Young people connect to community with mitzvah projects

BY CATE MARQUIS, SPECIAL TO THE JEWISH LIGHT

A growing number of young people are choosing to do a social service mitzvah project as part of their bar or bat mitzvah.

“Almost all our kids do (one),” said Doris Fagin of United Hebrew Congregation, a Reform congregation with a traditional leaning.

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Mitzvah projects allow the young person preparing for a bar or bat mitzvah to take on an adult responsibility, to give back to their community, and to help them reflect on and explore those responsibilities.

Joey Saltzman did two mitzvah projects for her bat mitzvah. Her parents are musicians and Joey plays the violin, so as part of her mitzvah project she played violin and gave mini lessons at several preschools. Besides giving of her time and talent to promote a love of music, Joey also did a fundraiser that combined two of her interests: baseball and helping children with Downs Syndrome.

Joey organized a bake sale to benefit the Pujols Family Foundation’s “Dimes for Downs” program. She sold baseball-themed cupcakes and cookies they had ordered from a local bakery and donated the proceeds to the foundation. “One of my friend’s brother has Down’s syndrome, so it is something I care about.” Her father is also a friend of the Pujols family and helped set up the donations for her.

Vera Emmons of Shaare Emeth says that her congregation has a coordinator to help young people with their mitzvah projects.

Connor Sosnoff of Shaare Emeth decided to bridge a gap to help feed hungry people for his mitzvah project. “Connor is arranging to pick up baked goods for St. Louis Bread Company stores and deliver them to the Jewish food pantry,” said his mother Beth. Every day, bakeries throw away unsold baked goods, foodstuffs that food pantries that serve the poor would be glad to have. The problem Connor’s project solved was arranging for the donations of otherwise wasted food and then doing the work to deliver them to the understaffed food pantry. “He has just started the project,” said Beth Sosnoff. “But already he has signed up the Four Seasons St. Louis Bread Company.”

“The idea (for the project) was suggested by Sue Lesser, who is my four year old’s preschool teacher,” said Beth Sosnoff.

Sue Lesser’s son David also recently completed a mitzvah project, for his bar mitzvah in May. “He wanted to do something,” said Sue Lesser. “Something where he gave of himself, not just a fundraiser.”

Starting in January this year, David volunteered with “Room at the Inn,” an interfaith program that provides homeless families with an evening meal, socialization with the kids and a place to stay for the night, before returning to their daytime only assistance program. Once a month, the Lessers’ congregation Shaare Emeth hosted the families for the evening and provided overnight lodging.

“Shaare Emeth is the only synagogue in the program,” said Vera Emmons.

David Lesser took either an early or late two-hour shift, where he may have helped serve dinner or just hang out with the kids. Adults in the program could spend the time socializing or get a little time to themselves, as they chose.

Young people throughout the community have come up with some wonderful ideas for mitzvah projects. Doris Fagin at United Hebrew described some of the projects that Joey Saltzman and young people in her congregation chose. Carly Rabon was bat mitzvahed last week. “She was the first to read from our new Torah,” said Fagin. “Carly chose to help a battered women’s shelter, raising money to buy blankets, pillowcases and sheets.”

Another United Hebrew member, Samantha Peterson, helped out at an equestrian center for the disabled, and also made blankets for the “Our Little Haven” children’s shelter for her mitzvah project. Linsey Button, also of United Hebrew, collected chapter books for the “Lift For Life” charter school.

At Congregation Kol Am, Jake Cohen cared for the Earth with a recycling project for his mitzvah project, while Devon Henson had the clever idea of collecting scrap paper to donate to the Humane Society.

Mitzvah projects might be more common in Reform congregations but other kinds of congregations also have young people who want to a special project as well. Rebecca Kaiser of Nusach Hari B’nai Zion, an Orthodox congregation, decided she wanted to do a mitzvah project.

Every year, Nusach Hari B’nai Zion does a Hanukkah toy drive called “Hugs for Hanukah.” This year, the toy drive is on Nov. 4. With her Nov. 3 bat mitzvah party so close, Rebecca had the idea of doing her own toy collection drive to help out. She asked guests to bring an unwrapped toy to her bat mitzvah party, to be donated to “Hugs for Hanukah.” “I love Hanukah,” said Rebecca about her favorite holiday. They hope to collect as many as 150 to 200 toys.

“She decided she wanted to do one, even though it was not required,” said Rebecca’s mother Joni Kaiser about her daughter’s mitzvah project. “She just helped another girl with her mitzvah project,” said Joni Kaiser. Rebecca’s friend, Samantha Shanker, was stuffing “hospice bags,” bags with personal care items for people in hospice care, as her mitzvah project. “(Rebecca) was inspired by some of the projects her friends were doing,” she said. “She is in a very creative class (in school).”

Rebecca felt her project helped her grow as a member of the community. “Helping others is important and I want to participate and volunteer more often,” she said.

Rebecca wanted to urge other young people to do mitzvah projects. “At not all temples is it required to do a mitzvah project but I definitely think doing a mitzvah project is a fantastic idea,” Rebecca said. “Because it definitely makes you realize that there are others out there not as fortunate as yourself.”

One parent with a son preparing for his bar mitzvah explained one reason why mitzvah projects might be less common in some Orthodox congregations. “We expect them to do mitzvah projects all the time, so I feel like a special one for a bar mitzvah is not needed,” said Craig Reiss, of Congregation Tpheris Israel Chevra Kadisha, “That is the essence of what I try to develop in my kids…to be a mensch.”