Meaningful Mitzvah Projects

As part of their bar or bat mitzvah preparation, many young people complete a Tikkun Olam (repair the world) mitzvah service project to help others and give back to the community.

Melissa Cohavi, director of the Jewish Identity Development Program at Congregation B’nai Yisrael in Armonk advises students planning a mitzvah project to put a lot of thought into what they want to do. “It’s important to add meaning to the process,” she says. “The best projects involve actively participating in something and making a real connection, rather than just raising money.” Cohavi suggests that b’nei mitzvah students start by looking at what they are good at and what has affected them.

For instance, someone who is good at math can tutor younger kids. If they like to sing or play an instrument they may want to perform at nursing homes or hospitals. If they have a relative who suffers from a disease, they can organize a team for a related Walkathon.

By examining their individual strengths and interests, each bar or bat mitzvah child can choose a fulfilling project.

Spreading the goodwill

“Collections of food, books, or pet supplies to be donated to local organizations can also be displayed as bimah baskets or centerpieces,” suggests Irene Metz, who is the Clergy Coordinator for Temple Beth Abraham (TBA) in Tarrytown and is also on the Executive Committee at Community Synagogue of Rye (CSR). “It’s a great way to reinforce your mitzvah project with your guests. At TBA, we ask our b’nei mitzvah students to create a poster about their project to proudly display in the lobby. At CSR, the b’nei mitzvah speaks about their project as part of the Friday Shabbat Service. It’s important for the congregations to learn about, and be proud of the volunteer work their young members are doing to create a better, kinder world,” she says.

Think locally

Many local organizations in Westchester offer opportunities for mitzvah projects. Here are some great ideas:

Backyard Sports Cares provides high quality sports programming for special needs children. Through one-to-one peer playing with young volunteers, the children learn self-confidence and a love of sports in a safe, supportive setting. It’s a rewarding experience for both the volunteers and the program participants. “Children with special needs often spend a lot of time with adult teachers, physicians, and therapists. This lets them interact with other kids in a very organic way,” says Executive Director Danny Bernstein. “For the volunteer partner, it’s a great way for them to learn how to focus on others.” The programs are held at Purchase College. Volunteers are asked to make a one-year commitment and must be available every Sunday. While many of the volunteer players are in high school, there are a number of opportunities for middle school-age girls and boys. For more information visit byardsportscares.org.

With wildlife, nature trails, and a variety of educational programs for all ages, The Weinberg Nature Center in Scarsdale is dedicated to promoting conservation activities. According to Director Sam Weinstock, volunteering at the nature center is a wonderful way to support the community as well as a learning experience. “Understanding how to pay attention to cues and respect the needs of an animal is a great lesson in patience and compassion,” says Weinstock. The nature center offers a variety of volunteer opportunities ranging from the socialization, care, and feeding of animals (including chinchillas, snakes, rabbits, birds, bugs, newts, and a bearded dragon); to trail maintenance, planting, and tree identification; to art projects for the center’s children’s classes. For all volunteer activities, ‘tweens or young teens must be accompanied by a parent or guardian. Sam Weinstock meets with potential volunteers to determine what activities they are comfortable doing and create a volunteer schedule. He can be reached via email at sweinstock@scarsdale.com.

Westchester Jewish Community Services (WJCS) serves 20,000 people (including 7,000 children) of diverse backgrounds throughout Westchester with nearly 80 programs providing expert help related to mental health, trauma, developmental disabilities, children and families, and geriatric care. Director of Community Engagement Rebecca Sigman meets individually with a b’nei mitzvah child and the celebrant’s family to come up with a plan. “We want to get a sense of what really matters to them, and tailor a volunteer project that has meaning,” explains Sigman. One opportunity with WJCS is to create Mitzvah Care Kits, where the family can fundraise and assemble kits for various needs, such as art supplies for the WJCS group homes; pajamas, books, toys or school supplies for children’s programs; or personal care kits for their violence prevention programs. Specific lists of products that are needed are provided. For more details email rsigm[email protected]cs.com.

Ongoing impact

Faith Dallal and her son Ben connected with WJCS prior to his bar mitzvah last May at the Westchester Reform Temple in Scarsdale. The family made sensory kits to benefit the WJCS Autism Center and met with Director Lee Englander for a tour and to gain a deeper understanding of the services WJCS offers to that population.

“I saw the important things that the Autism Center does for people with autism, like providing locator bracelets in case they wander off,” says Ben. “Lee also told us that sensory toys are really useful for dealing with nervous feelings and attention issues. It felt good to know that the kits we put together will help others.” Faith and Ben are planning to continue their volunteer relationship with WJCS.

Liz Landau Ammirato is a freelance writer based in Mahopac.