B'nai mitzvah project

Kori teaches Ethiopian Jews in Israel how to crochet as part of her mitzvah project. This type of experiential project is an example of what the Jewish Community Mitzvah Project hopes to inspire, although the guide the committee is planning will have more of an emphasis on local Jewish organizations.

When it comes time for b’nai mitzvah students to select a mitzvah project, there are many organizations that can benefit from the students’ community service efforts.

A mitzvah project is often required by a synagogue as part of the bar or bat mitzvah preparation. The intent is to teach children about the responsibilities of Jewish adulthood and encourage the values of tikkun olam.

One group of volunteers has introduced a new initiative that would provide b’nai mitzvah students with the resources for selecting a mitzvah project that serves a need in the Valley’s Jewish community.

In April, the Jewish Community Mitzvah Project sent letters to local rabbis, Jewish day schools and religious school directors asking for their participation in the initiative. The effort is facilitated by the Jewish Federation of Greater Phoenix, which received a supplemental donation toward this effort to engage the next generation.

The letter included excerpts from a 2015 JTA op-ed about teaching children to support Jewish causes, written by Rabbi Jeffrey K. Salkin, author of “Putting God on the Guest List: How to Reclaim the Spiritual Meaning of Your Child’s Bar or Bat Mitzvah.”

“Over the last decade, bar/bat mitzvah projects have been decreasingly Jewish in their focus and intent,” Salkin said in the article. “Mitzvah projects are far more likely to be focused on healing disease or addressing environmental concerns or raising money for disadvantaged kids.”

The piece emphasized that if Jewish children aren’t taught to give and volunteer Jewishly, they won’t learn how, and those outside the Jewish community are unlikely to support Jewish organizations. “Jewish giving, like any kind of moral engagement, is a muscle,” Salkin wrote. “If you don’t develop the muscle, it atrophies.”

A similar letter was sent to Valley Jewish organizations in late May, asking for mitzvah project ideas. Organizations are encouraged to not only submit ideas for current volunteer opportunities they offer, but also for ideas that could be done independently or through a different organization.

Once the potential mitzvah project volunteer opportunities are collected from Jewish organizations, they will be compiled into a printed booklet that rabbis and Jewish educators can present to students at the beginning of their bar or bat mitzvah process. An online version is also being planned.

The projects will have an emphasis on local, experiential projects, according to Jennifer Schwarz, who is co-chairing the Jewish Community Mitzvah Project committee with Rachel Heimnick and Sandee Levine.

For instance, if a student wants to enhance the lives of local Jewish seniors, activities could include performing at senior facilities, delivering meals for Shabbat or holidays or building a sukkah.

The booklet will also offer ideas for independent projects, such as planning a walk against hate or anti-Semitism or spending time with a local Holocaust survivor.

The booklets will also be available to Jewish families as a resource for Jewish community service projects and will include post-b’nai mitzvah opportunities for students to connect to the local Jewish community, such as Jewish youth groups, learning opportunities and Israel programs.

“Jewish engagement really only gets started when a teen becomes a bar/bat mitzvah,” Schwarz wrote in an email. “There has been an uptick in teen participation in Jewish youth groups and Jewish clubs on high school campuses in the Valley. We want to make sure our teens know what is out there, whether it is social, leadership development, social action or continuing Jewish education.”

The booklets are scheduled to be available for students by the end of August.

Several organizations have already signed up to become partners, including the Valley of the Sun Jewish Community Center, the Jewish Community Foundation of Greater Phoenix and several synagogues.

“Jews giving meaningfully to Jewish causes may start with a simple mitzvah project,” reads the letter that went out to organizations. “Help us help your organization and to ‘keep the chain of Jewish giving intact’ by participating in this important community project.” JN

Organizations can submit volunteer opportunities at tinyurl.com/jewishmitzvahorg through June 23. For more information, contact jewishmitzvahproject@jewishphoenix.org.