Every year dozens of Tucson teens who turn 13 choose a cause to support — through deeds, funds or both — as they prepare for the ceremonies and celebrations that mark their coming of age as B’nai Mitzvah.
These mitzvah projects, as they’ve come to be known, assist a range of beneficiaries as diverse as the teens themselves. Over the past year, local mitzvah projects have included teaching origami to refugee children, volunteering at a no-kill cat shelter, collecting and donating books to literacy programs and a school library, organizing a bone marrow registry, playing music and cleaning for senior citizens, raising funds for medical research, and feeding firefighters and homeless people.
The AJP spoke with four of last year’s local celebrants about how they are helping others.
Gavin Cohen was inspired to raise funds for the Make-a-Wish Foundation of Arizona after the organization granted his cousin’s wish for a horse. When she was 6 years old, Trinity Hungerford was diagnosed with lymphoma, a type of blood cancer. The Make-a-Wish Foundation, which grants the wishes of children who have a life-threatening medical condition, arranged for her to have access to a horse for one year.
“I knew how much it meant to my little cousin to get her wish,” says Gavin, now an eighth grader at Esperero Canyon Middle School.
Gavin, the son of Lori and Russell Cohen, celebrated his Bar Mitzvah on Jan. 7, 2012 at Temple Emanu-El.
He included a letter with his Bar Mitzvah invitations explaining his goal and encouraging guests to donate to the cause. A representative from the Make-a-Wish Foundation of Arizona was at Gavin’s party to share information about the organization and collect donations.
Together with the funds he raised, Gavin added money he received as gifts for a total contribution of more than $2,500 — the level needed to provide a shopping spree for one child. Wishes are granted anonymously — the recipient and the donor do not know each other. But Gavin has the satisfaction of knowing that a child in Southern Arizona will get his or her wish.
For Gavin, the hardest part of his project was remembering how difficult it was for Trinity when she was sick with lymphoma. She is now healthy and the cousins last saw each other over the Fourth of July.
Benjamin Deitch also chose to support an organization that assisted a member of his family. Tu Nidito Children and Family Services helps children and families cope with a serious illness or death. After Benjamin’s grandmother passed away last year, counselors at Tu Nidito helped his younger sister with grief and mourning. This inspired Benjamin to raise funds for toys and other items that children need during counseling.
“If you’re sick or a loved one has died, you can go [to Tu Nidito] for free. It is a non-profit and people volunteer, including the counselors,” says Benjamin, the son of Valerie and Michael Deitch. He raised more than $700 as a participant in Tu Nidito Ride for a Child, part of the El Tour de Tucson bicycle race.
Ride for a Child cyclists receive information about the child each is sponsoring and have the opportunity to meet the children at a dinner held before the race. “My child did not attend, so I met a girl whose rider did not attend. She had the worst type of leukemia and it was spreading to her heart,” he says.
Benjamin celebrated his Bar Mitzvah at Congregation Anshei Israel on Dec. 10, 2011. He attends St. Gregory College Preparatory School.
This was his first time riding in El Tour and he biked 42 miles. When asked what he did to prepare for the race, Benjamin says, “I just got out there and rode on a really bad bike. My mom, dad and sister all rode, too, but I went ahead. My mom and sister did not finish, and I beat my dad by an hour.”
Although the race was challenging, it was a good experience, says Benjamin, and he might ride for a child again.
For her mitzvah project, Lily Peters works alongside refugees, gleaning fruit and vegetables through the Ishkashitaa Refugee Harvesting Network. After she volunteered with Ishkashitaa as a Girl Scout, Lily and her family decided to continue working with the organization.
Lily is the daughter of Tom Peters and Annette Hillman. She celebrated her Bat Mitzvah on Oct. 15, 2011 at Congregation Or Chadash.
At Ishkashitaa, volunteers work together with refugees to glean produce that would otherwise go to waste from urban gardens and rural farms. One day they may be picking lemons from a tree overflowing with fruit in the front yard of a Tucson home. Another day they may drive out to a farm near Willcox to harvest garlic, which they then hang up to dry. Once the produce is collected, volunteers distribute it to other refugees and help make tasty products, like prickly pear syrup, to sell at farmers’ markets.
Hillman says, “Their organization’s motto is ‘no fruit left behind.’ ”
Driving together to farms outside of Tucson gives the refugees a chance to practice their English. Lily says she enjoys hearing the stories of people who have fled Bhutan, Nepal, Sudan and other countries.
“I like to know where they’re from, what happened to them, how they got here,” says Lily, a freshman at Canyon Del Oro High School. “It’s a really great experience to get to know the refugees and to work physically.”
Since many of the refugees grew up in rural areas and were farmers, they enjoy the opportunity to help out on the farms that, in turn, donate their gleaned produce.
This practice of gleaning is a mitzvah in Jewish tradition. “When you reap your harvest in your field and forget a sheaf in the field, you shall not go back to get it; it shall be left for the stranger, the orphan, and the widow, so that the Lord your God may bless you in all your undertakings.” (Deuteronomy 24:19)
When asked what she has learned from her volunteer efforts, Lily says, “How hard work can actually benefit people besides you. And just knowing that your neighbors have food going to waste and that other people can use it — this opens my eyes to many things.”
Ezra Lyons, who celebrated his Bar Mitzvah at Congregation Chaverim on June 2, 2012, also chose a project that focuses on food, but from a very different perspective. Ezra, the son of Hilary and Patrick Lyons, was diagnosed with celiac disease at the age of five. Experiencing firsthand the difficulty of finding kid-friendly, gluten-free food when eating out, Ezra took it upon himself to change that situation, one restaurant at a time. He embarked on a letter-writing campaign to persuade local eateries to provide more gluten-free products that kids like him can enjoy.
“Since I was five I’ve had an allergy to gluten, which is in wheat, so during my life it’s been a struggle to eat certain things and get a good diet for my allergies. I decided to help other people who have to go through the same thing, so it’s not as hard for them,” says Ezra, who attends BASIS Tucson.
Although there is a growing awareness about the need for gluten-free menu items, Ezra says, “A lot of times you have adult choices like a salad, but kids’ menus usually have macaroni and cheese, burgers or pizza or something. So there’s usually nothing for a kid to eat at a restaurant that’s gluten free.”
Ezra’s efforts are being taken seriously. Robert Jensen, president of the local eegee’s sandwich chain, replied to Ezra’s letter, “You are a brave young man and I applaud your wonderful attitude. You make some good points. I have instructed my bakery manager to research how we can make gluten-free bread. It is letters like yours that good companies should listen to and make a decision one way or another.”
Jensen invited Ezra to tour eegee’s corporate headquarters. During the visit, Jensen said that the chain cannot currently offer gluten-free bread because of the cost, since they bake their bread daily. However, he did not rule out the possibility of providing it in the future, if there is enough demand. The private tour included lunch for Ezra and his guests, with eegee’s sandwiches on gluten-free rolls for Ezra and his brother Aodhan, who is allergic to wheat.
As a mentor for the Southern Arizona Celiac Support Group, Ezra guides other children with celiac disease. When eating out, he recommends ordering a burger without the bun, fish or anything that isn’t breaded. “Even though it’s sometimes really hard, you have to make sure that you keep away from wheat and look at ingredients for everything.”