children were in treatment at a nearby hospital.
“The problem was that neither of these boys had ever cooked before,” Miller said. “They were determined, though, and spent hours learning how to cook by watching YouTube videos and then made breakfast on several occasions for dozens of parents at the Ronald McDonald House. These two boys loved the mitzvah project so much and they both love to cook now. They just never realized it was a passion.”
Elana Beame, who spearheads the mitzvah project program at Tzedek America, recalled a student in Southern California who was extremely passionate about food waste. “He learned how grocery stores and markets will throw away produce no longer at selling standards. This produce was still completely edible. He took the initiative to go to his local grocery stores, markets and farms and started rescuing the produce that would be thrown away and instead donated them to local food banks,” Beame said. “He used rescued produce to create table centerpieces at his celebration, which were then donated to a food bank immediately following the party.”
This week, Tzedek America founder Avram Mandell spoke with a student who has the Torah portion of Bo, which talks about the plague of darkness. “We talked about vulnerable populations and the connection to feeling vulnerable during the plague of darkness, and she connected darkness to depression and no one wants to feel that kind of sadness,” Mandell said, adding that this framework “made her feel more inspired to work with the vulnerable population she chose.”
Todd Shotz, founder of b’nai mitzvah prep company Hebrew Helpers and the Mitzvah Learning Fund, which provides grants for Jewish learning opportunities, said that his organization’s students are encouraged to pick an ongoing project, to “use this moment as a launching pad for a life dedicated to tikkun olam.”
“Our mentors frame it as the student putting their new role as a fully responsible member of the community into action,” he told eJP. Hebrew Helpers also asks its students — now more than 1,200 b’nai mitzvah trained — to go beyond fundraising and actively volunteer for their chosen cause if possible. “It is always engaging to a student if the charitable cause is centered around an interest or passion of theirs,” Shotz said, recalling students who knitted baby blankets for the local children’s hospital; made and gathered dresses for Dress For Success; and made dog toys and raised money for the Israel Guide Dog Center.
Many Jewish programs preparing students for their b’nai mitzvah require that they complete their community service commitment by the date of the synagogue service, as if the project is just another to-do on the b’nai mitzvah checklist, which may not encourage longer-term engagement with the cause in question. And some families do opt out if volunteering is not required.
At Congregation Beth El in Bethesda, Md., Robin Finkelstein, b’nai mitzvah coordinator and hazzan assistant, said her synagogue strongly encourages students to participate in mitzvah projects, but does not require it — of this year’s 26 b’nai mitzvah students only 13 have reported mitzvah projects, “definitely a drop from last year,” she said. This year’s projects included helping new immigrants, cooking meals at an interfaith center, collecting toys for a hospital pediatric unit, raising money for The Trevor Project, supporting an education nonprofit for kids with disabilities and park cleanups.
Making mitzvah matches
From 2000-2013, longtime Jewish educator Sheri Gropper had a thematically appropriate 13-year run helming “Mitzvah Mania” fair, where families would receive a packet of materials, listing various nonprofits grouped by areas of interest with contact information and ideas for helping them. The fair would draw more than 130 families of pre- bar/bat mitzvah students per year, she told eJP.
Today’s technology enables a different approach, but today’s students and their parents still need help to find their mitzvah project match: enter Tzedek America’s Mitzvah Project Central, a password-protected database of partner organizations that have volunteer opportunities available for b’nai mitzvah-aged students. The opportunities are tagged by topic and shown on a map (some of them are marked as opportunities that can be done from anywhere).
“If a student comes to us and is unsure of what social justice topic to focus on, we explore the different options together, or we look at their Torah portion for themes that can be connected to a social justice topic,” Beame said. “Students tend to want to focus on organizations that are in their backyard so they can volunteer in a hands-on way. We encourage the students to look at all of the organizations we partner with, regardless of location, to get inspired and learn more about what different regions focus on.”
Also helping teens find meaningful mitzvah matches, the Atlanta-based Creating Connected Communities (CCC) started as a bat mitzvah project 25 years ago, when Amy (Sacks) Zeide organized a small holiday party for a local shelter.
“The theft of kids’ Christmas presents from a local Atlanta agency inspired Amy to use bat mitzvah gift money to create Amy’s Holiday Party, an annual event that brings local kids together for a fun day of games and music, and to distribute holiday gifts their families might not be able to afford,” Naomi Eisenberger, the executive director of Good People Fund, told eJP. “This annual party is a key activity for CCC teen participants,” she added.
Today, CCC is an independent 501(c)(3) and builds community, provides Jewish teen leadership training and guides young teens, synagogues and other groups in creating meaningful mitzvah projects. A division of the organization, Amy’s Holiday Party, pays tribute to the original project, but now serves thousands of children and families in need year-round, and engages hundreds of teens in hands-on volunteer work.
“As a community, we want giving to become a central part of our young leaders’ identities, and the best way to achieve this is by plugging into what they are already passionate about,” Klein said. “We empower them to use what they love to rally their communities around the cause and help us make a profound impact for disability care and inclusion. In addition to providing the perfect recipe for self-motivation, this method also ensures the greatest possible satisfaction, as teens are excited to be the ones running the show and imparting knowledge and values to the adults in their lives.”