Today’s teens find meaningful mitzvahs

BY ELLIE S. GROSSMAN

Mitzvah projects are as unique as the Hebrew school students themselves, and it’s hard to say who benefits the most, the giver or the receiver. With a keen awareness of social justice and diverse skills and interests, today’s young Jewish people are eager to choose a tzedakah project that goes beyond collecting money for a charity. Sure, they can donate a percentage of their monetary gifts to many worthwhile causes, such as Mazon, which fights hunger worldwide, but they also are eager to give their time, talents, and energy to help those in need.

Current events, such as the recent devastating wildfires in Southern California, influence some teens to aid victims of natural disasters, and the Union for Reform Judaism (www.urj.org) is there to lead the way. With a lifelong commitment to tikkun olam, Jewish teens can find other endless ideas for social action projects right at their fingertips when they browse the Internet and search for a mitzvah that is meaningful to them.

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One of the most popular mitzvah projects that tugs at the heart involves animals and pets, and the Humane Society (www.hsmo.org), K-9 search and rescue organizations (www.mosar.missouri.org), and other adoption agencies (1-800-Save-A-Pet.com) are great places to start. Dana Demsky, of Congregation Shaare Emeth, strayed off the beaten path and used her artistic abilities to save native critters.

“I love to draw, and I knew that I wanted to help animals in some way,” said Demsky, who raised more than $1,000 for a local animal rescue group called Wildlife Center of Missouri (www.mowildlife.org). She made stationery out of her black and white sketches of an elephant, zebra, baby fox, panda, and cougar. Then, she sold the one-of-a-kind note cards at school, temple, and to her friends.

“I wanted the money to go to a local place like the Wildlife Center of Missouri because they take in hurt animals, make them better, and release them back to their original home.”

Mitzvah projects are most meaningful when they help people help themselves. For example, Heifer International (www.heifer.org) is a non-profit organization whose goal is to help end world hunger and poverty through self-reliance and sustainability. For example, $120 buys a sheep in Peru; $150 pays for a llama in Ecuador; and $250 covers a water buffalo in Asia, which allows poor villagers across the globe to earn their own livelihoods and produce their own food.

Perhaps the most powerful b’nei mitzvah experience is when kids make a difference to other kids. For example, when my son Jack first started looking for his mitzvah project, he knew for sure that he wanted to combine his love of baseball and help kids less fortunate than him. He chose to be a “buddy” through an organization called St. Louis Challenger Baseball (www.challengerbaseball.org), which allows youngsters and adults with developmental disabilities, to play the popular sport. Now in its fourteenth year and with teams throughout St. Louis, this special baseball league enables everyone to be a winner.

During baseball season, Jack helps motivate players with physical and/or mental challenges to experience the excitement of a real ballgame. The social interaction between the players and the volunteers is hard to beat. At a recent game, Jack helped eight-year-old Matthew hold a plastic bat, and together they tapped the ball. With the crowd cheering, Jack hustled as he pushed Matthew in his wheelchair to first base. Then, Jack kneeled down to lift up Matthew’s oversized baseball cap and uncovered his eyeglasses so that the beaming boy on base could see all the action. Jack patted Matthew’s tiny shoulder and told him, “Good job buddy!”

At another game at Ranken-Jordan (www.rankenjordan.org), a pediatric specialty hospital in Maryland Heights, Jack scooped up a grounder that slowly rolled to him in the outfield and then quickly placed the baseball in Matthew’s glove. The next inning, Jack dropped a ball on purpose to allow enthusiastic 21-year-old Libby with Down’s Syndrome to make an exciting home run followed by a standing ovation and lots of applause.

“Baseball is a great sport, and every kid who wants to play should have the chance to play,” said Jack. “I feel good when I can encourage the kids to hit the ball and make it around the bases every inning, even if they aren’t physically able to swing the bat and run by themselves. We all have a fun time.”

The social action project is a great opportunity for bar and bat mitzvah students to make a difference in the world, one person (or animal) at a time.

“Mishegas of Motherhood” is the creation of Ellie S. Grossman, a St. Louis freelance writer and stay-at-home-mom who never stays home. Currently, she is obsessing over the party favors for her son’s upcoming bar mitzvah, so please feel free to send any advice to: [email protected] or visit her website at www.mishegasofmotherhood.com.

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