Each year, caring and energetic 12- and 13-year-olds contribute immeasurably to the social action efforts of the Jewish community in Tucson and around the world. These B’nai Mitzvah students participate in a “mitzvah project,” as these endeavors have come to be known, adding another layer of meaning to the ancient rite of passage.
Over the past year, local mitzvah projects have included collecting food for the Community Food Bank and books for literacy programs, preparing meals for the homeless, creating a community garden at a school, helping with Shabbat services for seniors, gathering shoes for impoverished people around the world, playing with children who have special health needs, and raising funds for various causes, from Alzheimer’s research to a lift chair for the disabled at a local swimming pool.
Several young Tucsonans spoke with the AJP about the projects they undertook in the last year.
Operation Kidz for Vets, Ryan Ballis’ project, is rooted in a family history of military service that goes back generations.
“My dad was in the Air National Guard, I have two brothers in the Marine Corps right now, my dad’s dad was in the Air Force for 20 years and retired at Davis-Monthan, and his dad was in World War I in Europe. He became an American citizen for fighting for America in Europe, and he died in World War I,” says Ryan, the son of Tami and Mark Ballis, who became a Bar Mitzvah on Aug. 24 at Temple Emanu-El.
Ryan, who developed Operation Kidz for Vets with his family, has participated in several activities to help veterans and raise awareness of their needs.
At Tucson Homeless Connect on April 26, “I donated my day to help serve food to mostly regular homeless people,” he says. “But I also met a few vets that I saw with hats that read ‘Vietnam Veteran’ or ‘POW-MIA.’ I started to think honestly how lucky I am to have a home and to have a family and to have food. This experience truly changed me the most and created an imprint on my personality and on the way that I act.”
He also sold red, white and blue Operation Kidz for Vets wristbands at the Rucking for Veterans event at Colossal Cave Park on May 11, where airmen from Davis-Monthan ruck — march with heavy backpacks — to raise money for the Wounded Warrior Project.
For another big event, the Veterans Association Stand-Down, Ryan and his family created “150 bags of toiletries, snacks, and some essentials, like a pocket size can opener.” To fund the bags, he sold wristbands and held an Airsoft event for friends that raised $135. Airsoft, he explains, is a sport in which participants use replica firearms to hit each other with plastic pellets. “They do hurt but they don’t make you bleed unless you’re shirtless,” he assures.
Ryan plans to continue fundraising for the VA and the Wounded Warrior Project.
“Veterans have risked their lives for our freedom, for us to go to school, to work, and to live with pride of our country. They don’t deserve to live on the streets in poverty,” he says.
Julia Braun, daughter of Roxie and Jerry Braun, loves swimming, so creating a swimathon for the Multiple Sclerosis Association, which has an international “Swim for MS” fundraising campaign, was a natural. “It’s a good cause and it seems like a project we could get everyone to participate in,” says Julia, who became a Bat Mitzvah on Aug. 17 at Congregation Chaverim. She didn’t find out until the AJP contacted her that her father has a connection to someone with MS — the wife of a sports therapist he sees.
Julia has been swimming with the Tucson Country Club, her neighborhood swim team, since she was 6. On Labor Day, she held a swimathon with 11 participants. Julia, her father and another swimmer each completed 72 laps out of a possible 100, with other swimmers also contributing laps. Supporters can pledge anywhere from 10 cents to $1 per lap and swimmers can continue to add laps to reach 100 in any pool until Nov. 12. New swimmers can also join the effort, so Julia isn’t sure what her fundraising total will be, though she hopes to exceed $2,000 from the entire team.
People can register as swimmers or sponsor laps at www.mymsaa.org. Click on “Swim for MS” and sign up under Julia Braun or Team Mitzvah.
“It’s been great,” says Julia, “knowing that you’ve been able to help people while still having fun swimming.”
For his mitzvah project, Nathan Brown knew from the start he wanted to donate to a food bank. Rabbi Thomas Louchheim steered him toward Interfaith Community Services, where Congregation Or Chadash is one of several Jewish community partner congregations, rather than the larger Community Food Bank. Nathan, the son of Lenore Ballen and Howard Brown, became a Bar Mitzvah at Or Chadash on Aug. 10.
Nathan contributed around 200 pounds of food to ICS. The donations came from students at the Or Chadash religious school, he says, explaining that the class that brought in the most food would win a donut party. “That really inspired kids to ask their parents to bring in canned goods, pasta, everything that was nonperishable.” Bar Mitzvah guests also brought donations and the table decorations were baskets of food that were added to the contribution.
On a visit to ICS, Nathan was surprised by how little was actually on the food bank shelves. “I really felt moved to donate more,” he says.
He was also impressed with how well-organized the food bank is, enabling volunteers to easily assemble boxes for clients. “It’s a volunteer-run place, with only a few employees,” he notes.
Many kids help food banks for their mitzvah projects, says Nathan, but he noticed that their B’nai Mitzvah tend to fall near the winter holidays, when people contribute more to food drives. “In the summer,” he says, “they run low on food because nobody thinks about donating. They only think about donating in the giving season.”
As a separate part of his mitzvah project, Nathan played trumpet with the fifth-grade band at Sunrise Drive Elementary School and helped with class activities, took photographs, and helped students practice notes and rhythms. An avid musician since his own fifth-grade year, he hopes to get a music scholarship for high school or college, he says.
Sophia Isaac, daughter of Nina and Andrew Isaac, channeled her love of animals into her mitzvah project.
“I was volunteering at PetSmart with In the Arms of Angels. It’s a nonprofit organization that helps find homes for homeless animals,” she says. “I feel like this is a way to do a mitzvah while also having fun.” For her mitzvah project, she also raised funds for the dog and cat rescue organization.
Sophia became a Bat Mitzvah on April 20 at Congregation Anshei Israel. At her Bat Mitzvah party, she collected dog food and monetary donations, raising about $300.
The Isaac family also got a new dog through Sophie’s volunteer efforts.
“We had pretty recently lost a dog,” she explains, “and our other dog was very out of shape and very lonely.” Her father gave her a list of conditions for a new dog: not a puppy, house-trained, good with other dogs and children, doesn’t chew. The family took in Maggie, a mixed breed who’d been found on a beach in California, abused and neglected. When they first brought her home for a trial period, Maggie was well-behaved, says Sophie, but once she got comfortable, the “doesn’t chew” stipulation was history. “She’s really naughty. She eats everything,” says Sophia, clearly delighted with her new pet.