The b’nai mitzvah project has become an important part of the traditional coming of age ritual for many Jewish teens. Whether they volunteer in the local community or raise funds for a worthy cause, it’s a chance to exercise compassion and responsibility. Sometimes, it’s also a lesson in flexibility, when the project a teenager first envisions must be revised, or a new opportunity presents itself. Here, some local teens share their b’nai mitzvah project journeys.
Nathan Daniel Cherkis, who celebrated becoming a bar mitzvah on March 3, 2018, with Congregation Anshei Israel, had hoped to volunteer at his elementary school helping kids to read. As it turned out, despite many attempts, he wasn’t able to set up a meeting with the principal. “I know that there is a lot on the plate for the principal,” he says. When that plan didn’t pan out, he decided to volunteer at the Jewish thrift store, 1st Rate 2nd Hand, where he spent time organizing inventory and helping customers. Each year, the thrift store’s profits are divided among Jewish community organizations, based on volunteer hours.
Nathan, the son of Brenda Frye and Sergey Cherkis, also helped set up some of the Himmel Park runs, a weekly 5K run organized by and for runners for their own enjoyment.
Nathan’s sister, Abigail Claire Cherkis, a year and a half his junior, celebrated her bat mitzvah on Oct. 20, 2018. Abigail raised money by playing the violin at Barrio Bread on New Year’s Day, and at the 4th Avenue Street Fair. She also sold homemade fruit-ades while her family was visiting a friend in Berkeley, California. Her original intent was to donate the money to a cancer organization, she says, taking a cue from a friend’s mitzvah project. But after Hurricane Maria devastated Puerto Rico, her mother says, “we diverted funds” to the Jewish Federations of North America’s hurricane relief fund, responding to a more immediate need.
Nathan and Abigail remain strongly connected to Anshei Israel, adds Brenda, as a madrich and a madrich-in-training, respectively, teen leaders who serve as b’nai mitzvah tutors, lead Shabbat services, and facilitate youth programs.
Evan Benton Gilmore, the son of Dana and Jeff Gilmore, celebrated his bar mitzvah with Congregation Chaverim on Feb. 3, 2018.
“It was important to me to do something for veterans,” says Evan, who raised funds for Honor Flight, an organization that pays for flights, room, and board for World War II, Korean War, and Vietnam veterans to visit the war memorials in Washington, D.C. He and his family researched other nonprofits that serve veterans, he says, but were especially impressed by Honor Flight. “I liked how it directly related to World War II and the Holocaust,” he adds. While he does have grandfathers who served in the military, he says, “it always kind of spoke to me, just being that selfless. I always wanted to do something for veterans to show my gratitude.”
Evan used social media as part of his fundraising, and also spoke to relatives and friends of his family, raising a total of $700.
Davis Michael Yalen, son of Ilene and Allen Yalen, also was inspired to help veterans by raising money for the Wounded Warrior Project. “My dad was in the Navy and he got injured in the service,” says Davis, who celebrated becoming a bar mitzvah at Temple Emanu-El on Oct. 21, 2018. “I saw on a commercial one day that Wounded Warriors needed donations, and I thought that’d be cool to do for a bar mitzvah project.” Allen had served in Operation Desert Storm against Iraq in 1991, and hurt his knee during that deployment. He was stationed in San Diego when a cyst in his knee burst, leading to infection, 11 operations and a medical discharge.
Davis, who attended Tucson Hebrew Academy, did his fundraising as part of THA’s Passport to Peace program, an annual event where local organizations and students promote various charities. Students get tokens pre-purchased by their families, which they use to donate to one or more charities. “I made a big poster and did a lot of research,” he says. “I got $200 and sent that in to Wounded Warriors.”
Alex Stephen Rosenblum, who celebrated his bar mitzvah on Jan. 26, 2019 with Congregation Or Chadash, helped with Shabbat services at Handmaker Jewish Services for the Aging.
“I wanted to gain confidence, to help me for leading services in front of a bigger group for my bar mitzvah,” he says.
“I wanted to spend my time with older people — I like hanging around them,” adds Alex, the son of Elka Eisen and Lenny Rosenblum. He explains that his last experience with a grandparent was when he was 3 years old; his one remaining grandparent, who doesn’t live locally, suffers from dementia.
Alex is part of Or Chadash’s eighth- grade madrich-in-training program, observing how the staff works and learning from the cantor how to teach Torah cantillation, so he can be a tutor next year as a madrich.
Skylar Naomi Dehnert, daughter of LeeAat and John Dehnert, celebrated becoming a bat mitzvah on March 9, 2019, with Congregation Or Chadash. She also helped out with Shabbat services at Handmaker.
“It was a fun thing to do,” says Skylar, who went to Handmaker on Fridays after school for about six months. “I met a couple of the residents and got to know them a bit.
“I liked leading services when I was preparing for my bat mitzvah. They weren’t very long services, so they were easy to fit in with a big schedule,” adds Skylar, an athlete who participates in swim, volleyball, and track. “But it still was something that I felt that I was contributing to the community.”