Some bar mitzvahs asking for tzedakah in lieu of gifts

When guests come to Oakland's Temple Sinai for Robert Schiff's Sept. 2 bar mitzvah, they will be empty- handed. Not because they don't know what to buy or because they sent a gift ahead of time, but because he doesn't want any presents.

Schiff has asked friends and family to honor his bar mitzvah by making donations in his name.

"There's not much that I really need," says the 13-year-old Piedmonter. "And there are people who are in need of the money."

By any standards, Schiff is not your ordinary bar mitzvah.

Most children see parties and presents as their reward for months of study, but a few view the bar mitzvah as an opportunity for tzedakah (charity) to others.

For Schiff this is not a new idea.

As a youngster, he asked birthday party guests to bring new toys or books to donate to a homeless shelter instead of a birthday gift for him. His bar mitzvah tzedakah is just a bigger adaptation of the same principle.

He also took an active role in selecting the three charities designated for contributions.

Parents Bob and Sue Ann Schiff, both attorneys, have supported the Southern Poverty Law Center for years. Their programs appealed to Robert and he immediately chose it as one of his charities.

He considered the Holocaust Museum in Washington, D.C., but rejected it because it already had a strong base of private support.

Through a family friend, he learned of the Jewish Fund for Justice's Youth Endowment Fund, which focuses on problems of young people and poverty. If at least $1,000 is given in Schiff's name, he can designate which grassroots organizations will receive the interest from his fund.

For the third organization, his parents encouraged him to choose a local group so he would have the option of getting personally involved.

After some investigation, he designated Jewish Family and Children's Services of the Greater East Bay. Gloria Dulgov of JFCS says she has already received seven or eight donations from around the country.

"We're proud of his ability at this age to look at the needs of other people," says Dulgov. "That's a mensch and a reflection of how he was brought up."

Schiff's mitzvah prompted JFCS to look into its youth program. Realizing more could be done, the organization is setting up a youth advisory board to explore concerns of adolescents and develop volunteer opportunities for them.

And Schiff is not the only teen to make his bar mitzvah an occasion for tzedakah.

Jeff Blum of San Francisco's Congregation Sherith Israel asked his guests at his May 27 bar mitzvah to make donations to his temple's Ha Motzi Fund instead of giving him gifts.

"I feel great about it because I helped people," Blum says. "I have a home and everything I need and want. I know that a lot of people don't."

Blum also learned how generous his friends were. Many gave him a present in addition to making a donation.

With maturity rare for his age, Schiff is philosophical about his decision.

"I'm not saying it's the thing for everyone but it was the right thing for me," he says.

His parents are proud of their son's decision and hope that tzedakah and tikkun olam (repair of the world) will always be a part of his life.

But, just like other teens, Schiff suffers the foibles of adolescence.

"If only he would keep is room neat," bemoans his mother.