Acts of kindness ... they are our personal way to make life better for others. Tikkun olam (to repair the world) being a core concept of Judaism, many temples require social action projects of their soon-to-become bnai mitzvah. Choosing a mitzvah project is an opportunity for tweens to explore their interests and put skills and talents to good use in the wider world. But with room for improvement in so many areas, how does one go about choosing a project?
Parents can help a child explore his or her unique skills and personal goals to select an appropriate project. Use your understanding of your child’s personality to present opportunities they may find inspiring. Then step back and let the child be the guide. While parental involvement is a necessity, a child-guided project will be the most meaningful.
When Marla Feldman told her daughter, Lily, about Birthday Wishes, an organization that provides birthday parties to homeless children, her daughter’s eyes lit up. In Lily’s words, “Ever since I was little, I would take them [birthday parties] for granted. I never thought about how some children didn’t have the opportunity to have them. So when my mom told me about this organization, I immediately loved the idea.” Lily was so inspired by her mitzvah project that she is now thinking about helping to expand the idea beyond its current home in Long Island. Stay tuned, Westchester!
Feeding Westchester provides millions of meals to the hungry across the county, filling a need that becomes greater each year. Staff is happy to work with the youth’s interest and motivation. Jandery DeLaCruz, Volunteer Services Coordinator, notes that they have many volunteer opportunities listed on their website, and are open to new ways to enhance their impact. “Parents and children come in and present ideas, then we set about helping to make it happen.” She recalls a sports enthusiast who had come in to talk about setting up a fundraising basketball game for his mitzvah project, but it could be something as simple as standing outside a local grocery store to take a collection for the food bank wish list. Volunteer opportunities at the Elmsford warehouse mean that the parent and child can get closer to the actual operation and see how significant their impact will become.
The JCCA Pleasantville Cottage Campus provides residential care to mostly urban, high risk youth. Edenwald Center, on the campus, serves children who have low IQs, autism and other developmental disorders. Edenwald’s monthly Tween Program is an excellent way to introduce tweens to volunteerism, and a chance to meet children with backgrounds and lives very different from their own. Sandi Rosenthal, Director of Volunteers, says, “The program has been the mitzvah project for many 12-year-olds.” Young volunteers eat dinner together with residents and then participate in sports, games and craft activities. The program is supported by volunteer and recreation staff. Parents are also invited, but not required, to attend. Many Edenwald residents declare volunteer visits to be the highlight of every month.
Rosenthal welcomes other volunteer proposals. Special Interest Activities Sponsors can share their talents with residents, teaching them chess, gardening, yoga and more. Tweens need to bring an adult with them, and parents always enjoy the experience as much as the volunteers and residents.
Joanne Witmyer, Director of Volunteer Services, Humane Education/Outreach, and Human Resources notes that the SPCA in Briarcliff has been involved with a variety of mitzvah projects. One temple in the community had a group of children who volunteered together for their bnai mitzvah. “We offered educational tours of our shelter, and the children created cat toys and dog tug-toys.” Other projects involved creating adoption flyers to spread the word about animal advocacy. Witmyer visits local temples to facilitate craft projects or bake dog biscuits with youth. Children can get involved by helping with one of the SPCA’s many volunteer program areas. Unique opportunities range from playing instruments for the animals to “Journaling with Cats”, a program where volunteers engage in creative writing exercises with and about resident felines.
Samara Fine, Volunteer and Community Outreach Coordinator at Adopt-A-Dog in Armonk, says kids come up with interesting ways to help. Through the Dog Tails program, volunteers ages 12 and up can bring their favorite books to the shelter and read to the dogs. A little practice speaking in front of an audience before the big (bar/bat mitzvah) day couldn’t hurt!
Finding a mitzvah project is a family affair – most organizations require parental accompaniment for tween volunteers – and open to interpretation. Present ideas to your child but let him or her take the lead. If you don’t find a project that inspires, be creative! Most non-profits are eager for help and willing to work with new ideas initiated by passionate youngsters. There are so many wonderful ways to repair the world. A mitzvah project empowers your adolescent to make a difference!
Elisa Bremner, RDN, is an Armonk-based freelance writer and Nutritionist at both the Pleasantville Cottage Schools (witnessing the tremendous impact volunteers have on underprivileged youth) and Services for the Underserved (where she helps provide healthy meals to the homeless).