B’nai Mitzvah | Celebrations/Weddings | Local

Mitzvah projects empower teens — and provide food, enrichment for others

One of the explicit and implicit tenets of Judaism is that we are supposed to live our lives doing mitzvot, literally translated as “commandments” but informally known as “good deeds.” In addition to the usual whirlwind of activity associated with B’nai Mitzvah preparation, such as learning Torah, attending services, and party planning, many B’nai Mitzvah students find the time to do a mitzvah project. Below, four area Jewish teens who became B’nai Mitzvah in the last year recount their experiences carrying out their special projects.

Koby Shochat wears the tallit his father wore at his Bar Mitzvah. Koby’s mitzvah project involved donations of used tallitot.

Sometimes a recycled item can hold more meaning than a new one, especially if that item is a tallit, or Jewish prayer shawl. For his mitzvah project, Koby Shochat, son of Carol and Wayne Shochat of Congregation Chaverim, donated gently worn tallitot from his own congregation to one in Sarajevo, Bosnia-Herzegovina, operating with only one Torah and no tallitot.

Inspired by his sister, who had done a mitzvah project that helped high school seniors afford prom dresses for graduation, Koby wondered if there might be Jewish communities where people couldn’t afford ritual items such as tallitot. He brought his idea to Rabbi Stephanie Aaron of Congregation Chaverim. Together they identified a congregation across the ocean with a need for tallitot: the New Synagogue of Sarajevo, a Jewish community practically destroyed during the Holocaust and still in the process of rebuilding.

Coincidentally, Tucson Rabbi Bennett Blum, a friend of Aaron’s, was traveling to Eastern Europe and was able to deliver 16 tallitot from Congregation Cha­verim to the New Synagogue, along with a letter from Koby. The Sarajevo Jewish community, said Koby, was overjoyed by the gift.

Back home, the project had a ripple effect. Chaverim members were touched by the far-reaching impact of the mitzvah and its power to help revitalize Jewish life: “All of us were carried into that place of helping … We felt like we were part of restoring the memory of those lost in the Shoah,” reflected Aaron.

One congregant was an out-of-town visitor attending Congregation Chaverim for services to observe his father’s yahrzeit, the first anniversary of his death. He was so moved by the tale of the travelling tallitot that he made a donation large enough to replace all the tallitot leaving for Sarajevo, in honor of his father. Koby raised additional funds for replacement tallitot with donations from other congregants, friends and family.

Although previously involved in community service projects and active in student council at Esperero Canyon Middle School, Koby said coordinating a long-term project like this from start to finish was a new experience.

“You feel more accomplished if you can do something that takes longer because you’re staying focused and you’re still into it,” he told the AJP. “It was very rewarding to help a lot of people by doing a little thing,” he added. In the end, for his own Bar Mitzvah, he chose to recycle another gently used tallit: the one his father wore at his own Bar Mitzvah before Koby was born.

Calli Bagshaw with food she collected for Interfaith Community Services.

While some B’nai Mitzvah students looked to make a difference in far-flung Jewish communities, others saw a need for getting involved in their own backyards. Calli Bagshaw, daughter of Lisa and Mark Bagshaw of Congregation Or Chadash, decided she wanted to make an impact close to home. Realizing there are people in need of basic services in Tucson, Calli organized a food drive for Interfaith Community Services (ICS), a local support organization for disadvantaged, disabled and elderly populations.

After touring the ICS Food Pantry, which serves meals to an average 40 families a day and provides monthly food boxes for needy people, “I was amazed at how many locals need food,” said Calli. She decided to collect food at a Safeway in Oro Valley to help restock the ICS food pantry.

Organizing the food drive, she said, was a fun challenge. She got permission to advertise and hold the food drive at the supermarket, placing a poster in the store a couple of weeks before the event. The day of the drive, she and two friends collected the food from generous patrons over a period of six hours. They handed out fliers explaining the project and asking people for donations. Calli noted that many people were happy to help, donating from one or two cans of food to a whole bag full. At the end of the day, she and her team collected over 500 cans of food, which she then sorted and delivered to ICS.

Calli, a National Junior Honor Society member at Coronado K-8 School and an avid amateur dancer, found her project both empowering and motivating. “I like the satisfaction of helping people,” she said. Although she had previously participated in charity fundraisers at her school, this experience required her to be in charge of the whole project.

“It took lots of time to do the food drive, lots of time to organize,” she said. “I’m capable of doing a lot more things than I thought I was,” she concluded, and says she would like to do more food drives in the future. Her advice to B’nai Mitzvah students looking to make a difference: “Do something that is important to you, something you’re going to have fun with!”

Emiliano Miller volunteers at a Humane Borders water station.

Emiliano Miller, son of Francisca Olivares-Miller and Robert Miller of Temple Emanu-El, and the grandson of a Mexican immigrant who came to this country years ago, went to the border for his mitzvah project. He volunteered for Humane Borders, an organization that provides humanitarian assistance through the placement of emergency water stations on and near the U.S.-Mexico border. For Emiliano, this was an opportunity to help people while connecting with his bicultural Mexican and Jewish heritage.

Emiliano, who attended Safford Middle School and has interests ranging from soccer and swim team to drama and hip hop dance, worked on Saturday mornings over a period of two months repairing and maintaining the equipment needed for the water stations. He washed water delivery trucks, painted and repaired water barrels (some of which had been disabled by bullet holes, he noted), and painted signal flags for placement at the water stations.

On one occasion, he accompanied a team of volunteers, which included Humane Borders workers, college students and several out-of-state volunteers, on a water run to check the viability of some of the barrels. His team drove to several border sites to test the water for drinkability (sometimes people poison the water, he explained), check that the flags were still in place, and measure water levels to approximate the numbers of passers-through.

For Emiliano, the project was an opportunity to witness firsthand the kinds of challenges his grandfather Antonio Olivares might have faced crossing into Arizona from Mexico on foot over 30 years ago. Although his grandfather was able to make the trip from Mexico successfully — after being deported several times and eventually obtaining the paperwork to come over legally and send for his family — others have not been so lucky. Emiliano was overwhelmed by the sheer number of failed attempts at crossing the desert to enter Arizona. “I was surprised at how many people have died in the desert — roughly 200,000 throughout the years,” he says he learned at Humane Borders. The organization, he said, estimates that up to 50,000 lives may have been saved through the efforts of the group to make water available to crossers.

“If you help just a little bit it makes a big difference,” he reflected, acknowledging that his actions probably saved lives. Coincidentally, a portion of the Haftorah that Emiliano read for his Bar Mitzvah emphasized the commandment to save another person’s life. His advice to other kids picking a mitzvah project: “Do something that could make a really big impact. Pick something that catches your eye.”

Simon Esbit (left) with his brother Brandon and art supplies he donated to Arts For All.

Whether they chose to implement a project that had an impact close to home or far away, all the students picked projects that were near and dear to their hearts. For Simon Esbit, son of Judy and Scott Esbit of Congregation Anshei Israel, the choice was easy. His passion is art, so for his mitzvah project he donated art supplies to Arts for All, a local organization that provides accessible art opportunities for all children, in particular those with special needs.

Simon’s interest in art began at an early age. When he was 8 years old and living in California, he was drawn into an art studio by chance because the studio was next door to a friend’s dance class. One of the teachers recognized his budding artistic talent and encouraged him to enroll in art classes. When he moved to Tucson three years ago, he continued to study art at the local Toscana Studio and Galleries.

“My favorite medium is oil paint, and I also do a lot of little sketches,” he said. In fact, he raised the money for the art supplies for his project by selling three of his own pieces at Toscana Gallery for a total of $300, in addition to pitching in with a portion of his Bar Mitzvah money. That money funded the purchase of paint brushes, paint, drawing paper and canvases for the students at Arts for All. In addition, friends and family donated art supplies that were made into gift baskets that served as party decorations for his Bar Mitzvah and later were given to Arts for All.

Although the disabilities of some students at Arts for All, such as physical limitations or Down syndrome, might seem daunting to some aspiring artists, Simon said the adaptations the staff provides for student at Arts for All make the challenges surmountable.

“The students might use different materials, such as a laser pointer strapped to their heads, to create a piece that looks just like a Jackson Pollock,” he exclaimed, “or they can finger paint and it looks really, really cool!”

Simon, who attended Wilson K-8 School and played football for a city league, was truly impressed by the amount of talent exhibited by the students at Arts for All. “Most of them are special needs, but most of them are really gifted in art,” he said. “The only thing different about their artwork is that it takes them a lot longer to do,” he emphasized.

When choosing a mitzvah project, “go with what you like to do,” recommended Simon. “If you like sports, donate to a sports program, if you like animals work at an animal shelter. Go with what is interesting.”

In the spirit of tikkun olam, a Hebrew phrase meaning to repair the world, all of the students interviewed said they gained an ineffable sense of accomplishment and well-being through their projects, in addition to feeling like they made a palpable contribution to the community. “I feel a lot better after doing my mitzvah project. I don’t know how to describe it. It just feels good,” concluded Simon.

Maria Ma-Tay Russakoff is a freelance writer living in Tucson with her husband and two sons.