Meaningful Mitzvah Projects for NY & CT Bar & Bat Mitzvahs
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by Judy Antell August 26, 2008

When my kids had their bat mitzvahs, they had to work on not one, not two, but three mitzvah projects.  There was the religious school mitzvah project, done with kids in religious school (volunteering in a soup kitchen); the family mitzvah project (we donated our centerpieces); and the bat mitzvah girl’s individual mitzvah project.  While we had to come up with the ideas for the latter two, it turns out there are ways for kids to get help developing their mitzvah projects, enabling them to spend more creative energy actually doing the mitzvah.

   Susan Kronish, the programming coordinator at Westchester Jewish Community Services (WJCS), developed the WJC Operation Mitzvah project.  She compiles a yearly packet that offers a fairly comprehensive guide to b’nai mitzvah families.  The user-friendly packet divides projects up by type — for example, working with young children, working with animals, working with the environment — and then lists the days and time that help is needed, so families can determine what fits their schedules.
   Kronish conducts a detailed phone interview with each parent to help guide project selection.  She explains that some volunteer opportunities will better meet the needs of the child; whether a child is shy or outgoing impacts how they will be able to complete a mitzvah project.

   Kronish also brainstorms with parents to develop individualized projects.  She cited one where a girl who was good at sewing worked with the elderly at a senior center to create specialty t-shirts.  The shirts were then donated to poor children.  The seniors felt doubly valued, by having a teen work with them, and by giving back themselves.

   Kids using the WJCS service are expected to make a minimum of six visits supervised by their parents, and complete a questionnaire.  They are also expected to contribute a nominal donation to WJCS. In return, they get a service certificate.

   UJA-Federation also works with b’nai mitzvah families through its Give A Mitzvah, Do A Mitzvah program. Leslie Cohen Kastner, Give a Mitzvah coordinator, meets with the parent and the child to get to know them and find out what they are interested in.  Kastner says they find projects together, either already existing or specially created. “We do a lot of the hard work,” she says. “We process donations, send out tax-deductible letters, seek out and find projects and proposals.  We are a kind of one-stop shopping.” 

   Jenny Horing and her best friend, Jamie Semler, are soccer lovers who decided to support a soccer program in Rehovot, Israel through the UJA program.  They are asking for donations of money, cleats and shin guards. Jamie visited the program participants — mostly girls, mostly poor Ethiopian and Yemenite tweens and teens — over the summer. Jenny, who is going to Israel for her bat mitzvah, will deliver the equipment and money to the Rehovot soccer program.  The girls, who attend Seven Bridges Middle School in Chappaqua, created a website about the project,
   Another teen who worked with UJA and combined a love of sports with his mitzvah project is Jack Eisenberg.  At his bar mitzvah two years ago, he asked that instead of gifts, guests donate to and help him build a basketball court at Hawthorne Cedar Knolls, a residential treatment center not far from his home in Scarsdale, but a lifetime away.  He originally wanted to do a project in Israel, but realized that if he did a local project, he could continue to play with the kids at the center.  He fully funded the building of the court and has returned many times to play basketball with the residents there.

   Jack is not the only b’nai mitzvah to continue working on his mitzvah project long after his bar mitzvah.  In fact, so many b’nai mitzvah approach Kronish about continuing projects or starting new ones that WJCS launched a teen community service program.  Kronish notes that what high school kids can do encompasses a much broader scope, and she helps connect teens with one-time or ongoing events.

   Michelle Wexler worked with UJA’s Give A Mitzvah, Do A Mitzvah program, and was so inspired that she's now the co-chair of the Lower Westchester Leadership Circle of UJA-Federation of New York’s J-Teen Community Service Leadership Program, another teen social-action program.  For Michelle’s mitzvah project, she volunteered at the Pleasantville Cottage School.  But then she went an extra step, using the money from her bat mitzvah gifts to throw a bat mitzvah-style graduation party for the eighth-graders at the school.  She hired the DJ from her party, and had giveaways, party favors, the same caterer, and even the radio station host who appeared at her own bat mitzvah.  The tenth-grader from Scarsdale threw a holiday party for students at the Pleasantville school this year, giving out presents to all the kids, and she has gone to Louisiana twice to help Hurricane Katrina victims.

   As Kronish put it, the mitzvah project is a “jumping off point.”  For many b’nai mitzvah kids, it is the beginning of a lifetime commitment.

Susan Kronish, Operation Mitzvah, Westchester Jewish Community Services, can be reached at 914-949-7699, x319 or
Leslie Cohen Kastner, Give A Mitzvah, Do A Mitzvah, can be reached at
Donna Divon, Program Executive
Give a Mitzvah-Do a Mitzvah Coordinator for Westchester is at 914-761-5100 ext. 130;