Project Mitzvah: Finding the Right Way to Do It Right
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by Marla Shavin December 22, 2010


In today's economy, giving to charity takes on an even deeper meaning. Non-profit organizations have been hit hard, so the inclusion of tzedakah (charity) while planning a simcha (happy occasion) underscores the mitzvah in the bar or bat mitzvah celebration. Mitzvah projects can run the gamut from raising funds for universally recognized charities to helping less-known or local organizations, to creating your own, entirely novel way to help the world around you. Here are some examples to inspire future bar/bat mitzvah kids to set their own good example.


The Heart of the Matter - Personal
Connections to Individual Organizations

    When an American father of two suffered a heart attack in a remote area of Israel, he and his wife believe they witnessed a miracle. Visiting a Bedouin community in the desert, he experienced those terrifying, telltale signs. Emergency medical care was summoned, and the ambulance that arrived and saved his life, it turned out, had been donated by a family from his wife's hometown in Michigan. They couldn't believe what their tear-filled eyes saw as they read the name on the ambulance's donation plaque.  Once recovered, they felt the need to give back. Their daughter made the Magen David Adom (Israel's Red Cross) her tzedakah project for her bat mitzvah. She was determined to raise enough money to donate a brand new ambulance to Israel. And, by the time she graduated middle school, she and her family had accomplished her goal. 

    Another young girl preparing for her bat mitzvah took a very local, hands-on approach and used her own musical talent to orchestrate a mitzvah project. She gave a piano concert at a local community college and charged the public an admission price. She then donated this money to various charities.  Meanwhile, another bat mitzvah girl went international when she and her family donated a Torah to the International Jewish Center in Brussels. They participated in the World Union for Progressive Judaism's Torah Gifting program, which has gotten more than 50 Torah scrolls to communities in Israel, the former Soviet Union, and Europe.

  • Matchmaker, Matchmaker Make Me a Mitzvah

    Most matchmakers operate from the Yiddish saying that for every pot there's a lid. Matchmaking takes on a slightly different twist with UJA-New York's Give a Mitzvah-Do a Mitzvah program, designed to match bar and bat mitzvah students with those in need. Children and their families meet with UJA Federation professionals to create specifically designed mitzvah projects that reflect their hobbies, interests or passions. The teens donate time, energy, and part (or all) of their gift money to projects in New York, Israel, the former Soviet Union, and other places around the world.  

    One young man who loved to cook met with the "mitzvah coordinators" and they identified programs that would benefit from his passion for food. This bar mitzvah boy selected the Meir Panim kitchen-refurbishing project for Ethiopian families living in Israel. For many Ethiopian families, relocating and acclimating to a new culture can be challenging. This young man's gift of $36,000 to the Meir Panim program provided five families with new and updated kitchen equipment and appliances, along with the training needed to use their new kitchen in their new land.   

    Another young woman worked with this same organization to find a way to share her love of sports, biking and other outdoor activities with those less fortunate. After seeing a video about Etgarim, a non-profit organization in Israel that allows children and adults with special needs to realize their potential through outdoor activities, she was inspired to work with them. On a trip to Israel, she witnessed firsthand how meaningful her gift was to the children in the program. Along with her American friends, they met with some of the children from Etgarim in a Tel Aviv park.  They rode bikes together, zip-lined, and didn't let the language barrier prevent them from exchanging email addresses. She learned how important it was for these children to have the same opportunities as everyone else. She also learned that when you give, you get a reward for yourself.

Strength in Numbers Through Synagogue and School-based Programs

    Many synagogues and Jewish day schools create opportunities for an entire class of 7th graders to participate in tzedakah projects. These programs are seen as win-win propositions for the families, the charities, and ultimately the children. The Atlanta-based Epstein School adapted the Nediv Lev (meaning, gift from the heart) program six years ago. Each participating family contributes $10-18 per classmate: Half of that amount gets divided and shared among the students as their individual gift from their class, while the other half is donated to organizations the students research and select. On voting day, there are more than a dozen charities the children have an opportunity to support. Some children might want to donate all of their money to one organization or divide it to be shared among a few of the organizations. Similarly, the seventh grade class of Congregation Kol Ami in White Plains has a Seventh Grade Fund. The students agree not to give bar or bat mitzvah gifts to their classmates, but instead, each family is asked to make a contribution of $234 to the fund (18 [chai] x 13 = 234). The seventh graders serve on the fund's board of directors and participate in deciding how it will be distributed. Projects like these enlighten children about the wide variety of organizations that need support, and these initiatives also teach a lifelong lesson about how to allocate and prioritize resources.


    Tzedakah projects go hand in hand with a child's coming of age in the Jewish tradition of bar and bat mitzvah. Allowing young people to participate in tikkun olam - healing the world - connects them with the universal mission of every Jewish adult.


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