S.F. teens bar mitzvah project a home run for kids in Cuba and for filmmaker parents

Cuba has a long list of baseball heroes — a few dozen players who achieved fame in America, and hundreds if not thousands more who never got to ply their major league–caliber skills in this country for political reasons.

Is 15-year-old Mica Jarmel-Schneider of San Francisco being added, in his own unique way, to the list?

Mica already is a hero to some kids in Cuba, and soon he likely will be a hero to even more. But it’s not because of his talents as a baseball player.

Three years ago, for his bar mitzvah community service project, Mica decided to collect baseball equipment for poverty-stricken kids in Cuba. For someone who plays baseball and loves it as much as he does — and whose Jewish grandfather lived in Cuba for two years during World War II after fleeing Austria — the project seemed like a natural fit.

In his family’s Richmond District home, Mica sorts out some of the equipment he has collected.

“I’m repaying Cubans in a way for sheltering my grandfather when he escaped the Holocaust,” Mica said.

Not only is the project still going strong nearly two years after his bar mitzvah, but Mica’s filmmaker parents are about a third of the way into making a documentary titled “Got Balz?” about their son’s efforts.

Marcia Jarmel and Ken Schneider

The first 17 minutes of the film will be screened Feb. 27 at Sports Basement, a sporting goods store in San Francisco that has donated equipment to Mica’s project. The event, which will feature Cuban music and a 20 percent store discount, aims to raise funds for the film and collect more donations of used baseball gear for Mica’s project.

The remainder of the film, including what are expected to be its most emotional moments, will be shot during Mica’s spring break from March 25 to April 3, when he visits baseball-crazy Cuba for the first time. He hopes to be toting up to 10 boxes or suitcases of gloves, bats, balls, caps and various other gear he’s collected. It’ll go to kids who love to play baseball but aren’t quite good enough to be part of Cuba’s amateur development program.

“I’m looking forward to delivering it, and maybe playing baseball with some of the Cuban kids,” he said.

A ninth-grader at Lowell High School in San Francisco, Mica is a center fielder and relief pitcher for the junior varsity team, which is just getting its season started. Before this year, he played recreation league baseball and also for his middle-school team.

Mica (in catcher’s gear, no cap) and his middle school teammates.

When he was 12 and thinking about his bar mitzvah project, he wanted to find something hands-on and close to home, rather than just raising money for a cause and mailing it in.

“I love baseball, and I thought it’d be great to help bring the game to people that didn’t have the means to play it,” he said. “I thought somewhere in Latin America would be good.”

That’s because as a 6-year-old, Mica was on a trip to Nicaragua with his family when he saw something he never forgot: poor kids playing baseball.

“They had nothing,” he said. “They were using cardboard mitts and balls that were like rocks wrapped in rags. They had one bat in town that was cherished by everyone. I played baseball with them, and then we went to the market and bought some baseballs for them, and it was like the greatest thing ever for them. That vision really stuck with me.”

To begin his bar mitzvah project, Mica

e-mailed everyone he and his parents knew, asking for any old equipment that might be lying around in the garage. From there, he called sporting goods stores, landing “some really generous donations” of new gear from Sports Basement.

Mica already has sent 10 boxes of gear to Cuba, although with the U.S. embargo, getting them there hasn’t been easy. In fact, the first attempted shipment, three boxes he and his parents sent from Canada about six months ago, still hasn’t been located.

A subsequent shipment of seven boxes made it to Cuba through Pastors for Peace, which gathers up items from around North America with a caravan of buses and trucks, drives the items into Mexico, and then ships them to Cuba.

“We know that shipment did make it, and that the gear is being played with right now in Cuba,” said Marcia Jarmel, Mica’s mom and half of the filmmaking team (along with dad Ken Schneider).

Right now, Mica and his family are dealing with logistical issues that go well beyond shipping challenges.

Schneider, whose father lived in Havana from 1941 to 1943, has been to Cuba to scout shooting locations, including his dad’s old apartment and a synagogue his dad attended. But an American shooting documentary footage in Cuba is easier said than done. And while Schneider and Jarmel can travel into Cuba on special licenses, getting their children (Mica and his 10-year-old brother, Jaden) into the country poses yet another set of difficulties, as does trying to carry in extra parcels of gear.

“Because of the film and trying to bring kids into Cuba, it is complicated,” Schneider said. “But we can’t make the film without [Mica going to Cuba]. We are trying to make all the arrangements.”

Schneider and Jarmel got the idea for the film about four months after Mica started his bar mitzvah project in 2008, when he was 12. His bar mitzvah was June 20, 2009 at Or Shalom Jewish Community in San Francisco.

“As we were watching him do this work, it became clear to us that a story was unfolding in front of us, and it had a lot of layers to it,” Schneider said. “It started as just a short film to remind families and communities that a bar mitzvah is not about parties and DJs. It’s an opportunity to look at what it means for a kid to start taking on some responsibility.”

Schneider and Jarmel expect their final product to be 60 to 75 minutes, and if funding falls into place, they say it will be ready for festival showings by next winter.

The husband-and-wife team runs PatchWorks Films, a San Francisco production and distribution company they started in 1994. They have made three feature-length documentaries, including “Speaking in Tongues,” a 2009 film that follows four diverse kids on a journey to becoming bilingual.

“We always say that our films are autobiographical but not about us,” Schneider said. “This is the first time, for me, that the film has a family story in it. This one is hitting closer to home, to my dad’s story.”

For her part, Jarmel said “Got Balz?” feels in some ways like a sequel to her first feature documentary in 1997, “The Return of Sarah’s Daughters.”

“It was kind of about me grappling with being drawn to Orthodoxy, and at the end of that film, Mica is born,” she said. “I’m narrating that film, and the last line addresses: Now that I have a child of my own, what am I going to pass on? What is being passed on? This new film is an answer to that.”

Mica did say that “sometimes it’s weird when my parents are filming me,” but he added that he has enjoyed seeing the film develop alongside the project.

It was Mica who came up with the title — “Got Balz?” — which is a nod to teen textspeak, to poor kids who lack baseball equipment, and to the chutzpah he has needed to see his project through.

“It’s been very satisfying to see how meaningful this has been for him,” his mom said, “to see him stepping up and doing something that he feels is a positive contribution to society.”

“Got Balz?” preview screening, 5-7 p.m. Feb. 27 at Sports Basement, 1590 Bryant St., S.F. Donations of equipment and funding for the film accepted. Trailer and more information: www.gotbalzfilm.info, info@patchworksfilms.net or the Facebook page Got Balz? Film.

Andy Altman-Ohr

Andy Altman-Ohr is J.'s former managing editor and former Hardly Strictly Bagels food columnist. He lives and writes in Mexico.