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Local teens bring passion, talent and caring to b’nai mitzvah projects

David Jurkowitz plays piano for residents of Handmaker Jewish Services for the Aging on Sept. 22. [Courtesy Lisa Jurkowitz)

For Jewish teens, a bar or bat mitzvah project is an opportunity to learn more about their responsibilities as Jewish adults. It’s a  hands-on way to learn the meaning of tikkun olam (repairing the world), and serve the community in personally meaningful ways. Several Tucson Jewish teens shared with the AJP how they identified their projects, experienced the rewards of contributing, and, in some cases, forged lasting connections with members of the Jewish community.

David Jurkowitz, son of Dan and Lisa Jurkowitz, became a bar mitzvah on Oct. 10, 2015, at Congregation Anshei Israel. For his bar mitzvah project, he played piano for residents of Handmaker Jewish Services for the Aging. Now a 10th-grade student at Basis Tucson North, Jurkowitz has played since childhood, and participates in the Tucson Symphony Young Composers’ project — so when it came to a bar mitzvah project, his thoughts turned naturally to playing music.

And, he says, “I wanted to do something with a direct impact on people … I thought Handmaker would be perfect.”

What began as a bar mitzvah requirement in 2014 has since developed into a long-term commitment and a fulfilling relationship with Handmaker residents.

“I go every two to three weeks,” he says. “It’s really cool to see the smiles on their faces. They’re so grateful and happy that a young person comes and plays for them.” Playing for residents with Alzheimer’s is especially rewarding, he says. “One would get up and dance with her walker. It was beautiful. And she would sing along.”

David plays classical music and improvisation, along with Jewish tunes and a sprinkling of Klezmer music. He donated his childhood piano to Handmaker, and last year he joined the Jewish Federation of Southern Arizona’s intergenerational Tracing Roots program at Handmaker, in which teens and residents trace their ancestry and share memories.

“I started playing on Friday nights, right before services,” he says. “I get called up to lead a couple of prayers, and then I get to eat with the residents.”

He’s encountered, and learned to accept, some realities of intergenerational friendships. “At the first Tracing Roots meeting, I walked one of the residents up to her apartment and gave her a hug. Next time I came, she’d passed away. I didn’t expect it.” One resident is 102, he adds, on a happier note. “She’s doing great.”

David also plays piano at the University of Arizona Cancer Center with a group of school friends, who will join him playing at Handmaker, starting in November.

“It started out as a bar mitzvah project, but I think it’s grown. My bar mitzvah came and went, and I thought, ‘I don’t want to stop. I want to keep going.’ ”

Noah Fleisher, left, measures a saguaro in Saguaro National Park West’s Box Canyon on Feb. 27, 2016 as part of the park’s Centennial Saguaro Survey. [NPS)

Noah Zvi Fleisher, son of Andrea and Jason Fleisher, has a passion for wildlife and the environment. When researching a project for his May 7, 2016, bar mitzvah at Congregation Or Chadash, he was excited to discover and participate in Saguaro National Park’s Centennial Saguaro Survey.

The 70-year-old survey is conducted once every decade. Under the guidance of park rangers and scientists, local students help measure and count saguaros in designated areas, and observe their condition. The accumulated data assist in studying their response to weather, climate and environmental changes, Noah explains. “We would measure their height, and look if they were damaged in any way, if there were [invasive] insects, or if part of them had been frozen during winter.”

As a University High School freshman, Noah is taking a class in environmental science, and is considering a future career related to wildlife and conservation. Participating in the survey offered a real-life demonstration of the importance of conservation — and, he says, taught him more about what can be done by those who care.

“A few of the people were there the last time the survey was done,” he says. “There was a certain saguaro that was there last time — it was really tall — they noticed it was dead.” Such long-term data provide scientists with information about changes in health and growth patterns, he says. For instance, “They don’t know a lot about the effects on the saguaro of global warming, but they will be able to see what’s happening.”

He’s also concerned about the welfare of wildlife in an increasingly urban landscape. Some efforts have been successful, he says, like the wildlife bridge that now spans North Oracle Road. “I read an article about it before my bar mitzvah,” he says. “I thought it was really interesting how it helps wildlife cross the street safely.”

But, says Noah, when it comes to wildlife and environmental protection, “I think a lot more could be done than what is happening right now.” And, he points out, since “trees take carbon dioxide from the atmosphere,” nature is vital to our own survival. The destruction of forest lands and other natural habitats leaves “less and less for wildlife,” he says. “There used to be a lot jaguars living in this area, when the city was a lot smaller. Now there are just a few left.” 

Lyle Tumarkin, bottom right, and friends participate in the American Cancer Society Relay for Life at Empire High School in Vail, held May 15-16, 2015. [Courtesy Joanna Norman}

Lyle Yi Tumarkin, daughter of Joanna Norman and Paul Tumarkin, is a 9th-grader at Empire High School in Vail. She celebrated becoming a bat mitzvah on Jan. 30, 2016, with Congregation Chaverim. For her bat mitzvah project, she raised money for cancer research through the American Cancer Society’s Relay for Life program.

Participating teams set up an overnight camp and take turns walking on a track all night to symbolize the fact that cancer never sleeps, she explains. “One of my best friends at the time, her dad had cancer, and I thought it would be really cool to do something to help. I’m a gymnast, so I liked the idea of doing a physical activity.”

Friends and family supported her team. “During the year, we raised money, and then we went to my high school and camped out,” says Lyle. “At the beginning they have a survivor lap, where a bunch of survivors walk. My grandfather had cancer, and he walked.”

Fundraising continued as a succession of walkers took to the track. “We had food you could buy: Some people brought Eegees, or baked goods, and we had games and competitions,” says Lyle. Together, she and her team raised almost $2,000. “People were really supportive and helpful,” she says.

The walk wasn’t her first experience with a bat mitzvah project. Ann, her older sister, helped raise guide dog puppies for the Paws for the Cause 4-H guide dog club, and the whole family has since become involved. For the past year, they’ve hosted and helped train a future guide dog, and will soon begin raising a new puppy. Lyle also serves as secretary on the board for Paws for the Cause.

Helping in the community is more than just part of becoming a bat mitzvah, she says. “There’s a lot going on in the world, so it just feels really good to help other people ­— and it feels good knowing that you’re going to make a difference in someone else’s life.”

Niles King and his mother, Sloan R. King, are flanked by Holocaust survivors Mike Bokor and Erika Dattner at Niles’ bar mitzvah on July 30, 2016 at Temple Emanu-El. [Courtesy Sloan King)

Niles Rendleman King, son of Sloan R. King, Ph.D., CRC, celebrated becoming a bar mitzvah on Saturday, July 30, 2016, at Temple Emanu-El. Some months earlier, he’d met two Holocaust survivors, and he decided to devote his bar mitzvah project to creating an iMovie to preserve their stories.

He met Erika Dattner and Mike Bokor, both originally from Budapest, Hungary, through an activity at Tucson Hebrew Academy, where he was a student.

“We sent out Rosh Hashanah cards to Holocaust survivors,” he says. The names were randomly selected, but to his surprise, he heard back from Dattner and Bokor. “They lived in SaddleBrooke. The minute she called, Erika asked if we could meet.”

His mother took him to meet the two survivors, who at the time were a couple, and a family friendship developed. “We’ve even become friends with Erika’s children and grandchildren in Minneapolis,” Sloan says. “It turns out they lived four blocks from us when we lived in Minnesota, but we didn’t know each other until after Niles began his project.”

It took a year and many visits to interview both survivors and complete the project, says Niles, now in 9th grade at Ironwood Ridge High School. In his movie, their stories are interwoven with music, along with past and present photos of Dattner and Bokor.

“They were lost children,” says Niles. “Erika was hidden in an orphanage, and Mike escaped the Nazis.” In the iMovie, Bokor describes being arrested after curfew and taken to Nazi headquarters, where he was beaten. He also mentions his release by a sympathetic Nazi, later rumored to have been a blond, blue-eyed Jew.

While making the movie, Niles extensively researched the Holocaust. “I gained a lot of knowledge on the Holocaust and what it’s like to go through it,” he says. In the process, he acquired a new appreciation of the freedom to practice Judaism. “I’m thankful,” he says. “The Nazis wanted to get rid of the Jews, [but today] you can have a bar mitzvah, and not get harmed, or made fun of for it.

“I think everyone’s story should be heard,” he says. “Other people should record them … so we don’t forget them.”

To view Niles’ iMovie, visit tinyurl.com/ybsrowky.

Kaye Patchett is a freelance writer and editor in Tucson.

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