Kids get a head start on mitzvot in bar mitzvah year

Lindy Greenspan likes to juggle.

Diana Levin loves animals.

Priscilla Lowenthal enjoys being with the elderly and wants to learn Yiddish.

These teenagers have figured out how to turn their talents and interests into mitzvot (charitable deeds) for others. They are among the growing number of teens who incorporate community service into their bar or bat mitzvah preparations.

Some synagogues require students to earn mitzvah points by organizing group projects and performing other helpful deeds, while others encourage community service yet do not deem it mandatory. And some teens adopt volunteer work entirely on their own.

Whether mandatory or not, these youngsters are learning the joy that comes from service. Their good acts follow the Jewish tradition that along with a bar or bat mitzvah comes responsibility for fulfilling all of the commandments. And that means doing mitzvot for others.

For some teens, community service is an ongoing family tradition. Others never try their hands at volunteering until their bar or bat mitzvah year.

For most, it marks the beginning of a lifelong commitment.

"It made me feel good that I got to help people," says 13-year-old Betsy Allen, a member of San Francisco's Congregation Emanu-El.

Allen undertook several projects organized by her temple's Mitzvah Corps. To earn some of her 18 mitzvah points, Allen cleaned up a beach, dug a trench to stem an overflowing creek and packaged gift baskets for a homeless shelter. With other members of her family's chavurah (friendship group), she baked desserts for the Hamilton Family Shelter and did an art project with shelter children.

Fellow Emanu-El bat mitzvah student Rachel Flynn says Mitzvah Corps' cooperative nature afforded a balance, giving workers a chance to help strangers while strengthening their own personal friendships within the corps. In particular she liked the group outings that followed mitzvah projects.

"The kids got really close," Flynn remembers. Continuing her family's tradition of volunteerism, Flynn also shopped for a wheelchair-bound neighbor, tutored at a local elementary school, assembled emergency food boxes for a food bank, donated money to Somalia and helped out around her own home.

The teens' mitzvot are as diverse as the youngsters themselves.

Ida Kennedy of Alameda's Temple Israel walks from school to Alameda Hospital for her weekly round of volunteering. Although it started as a bat mitzvah project, Kennedy is still volunteering and expects some friends to join her when the school year starts. After her bat mitzvah, Ida shared the joy of her celebration by giving the hospital plants she had used as table decorations.

While preparing for his bar mitzvah, Jonathan Cohen, also of Temple Israel, rode his bike to Water's Edge Lodge, where he took elderly residents for walks, served at the retirement home's happy hours and generally helped out.

Another Temple Israel bat mitzvah, Lindy Greenspan, also visits the elderly. Over the past two years, she learned how to juggle and ride a unicycle. Now she entertains at schools and retirement homes.

"It's frustrating performing at retirement homes because you can't tell whether they are enjoying it," says Lindy, who nonetheless enjoys helping people. She also helps her mother deliver food for Meals on Wheels.

Like the talented Lindy, Diana Levin of San Francisco's Congregation Beth Sholom has also turned a personal interest into a mitzvah. She loves animals and wants to be a veterinarian someday. For her mitzvah project, she volunteered at the Randall Children's Museum by training, cleaning and caring for the animals, and she hopes to keep working there.

Billy White, also from Beth Sholom, volunteered at Dream House, providing childcare for single mothers. He also helps out with the synagogue's Chicken Soupers, preparing and delivering food to Jewish AIDS patients.

"Volunteering gave him some understanding that he had to meet a commitment and couldn't put himself first," says Billy's mother, Ruth White. "It taught him compassion for kids who are not as fortunate as he is."

Joshua Miller of Walnut Creek's Congregation B'nai Shalom has found that volunteering makes him more aware and conscious of other people. A free-floating mitzvah-giver, Joshua lends a hand whenever he sees people who need help — even if those people are his parents.

After her grandfather died 18 months ago, Priscilla Lowenthal of Santa Rosa's Congregation Beth Ami missed the influence of an elderly person. Through Jewish Family and Children's Services of Sonoma, she met 86-year-old Bea Arnold, whom she now visits weekly. They talk, do puzzles and crochet together.

Arnold, who taught Priscilla to crochet, will soon start teaching the youngster Yiddish.

"It's just like with my grandpa. I love doing it. It makes me feel good about myself. I don't think I'm ever going to stop," Allen says.