Apart from a feeling for felines, Aaron Zander's got something that seems to run in his family. His mother has it. So did her parents and her grandmother. And Aaron has had it all of his life.
What the members of this Larkspur family have, for lack of an official medical term, is tzedakah — an urge to give of their time and energy to others.
The condition was most recently manifest this past fall on Aaron's bar mitzvah invitations, when he asked friends and relatives to give to the kitty.
In lieu of the more traditional bar mitzvah presents, the 13-year-old requested that guests bring cat-related gifts that he could donate to the Marin Cat Connection. The organization rescues, treats and rehabilitates feral cats, and then tries to find homes for them.
Instead of flowers, the centerpieces at his reception were "Welcome Home Kitty" baskets containing cat food, catnip and other kitty items, wrapped in colored cellophane and tied up with ribbon. The goodies were also destined for the Cat Connection.
Aaron's connection to the Cat Connection did not begin with his bar mitzvah, however.
A few years ago, he had asked his mother for a kitten. After a futile search, the Zanders were told it was not "kitten season" and that they should get in touch with the Marin Cat Connection. Sara Zander found Boutsy, presenting the kitten to Aaron on Valentine's Day 1997.
"The Cat Connection had saved Boutsy's mother, who had been a stray found in San Quentin," Aaron said. "The cat was pregnant at the time it was rescued, and gave birth to a litter of two. One of those became my cat. Me and my mom have told people about the Marin Cat Connection since then, and we try to support them. I try to raise money for them, or help in other ways."
Since then, Aaron had done a number of things to aid Cat Connection including selling Valentine's Day cards, "in honor of Boutsy's birthday," and donating the proceeds to the group. He's also gotten several of his friends involved.
At Congregation Kol Shofar in Tiburon, b'nai mitzvah students each undertake a tzedakah project. Aaron decided to make the Cat Connection the beneficiary of his.
"A good percentage of the bar mitzvah guests brought cat-related gifts, so Aaron was able to give them a lot of stuff," his mother said. "Afterward, the people at the Cat Connection got together and sent him a big thank-you note."
In addition, she said, "many of his friends with no experience in giving have now participated in a volunteer effort, and I think that's the one thing that impressed me most."
Aaron's willingness to give to others is not new. Every year since he was an infant, his mother would bring him with her on Dec. 24 to the Can Tree, a volunteer effort that collects and distributes food to the needy during the December holidays.
Aaron has also volunteered with the Canal Community Alliance in San Rafael "and knows that he must always give away something, before he receives a Chanukah or birthday gift," his mother said. "He has always known he is part of the world.
"It's a natural outgrowth of what we consider our way of being in the world. I know my grandmother volunteered her time to help new immigrants to America at Ellis Island. I was raised that way also. My parents were always involved in their community, there was always a tzedakah box in our house," she added.
"To me, you breathe, you eat food, you give of yourself. It's just the way you function in the universe. I guess it runs in the family. Maybe it's a gene or something. It's a wonderful feeling to be part of this human chain of helping others."
Sara Zander, who has been raising Aaron alone since he was 9 years old, has passed the gene — or whatever it is — on to her son.
"He has been involved with volunteering since he was very small, so he just accepts that as part of his life," she said.
"It's nice to be able to give money, but it's not as satisfying or enriching as giving of yourself in time and energy," she added. "It's one of the most important components of being Jewish. It's our charge from God, if you will, that we are to help the people of the world."
Aaron seems to have internalized that message.
Aaron's Torah portion was in Genesis, dealing with who was responsible for eating the forbidden fruit. "Adam blamed Eve and Eve blamed the serpent," his mother said. "Aaron spoke in his speech about what it really means to be responsible. He said that perhaps God punished Adam and Eve so severely not so much for eating the fruit, but for their failure to take responsibility for their own actions."
Kol Shofar associate Rabbi Daniel Kohn, who officiated at the celebration, said, "His whole speech was actually an eloquent plea for people to accept responsibility for their own actions.
"I loved it. I thought that he displayed a level of maturity, which was quite unusual, but wonderful to see."
But it would be wrong to walk away with the impression that Aaron is an angel, his mother said. He also has his exasperating, teenage moments.
"Aaron is a nice, normal, basketball-playing, baseball-playing kid who happens to care about the people around him. So I'm very proud of him."