Bar and bat mitzvah projects not just about money

Bar mitzvah in Jerusalem. FILE PHOTO
Bar mitzvah in Jerusalem. FILE PHOTO

It’s a bat mitzvah year in our family. We’ve booked the photographer, the caterer, the DJ and the invitation company. Our daughter is studying her parshah and learning to chant the Haftorah and Maftir.

Now it’s time to inject some social justice into the experience, in the form of what have come to be known as “mitzvah projects.” Coming of age in the 1980s, my generation was less social justice-oriented than today’s. So what exactly, I wondered, should a “mitzvah project” entail?

I turned to JEDLAB – the Jewish educators’ forum on Facebook – to get oriented. I discovered that there is an organization expressly founded to support kids in their mitzvah project strategies. Called Areyvut (Hebrew for “social responsibility”), the New-Jersey-based group offers consulting services – from a free phone consultation to more extensive, fee-based ones – and direct organizing of an array of hands-on, direct-action-style activities that party guests can participate in.

Called “chesed fairs,” these might include game-board painting for a social-services agency, hat-making for cancer fighters, or cupcake-decorating for a local day centre. Clients need not live in the area – or even in the United States.

Elsewhere, Areyvut teams up with synagogues and youth groups to teach kids to be “mitzvah clowns” for residents of long-term care facilities.

I decided to take up Areyvut’s offer to engage in a free phone consultation on my daughter’s mitzvah project idea. She has chosen a complex topic – addressing the economic effects, particularly around access to housing, of urban gentrification. Talking to Areyvut’s staff reminded me that mitzvah projects need not be confined to financial giving. Advocacy and awareness can be just as important.

I decided to take some of these ideas to my own community. Through word of mouth I initiated a b’nai mitzvah club to help develop mitzvah project ideas. At the first meeting – which we called “Hot Chocolate for Hot Issues,” I led a workshop to get the kids thinking about a given issue, how to identify deeper causes of the problem and how to consider the range of action one might take to address these problems.

For our mitzvah club this year, each child will identify a pressing issue around which he or she is passionate and then develop an action plan, a plan that should involve at least two of the following: fundraising, political advocacy, public awareness and direct action. Fundraising could involve donating a portion of bar or bat mitzvah gift money, or holding a bakeathon or danceathon. Political advocacy might involve letter-writing to elected officials. Public awareness could include an Instagram campaign increasing public understanding of the issue. And direct action means identifying a relevant organization at which the child can volunteer.

Sometimes there is an identified need, but not an established organization dedicated to it. In these cases, Areyvut can support kids in being more ambitious – for example in creating their own non-profit organization. Billy’s Baseballs grew out of a bar mitzvah initiative where a child organized the sending of decorated baseballs to soldiers stationed abroad.

Daniel Rothner, Areyvut’s founder and director, puts it this way. As Jews, we are supposed to be a “light unto the nations,” engaged in making the world a better place, he told me. And the impact extends beyond the Jewish community, he added. He is also passionate about getting kids to think about the deeper causes. What of Dave, the homeless man who appears at the soup kitchen every week? Why does Dave need to come week after week?

Our own b’nai mitzvah club has come a long way from kids reciting the “today I am a fountain pen” joke. As my daughter said, the bar or bat mitzvah milestone means that “technically you’re becoming a woman or a man, and once you are [an adult] you have a responsibility to help out with the issues in the world and in our community.”