Young teenagers at Tucson synagogues work hard to prepare for their b’nai mitzvah ceremonies. In addition to learning to chant Torah and Haftorah, and prepare and deliver a sermon, these motivated young people commit hours and energy to charitable causes in their community and beyond. In a spirit of tzedakah (charity) and tikkun olam (repair of the world), these teens dedicate themselves to a b’nai mitzvah project, which has in recent years become an integral part of the life cycle event.
The Arizona Jewish Post spoke with five Tucson teens who engaged in a variety of projects in the past year: creating artworks for peace, education and ritual beautification; fundraising for synagogue capital improvements; therapy dog handling; and raising money to help children with asthma.
Roxanne Frankenberg, daughter of Viviana and Nathan Frankenberg, became a bat mitzvah in January 2014 at Congregation Bet Shalom. She chose a project that was close to heart and home: raising funds for capital improvements at her synagogue. “We’ve been treated like family at Bet Shalom,” says the 13 year old, “and I feel like I had a very full experience that encouraged me to dig deeper and learn more about Judaism. I wanted my b’nai mitzvah project to be my thank you to my congregation.”
Roxanne, an honor student at Coronado K-8 School, and a member of the National Junior Honor Society, posted an essay on an announcement board at Bet Shalom, explaining her desire to raise money for playground and Hebrew school improvements. She pledged to donate 10 percent of any gift money she received back to the synagogue. Roxanne volunteers on Sundays at Bet Shalom as a teacher’s aide. “I like working with the younger kids,” she says. “It’s another way of giving back.”
Henry Abrams, son of Ted and Lisa Abrams, had difficulty choosing a bar mitzvah project. The 14-year-old Catalina Foothills freshman brainstormed for some time until his mother suggested he look into becoming a therapy dog handler. Henry, who became a bar mitzvah in November 2014 at Temple Emanu-El, says, “I realized that I couldn’t remember a time that I didn’t have dogs. I’ve had 16 dogs in my life and right now we have seven dogs at home. So I was very open to checking out what it would take to become a therapy dog handler.”
What is involved, Henry explains, is attending a series of six Sunday classes organized through the Humane Society of Southern Arizona, followed by a written exam and a performance test. As a therapy dog handler Henry has donated time and energy in settings where, he says, “I was really happy to show people how much fun it is to work with dogs.” Henry brought his dog Penelope to the Tucson Festival of Books where children were delighted to read to Henry’s pet. He attended a semi-pro soccer game at the Football Club of Tucson to help raise funds for the Humane Society. At an Arizona Diamondbacks game in Phoenix, Henry participated in “A Walk on the Field” event where he and other handlers entertained the crowd with their dogs. “We went around left field where the low barrier made it possible for people to reach over and pet our dogs. I think that a lot of the fans really appreciated that,” he says.
The most sustained part of Henry’s bar mitzvah project is the regular visits he makes to Devon Gables Rehabilitation Center on Tucson’s east side with Penelope. “It really made an impact on me,” Henry explains. “I saw people’s faces light up with smiles when we came in — and they weren’t just smiling at Penelope, but at me too. And that made me feel good.”
Henry, an avid basketball player with the Tucson Magic, also works out regularly at a cross fit gym, where last summer he was a counselor-in-training for younger children. He continues to make monthly visits at Devon Gables and says that volunteering at a residence where so many of the residents are wheelchair bound “makes me appreciate how lucky I am to be walking and running around. ”
A love of art and color motivated Sophie Bergantino, 13, to choose a series of bat mitzvah projects. Sophie is the daughter of Tamar and J.R. Bergantino and became a bat mitzvah in May 2015 at Congregation Or Chadash. “I’ve always had art in my life,” she explains, “and I decided that for my bat mitzvah project I wanted to help less fortunate kids have a chance to enjoy art, too.”
An eighth-grader at the Gregory School, Sophie decided to raise money for OMA — Opening Minds through the Arts — a project at Tucson Unified School District. OMA uses instrumental music, opera, dance, theater and visual arts to help teach reading, writing, math and science to children in kindergarten through eighth grade.
Sophie created artwork to raise funds for OMA. She exhibited her work in the art fair at the Tucson Jewish Community Center last December where she sold her original polymer clay charms. The money she earned inspired her to continue raising funds for OMA while learning a new skill set. She attended classes at the Sonoran Glass School where she learned how to make small plates, vases and decorative pieces in glass. With her family’s help, Sophie organized a silent auction of her artwork at her bat mitzvah party. Sales boosted her fundraising significantly but Sophie still had more ideas.
While attending High Holiday services at Or Chadash in 2014, Sophie noticed that the ner tamid — the “eternal light” placed over the ark in a congregation — looked like a desk lamp. “I decided right there that I wanted to create a beautiful ner tamid for the congregation,” she explains, “as a way of saying thank you for helping me to become a bat mitzvah.” Sophie blew the glass and created a new light that she says, “came out amazing.” She adds that at Rosh Hashanah services this year she saw the new ner tamid on the ark and “it made me really happy.”
Noah Richter, son of Allison and Michael Richter, became a bar mitzvah at Congregation Chaverim in May 2015. Noah is an eighth-grader at Doolen Middle School, where he is in the gifted and talented program and is a member of the National Junior Honor Society.
Noah chose a project that would help kids with asthma attend summer camp, partly due to his own personal challenge with asthma. He recalls how scared he was as a 7-year-old at summer camp, when he found it so difficult to breathe that staff had to rush him off to the hospital. Despite the bad experience, Noah says, “I still really like summer camp and so I wanted to incorporate that into my bar mitzvah project. Because I know that lots of families can’t afford summer camp, I wanted to do something to help them, especially the kids with asthma.”
A friend suggested he look into Camp Not-A-Wheeze, located in Prescott, Ariz. Run by the American Lung Association, the camp provides Arizona children who have moderate to severe asthma a protected yet traditional summer camp experience. “We contacted the director of the camp,” says Noah, “and asked how we could help.” From that conversation came Noah’s bar mitzvah project goal: sponsoring four Arizona kids’ summer experience at the camp.
Noah and his family placed an article in Chaverim’s newsletter asking for support. They also created a webpage through the American Lung Association where people can easily donate to the cause. “Lots of congregational families gave us money,” says Noah, “and it helped that we sent out a lot of emails and promoted my project on Facebook, too. We raised enough money to sponsor two kids next summer (2016). The webpage is still up and people can continue to donate.”
Noah says it was very meaningful to him that he and his father chanted the same Torah portion for their b’nai mitzvah. He enjoyed writing a speech with the theme of “we all have work to do and should try to do it well.”
Jillian Cassius became a bat mitzvah at Congregation Anshei Israel in November 2014. She is the daughter of Jennifer and Mark Cassius and a freshman at Catalina Foothills High School. Jillian, 14, has been studying dance for the past six years and knew that her b’nai mitzvah project would be something related to the arts. “When I was brainstorming for a project,” she explains, “I was at Camp Ramah in California and I was very concerned about the security situation in Israel, especially because of our family living there. So when I came home I contacted the Jewish Federation in Tucson and they referred me to Oshrat.”
Oshrat Barel, the director of the Weintraub Israel Center, told Jillian about an art project called Netiv L’Shalom (The Path to Peace). Israeli artist Tsameret Zamir, who runs Netiv L’Shalom, paints on the border wall dividing Israel from Gaza. She embellishes her paintings with tiles decorated by people from all over the world. “I really liked that the project has a theme of peace,” says Jillian, “and that the artwork is visible on both sides of the wall. Most of the tiles have images painted on them and the word ‘peace’ is used a lot, written out in Hebrew, Arabic and English.” Jillian ordered 100 kiln fired and ready-to-paint tiles from Netiv L’Shalom.
She brought the tiles to Congregation Anshei Israel, where students from kindergarten through eighth grade participated in the tile painting. “We bought all the paint and other supplies and I thought that if the kids got to choose their own designs they’d probably get them done quickly,” says Jillian. “I was really happy to see that the kids were taking their time and tried to make the artwork as beautiful as they could.”
In reply to a query by the AJP, Zamir wrote, “The project brings much hope and joy to our area. The visitors write a wish of their heart on the back of the piece before gluing it to the wall, and we hope that the many wishes will come true for a better, happier and safer world.”
Jillian shipped the painted tiles back to Israel where members of the Tucson-Israel Partnership attached them to the wall, mounting the messages of peace from Tucson children with those of thousands of others from all around the world.
Renee Claire is a freelance writer and editor in Tucson.