As a rite of passage, the bar or bat mitzvah not only teaches Jewish 13-year-olds how to read from the Torah, but also the importance of mitzvah — performing acts of kindness.
A mitzvah project can range from the simple to the elaborate, and with the help of Internet resources and guidance from synagogues, it can be personalized to a b’nai mitzvah’s special interests or to the synagogue’s social justice mission.
Areyvut was founded six years ago to address the core Jewish values of chesed (kindness), tzedakah (charity) and tikkun olam (healing the world).
Its Web site provides a wealth of ideas for mitzvah projects, with an emphasis on personalization.
“We work one-on-one with a student and their family to find something in their area of interest, so it becomes something lifelong,” says Daniel Rothner, Areyvut’s president and founder.
Areyvut, which also helps local synagogues and Jewish organizations sponsor mitzvah days, produces a calendar with a different mitzvah project idea every day for of the year.
“Just like the pages of the Talmud are learned in a unified, daily manner worldwide, so too should good deeds and acts of kindness be daily events,” Rothner says.
Some girls and boys want their b’nai mitzvah project to center around their Torah portion. In addition to their other b’nai mitzvah resources, the Union for Reform Judaism publishes a series of booklets for each parshah.
Titled “Torah in Action,” each booklet contains ideas, resources and suggestions as they relate to a Torah portion and its themes for b’nai mitzvah projects.
“The Torah portion for Vayishlah, for example, deals with the story of Dinah,” explains Rabbi Marla Feldman of the URJ. “There are suggestions for projects that deal with issues for women, like doing a fundraising drive for women’s shelters or working with domestic abuse shelters, and advocacy issues related to women.”
Feldman points to another Torah portion that deals with redeeming people who are captives. The “Torah in Action” booklet suggests a mitzvah project “helping kids who are orphans or helping seniors who are living alone, fighting poverty, fighting hunger and working for economic justice,” Feldman says.
Most synagogues provide guidance for children in choosing a b’nai mitzvah project. Some work closely with the students to ensure that the project complements the synagogue’s priorities, while others tailor the project to causes close to the student’s heart.
“It’s something I talk about with the families in our initial meeting, and
oftentimes, the students have their own ideas about what they might like to do,” says Cantor Lauren Banzman of Congregation Beth Am in Los Altos Hills. “They may have read about something in school, or they heard about something in their local community, and they will come to me with ideas. It’s really exciting when that happens.”
At San Francisco’s Congregation Emanu-El, there is an emphasis on finding projects that are in line with the Social Justice Committee’s mission.
“In your b’nai mitzvah year, you don’t
attend religious school,” says Sandy Rechtschaffen, Emanu-El’s social justice coordinator. “You go to Torah study and you have prayer class, and you go to your reading tutor and meet with the rabbi, but you don’t have the basic religious school. The entire year is dedicated to mitzvah.”
Students pick a mitzvah “major” and mitzvah “minor,” which is usually a smaller, one-shot project.
“If they choose hunger and poverty, they could go to Glide Church seven times throughout the year and help serve meals,” says Rechtschaffen. “If they wanted to do something with Darfur, we’ve tried to make it something that’s tangible for them, so they get some background, each kid makes a video message to their representative in Congress, they learn how to write a letter to a representative and they try to translate what they learned in religious school to become advocates in their schools.”
The Bureau of Jewish Education believes the best way to reach students is to work with teachers at synagogues and in the community, and the San Francisco-based agency has a wealth of materials available.
Jaré Akchin, acting director of the BJE’s Jewish Service Learning Project, says mitzvah education has three important components: “The first is what’s called pre-learning, the ‘why.’ What are we here for and what is this all about? We tell you why, what’s happening in this community, and how what we’re going to do is Jewish,” she says.
“The second component is the ‘what.’ We’re going to do something based on the learning we just did, so we’re to talk about the Jewish value of Shomrai Adamah — protecting the Earth. We’re going to learn why that’s a Jewish value and go clean up the beach.
“The third component is the ‘now what.’ It’s the reflecting on the experience and the learning, making the connection.”
The idea, Akchin says, is to help b’nai mitzvah students understand the concept of Jewish service learning, which merges community service with Jewish values.
“We help them use that as a tool to help youth understand, from a Jewish perspective, why we do things like clean up the environment, feed the hungry, clothe the poor — whatever it may be,” she said. “In turn, we feel that it helps inform young people as to what projects are not only interesting to them, but also connect to their own sense of Jewish identity.”