B’nai Mitzvah | Celebrations/Weddings | Local

From hunger to bullying, local teens tackle social issues with hands-on mitzvah projects

It started as a novel way to teach Jewish children about philanthropy, social justice and tikkun olam (repairing the world). Today, the mitzvah project has become a cherished part of the Bar and Bat Mitzvah scene. Yet for each child who chooses to take part in this burgeoning tradition, the mitzvah project is a fresh opportunity to explore the causes that mean the most to him or her.

In the past year, Tucson’s B’nai Mitzvah celebrants have collected shoes for needy children, walked to support a cure for juvenile diabetes and organized a benefit concert for earthquake victims in Haiti. They’ve volunteered in libraries and animal rescue centers, soup kitchens and senior citizen homes. They’ve raised funds for numerous organizations, from Israel’s Beit Halochem (Warrior House) Rehabilitation Centers to the Community Food Bank to Homer Davis Elementary School (supporting the Jewish Community Relations Council’s Making a Difference Every Day project).

Like their peers, the young people whose projects are detailed below display a generosity of spirit that is inspiring.

Noah Pensak (left) and Jacob Meyer donate books to the Ocotillo Learning Center library. (Courtesy Ocotillo Learning Center)

Noah Pensak shared his love of reading by collecting books for the library at Ocotillo Learning Center, a public school in the Sunnyside Unified School District

“I’m an avid reader. Being able to bring that same pleasure to others is fantastic,” Noah told the AJP.

The son of Catherine Pensak and Michael Pensak, Noah celebrated his Bar Mitzvah on March 5, 2011 at Congregation Anshei Israel. He worked on the book drive with a friend, Jacob Meyer, who celebrated his Bar Mitzvah at Anshei Israel one week later. The boys, now eighth graders at Tucson Hebrew Academy, have been friends since first grade. Their donation consisted of at least 50 books, says Noah, many of which were books of their own they’d outgrown. Others were purchased at Bookmans Entertainment Exchange.

Their gift moved the principal of Ocotillo Learning Center, Paul Ohm, to write to the AJP about the project.

“In these times of great challenges in our world, I think it is important to share when something so wonderful takes place. We at Ocotillo Learning Center are very proud of Noah and Jacob,” says Ohm, calling them “wonderful role models and outstanding citizens.”

The school, Ohm explains, serves children from birth to five years, many of them from low-income homes. Some of the students have developmental delays, but all of the classrooms are fully integrated.

On the day he and Jacob brought the books to the Ocotillo school, says Noah, all the classes assembled in the library. “It was so memorable to see all these kids sitting there, smiling,” he says. “It felt so good to hand over the books and we got to show some of the book titles to the kids.” They also visited a classroom where, he says, “it was really nice to see” differently-abled and “regular” kids sitting side by side, helping each other.

In addition to donating books to Ocotillo, Noah also helped out in the second grade classroom at Anshei Israel’s religious school. “I thought that I could help enrich the learning of Hebrew and Judaic studies,” he says. “I was fortunate enough to go to THA and have three classes a day devoted to Judaism.” Both the tutoring and the book drive, he says, are linked to his Haftorah, which was about giving back to the community. “I wanted to do something hands-on,” he says.

Rachel Levy’s project was also hands-on: she organized game times at the Pivirotto Family Library at Diamond Children’s Medical Center, where she also donated games and art supplies.

Rachel Levy (right) plays cards with Brenda Padilla and her sisters Keyra and Briana (not pictured), who were visiting a sibling at the Diamond Children’s Medical Center. (Courtesy Nanci Levy)

The daughter of Nanci and Doug Levy, Rachel celebrated her Bat Mitzvah at Temple Emanu-El on May 28, 2011.

Before the Diamond center was built, Rachel explains, she had been a patient at University Medical Center, being treated for complications from ulcerative colitis, so she knows a hospital is “not the most warm place for children.” Her goal in playing games with patients and their siblings was “to take their minds off the traumatic times they were in.”

Most of her interactions, Rachel says, were with patients’ family members. Seeing patients who were “so young and so dramatically ill” was a bit upsetting, she says, but she managed to see “the happy point of it, because I was making their stay there better.”

Tennis is Eli Soyfer’s game — he plays in the junior excellence program at Tucson Racquet Club — so his project was designed to help other kids play sports.

Eli Soyfer

Eli, the son of Dora Soyfer and Stan Soyfer, collected and donated several crates of sports equipment and clothes to Big Brothers Big Sisters of Tucson.

One inspiration for his project, says Eli, who celebrated becoming a Bar Mitzvah on Sept. 25, 2010 at Congregation Bet Shalom, was the way the community collects food and more for the needy before Rosh Hashanah.

Eli’s donation to Big Brothers Big Sisters included several of his old racquets. The racquet club and his classmates at THA also contributed items, from tennis clothes, racquets, grips, balls and shock absorbers to regular shorts and shirts. His family had previously given clothing to Big Brothers Big Sisters; putting this project together made him feel “like I was helping a lot,” says Eli.

Max Byrd
Hunter Byrd

Susan Byrd’s sons, Max and Hunter Byrd, may be identical twins, but the boys, who celebrated their B’nai Mitzvah on May 7, 2011 at Congregation Or Chadash, chose distinctly different mitzvah projects.

Max’s focus was on animals. He organized this year’s pet blessing at Or Chadash, which also served as part of his toy drive for the Humane Society of Southern Arizona, to which he donated about 75 dog and cat toys.

Max visits the Humane Society as often as possible, and can’t wait to turn 14 so he can volunteer there without his mother having to be present.

When he dropped off the toys, he says, he got to play “tug” with one of the dogs. “The dog was pretty excited to get the toy. The people there looked pretty happy that I gave them three boxes of toys.”

At home, Max has a basset-shepherd-Rottweiler-dachshund mix, Koda, who stands only about a foot high, but long like a dachshund and with a bark “like a massive, dark shepherd.” Max and his brother also have gerbils that are a “bright tannish color” named Fred and George — but not, Max insists, after the red-haired Weasley twins in the Harry Potter books.

Hunter’s project revolves around the topic of bullying. With the help of the Intermountain Center for Hu­man Development, he is arranging to speak at local elementary schools this fall about bullying from a child’s perspective.

His family moved to Tucson more than two years ago from Mississippi, Hunter explains, where he attended a “very horrible” school where bullying was rampant. Parents could even choose to have their children paddled for misbehavior, says Hunter, who was horrified to see the principal walk into the lunch room with a paddle in her hand.

Once in Mississippi, he says, he was bullied because he is Jewish —something he says the kids at his school knew nothing about. But kids were picked on for all kinds of reasons, he adds.

Hunter’s advice for kids who are being bullied is to go to an adult — the principal, a teacher or a parent — and let them know what is going on. “It always ends up well,” he says, but adds that “sometimes I just have to stand up for myself. Only verbally — I’m not a fighting person.”

Telling another kid “I don’t like this, can you please stop” does work sometimes, he says.

Now a student at Tucson Hebrew Academy, he says THA is not 100 percent free of bullying, but the one incident in which he was involved was handled diplomatically by a teacher. The smaller class size at THA also helps, he says.

Eliana Boling, whose multi-faceted mitzvah project focuses on feeding the needy, prepares a meal at home. (Courtesy Kim Boling)

Eliana Boling loves to cook and eat. Part of her mitzvah project has been creating a cookbook, “Kugels and Latkes and Briskets, Oh My: Favorite Jewish Recipes Compiled by Ellie Boling.”

The 150-recipe cookbook will be sold at the party for her Bat Mitzvah on Nov. 19, 2011, which she will celebrate with Congregation Chaverim, and will also be available at Chaverim. The proceeds will go to MAZON: A Jewish Response to Hunger. Ellie, the daughter of Kim and Tim Boling, has also been collecting money for MAZON (more than $1,100 so far) and volunteering once a week at the Casa Maria soup kitchen.

“I’m also learning about hunger issues in our community and around our nation,” she notes.

Ellie’s grandmother, Marcia Light, is editing the cookbook and Peter Marcus of Allegra Print and Imaging will provide the printing. Ellie painted the cover for the cookbook, which shows a pot with steam rising from it. Words written in the steam include b’tayavon, Hebrew for bon appétit, and two commandments about feeding the hungry and inviting guests into your house.

“My dad and I contributed a matzah pizza recipe and my mom and I contributed chocolate macaroons,” says Ellie. Some of her other favorites include a barbecue brisket from her grandmother and a cherry kugel from her great-grandmother, Betty Light.

While her whole family loves to cook, Ellie’s father influenced her project in another way. Tim manages the durable medical equipment program at Jewish Family & Children’s Services, which until recently was housed at the Community Food Bank. Visiting her father at work a year ago, she asked about all the people standing in line. When she was told they were waiting for food, “a light bulb went off for her,” says Tim.

In July, Ellie adds, she wrote to Sens. Jon Kyl and John McCain and Rep. Gabrielle Giffords, “talking about my mitzvah project and the importance of keeping places like Casa Maria open and having plenty of time and money being put forth to the program SNAP,” the federal Supplementary Nutritional Assistance Program, which replaced food stamps. She received a response “almost immediately” from Sen. Kyl, she says, in which he outlined proposed appropriations for child nutrition programs.

Ellie even plans to make the Kiddush after her Bat Mitzvah ceremony part of her mitzvah project. The centerpieces will be big jars of peanut butter and jelly, which will be donated to Casa Maria.

“I’ve grown up with good cooks in my family and I’ve been very well fed,” Ellie says. “My mom always jokes about a good Jewish mom always feeding her kids and her community. Obviously I’m not a mom, but feeding my community and making sure that everyone is well-fed and has food on their table every night has been a big issue of mine.”