In the spirit of infusing the ethic of tikkun olam, repairing the world, into the process of becoming B’nai Mitzvah, many synagogues now require their students to complete a mitzvah project in addition to learning Hebrew and chanting from the Torah. Students typically choose their own projects based on their talents and philanthropic interests and often interweave their service project narratives into their speeches after their Torah and Haftarah readings. The five B’nai Mitzvah profiled here pursued projects in such diverse areas as clean water access, education, visiting the elderly, healthcare support and aid for the homeless — just a few of the dozens of worthy projects undertaken by local students in the past year.
Aliya Markowitz, daughter of Ilana and Neil Markowitz, radiates the self-confidence of a woman beyond her 13 years. Inspired by her father’s work in environmental advocacy, for her mitzvah project she gave presentations and raised funds for a nonprofit organization called charity: water.
“We live in the desert, and we don’t take water for granted, but for 800 million other people around the world, access to clean water is a real problem,” she explains. Aliya stumbled across the nonprofit charity: water in an ad that preceded a YouTube video her grandmother sent. The nonprofit aims to build “sustainable, community-owned clean water projects around the world,” according to its website. Efforts are mostly centered in Africa, Asia and Central and South America.
Now a Tucson Hebrew Academy eighth grader, already looking forward to the end-of-year Israel trip, Aliya celebrated becoming a Bat Mitzvah on Sept. 21, 2013. She originally set a fundraising goal of $1,350. When asked about the specific number, she giggles. “I didn’t want to be generic and just aim for $1,000, so I decided to push myself. Why not add $300 extra and then an extra $50?”
After creating her fundraising page on the charity: water website, she gave three community presentations. The first was to her entire school assembly at THA. She was thrilled when one of her teachers decided to contribute and also helped her correct some of her writing online.
Second, she presented to her Congregation Chaverim B’nai Mitzvah class. The final presentation was to the community at Sonora Cohousing, where she lives with her family. “It definitely had the most impact of any of the presentations,” she says. “So many residents went home to do additional research on the organization and contributed to the cause.”
On a recent trip to the East Coast to visit family, she was able to visit the charity: water office in New York, “by far the coolest office I’ve ever seen!” she says.
Another reason Aliya is passionate about charity: water is its 100 percent model. “One hundred percent of all donations go directly to the field,” she explains. “All their staff and overhead costs are fundraised separately.”
Aliya exceeded her goal by raising $1,840. She is definitely interested in fundraising again. “I didn’t just want to raise money, but awareness too,” she says.
“I learned what an impact you can really have, and I realized that you can make a real difference.”
The difference she made will be tangible. Eighteen months after her donations are closed, charity: water will send Aliya and her donors the GPS coordinates of the clean water well their contributions helped to build.
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Maya Levy decided to make her mitzvah project global, too. The daughter of Nanci and Douglas Levy, Maya also attends THA. Maya stays busy throughout the school year; she is a secretary in student government, plays wing position on the THA girls’ basketball team and chants regularly with Project Ezra Torah Readers.
She first heard of “Girl Rising,” a documentary promoting girls’ education worldwide, from her sister and her friends who attended a screening at The Loft Cinema. She pounced at a chance to watch it when it aired on CNN. The Girl Rising website offers opportunities to host a screening, so she and her mother started making phone calls.
Ticket sales and donations from “Girl Rising” screenings benefit the Girl Rising Fund, which in turn distributes the funds equally among numerous worldwide nonprofit partners that operate girls’ education initiatives, scholarships, health care services and life skills training.
“The Loft wasn’t available because they’d already hosted a screening,” Maya explains, “so we went with the Crossroads Cinema on Grant and Swan.” To raise interest, Maya printed flyers and spoke to her family and friends. She sold over 100 tickets at $10 a head.
Maya provided a short presentation before the movie screening and hosted an after-party at Smashburger, which offered a 10 percent donation of any purchase toward the cause.
One story arc of the film that particularly touched Maya was about a destitute 5-year-old Haitian girl who survived the 2010 earthquake with her family. “She was so driven to learn, she kept showing up at school each day as the only girl, and they would turn her away. But she refused to let them. She said, ‘I’m going to learn,’ and finally the teacher let her stay.”
Maya, who celebrated her Bat Mitzvah on Feb. 15, 2014 at Temple Emanu-El, raised additional funds after presenting the film to the THA student body during the Passport to Peace organizational fair. “I enjoyed presenting and felt good inside. I wasn’t sure if I could make a difference, but I think I did,” she says. She and her mother even set up an educational display next to the kiddush table during her Bat Mitzvah celebration to keep spreading awareness. She recommends the bestsellers “I Am Malala” and “Half the Sky” to those hoping to learn more.
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Aaron Green, an Esperero Canyon Middle School eighth grader, shared Maya’s dedication to education.
Aaron has been involved with Jewish organizations in Tucson since he was small, from Camp Young Judaea to preschool at the Tucson Jewish Community Center and Sunday school at Congregation Anshei Israel. He took a different approach to his service project. “Instead of completing a formatted project through an organization, I wanted to volunteer with hands-on activities, so I looked at organizations which I already enjoy.” Aaron, the son of Rachel and Jonathan Green, decided to volunteer at Handmaker Jewish Services for the Aging and at his Sunday school at Anshei Israel.
When he approached Rabbi Robert Eisen at Anshei Israel as a volunteer, he was met with a bit of skepticism because he was only slightly older than the sixth grade students he’d be assisting. By the end of his volunteering, though, not only had he forged a closer relationship with his favorite Hebrew teacher, MeMe Aguila, but the rabbinical and office staff as well.
“I realized I’ve been [at Anshei Israel] from kindergarten through seventh grade, and I’d never done anything specific to help,” said Aaron, who celebrated becoming a Bar Mitzvah on Nov. 23, 2013. “It was rewarding to help with Hebrew class, set up games, help teams, teach conversational Hebrew and just help things run more smoothly.”
Aaron originally interacted with Handmaker through the Handmaker Youth Leadership Team. The group participated in quarterly events such as sukkah building, story recording and reading to residents. As a solo volunteer, though, Aaron built deeper relationships.
“I started out by playing pool with the residents, walking dogs, talking to people,” says Aaron, “but I also attended Friday night services with them and tried to recruit others as best I could. I counted toward a minyan, which is hard for them to gather. There are prayers you can’t say without a minyan, so I felt it was really important to be there.”
Of his service experience, Aaron says “it was nice to experience both the older side and the younger side of things. I’m only 13, so it was nice to see both sides.”
Besides volunteering, Aaron plays center defense with a US Youth Soccer team three days a week after school and serves as the president of his school’s National Junior Honor Society.
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Ben Rivera kept his Bar Mitzvah service project focused on local needs as well by baking regularly for Tucson’s Ronald McDonald House. Also an eighth grader at
Esperero Canyon, Ben baked for the Ronald McDonald House five times over a three-month period using handpicked recipes from his mother’s cookbooks.
“I didn’t have the resources to provide multiple meals because there are so many residents at a given time,” says Ben, the son of Rachel and Dennis Rivera, “so I decided to bake cookies, breakfast breads, muffins, that sort of thing, that residents could grab and go.”
His favorite item was his mom’s blueberry muffin recipe. The fresh pumpkin bread was another hit among the residents. Ben and his mother would bake in the early afternoon, after Sunday school and bring their own seasonal specialty ingredients to the Ronald McDonald House. Since one goal of the Ronald McDonald House is to give residents a taste of home during a stressful time, there are three standard home kitchens instead of a single, large industrial kitchen.
“I enjoyed the longevity of the project,” says Ben, “and I didn’t love cooking at home before. Now I’m much more efficient in the kitchen. It was fun.” Ben enjoyed the Ronald McDonald House. “It was such a nice place, it was never intimidating, even though the residents were going through stressful times.”
Recalling one particular family who traveled to Tucson from India, a mother staying to accompany her child’s treatment, he says, “I think I’m more grateful now. Not everyone can afford the care others can. This house can really help them out.”
Ben became a Bar Mitzvah on Nov. 9, 2013, at Congregation Or Chadash, where he’s attended religious school since kindergarten and now serves in the madrachim (teachers’ assistants) program. He taught himself two computer programming languages this summer and dreams of attending Harvard or Massachusetts Institute of Technology to pursue a career in computer science.
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Ariana Deitch kept her service project efforts local, too, to those most visible around her.
“There’s a man who panhandles on Swan and River so frequently, and he’s always so, so tan, and always there,” she says. “I just couldn’t keep passing him by and do nothing.”
For her mitzvah project, Ariana packed over 30 kits for the Tucson homeless community to distribute whenever she happened to be in a car driving by.
“Including water was an absolute must,” Ariana explains. “I also included plenty of non-refrigeration items like peanut butter crackers, mandarin orange cups, granola bars, sealed chicken salad and cracker kits and wipes.” She also included a map and phone number to Casa Maria Soup Kitchen, a Catholic-affiliated nonprofit, where anyone can receive a meal from 8:30 a.m. to 11:30 a.m. every day except Thanksgiving and Christmas.
“I just can’t stand the thought of homelessness here in Tucson. I had to do something,” says Ariana, the daughter of Valerie and Michael Deitch, who celebrated becoming a Bat Mitzvah July 5, 2014 at Congregation Bet Shalom.
The entire family helped to pack and distribute the bags. The man who’d inspired her service project received one, and his response was, “Thank you, G-d bless you.” Ariana would like to do more grassroots outreach in the future and possibly volunteer at a homeless shelter.
In addition to distributing bags, Ariana volunteered on weekends with the Therapeutic Ranch for Animals and Kids, a local nonprofit that aims to strengthen kids and community through animal interaction. Ariana loves to volunteer with animals and plans to continue in the future.
Ariana attends the Gregory School, where she is passionate about drama and plans to pursue acting as much as possible, starting with the year-end eighth grade play.
To find out more about the organizations these teens supported, visit any of the following websites: www.charitywater.org,
www.girlrising.com, www.hand maker.org, www.rmhctucson.org, www.casamariatucson.org and www.traktucson.org.
Sarah Chen is a freelance writer and blogger who lives with her husband and two children in Tucson.