Jewish& is a blog by Be’chol Lashon, which gives voice to the racial, ethnic and cultural diversity of Jewish identity and experience. The original multicultural people, Jews have lived around the world for millennia. Today, with globalism and inclusion so key in making choices about engaging in Jewish life,Jewish& provides a forum for personal reflection, discussion, and debate.
On my 7th birthday, I got a Tropical Barbie Doll. You know the one where the swimsuit changed colors in the water? My mom and I lived in a not-so-great place, in a not-so-great area in North Carolina. A few months before, my mom sold our car to pay bills. Now her only transportation was a bike. I remember my mom hopping on it going to the nearest store, (a 7-11) and bringing back my gift. I loved the heck out of that doll and spent hours getting her wet, watching the swimsuit change while drying off then repeat.
This birthday stands out amongst the several throughout the years. My birthdays were never really parties, cakes or piles of gifts. We didn’t have money for that. I never knew how bad it was until I was older and realized how other families celebrated.
Fast forward 30 plus years and I am now the mother of two girls born 10 years and 24 days apart in the same month, October. We celebrate with family trips to water parks, Disney or resorts. My daughters would never question if they would be able to celebrate their birthdays. Instead, it’s always been, what will we do this year?
When my oldest daughter turned 11, we realized that not only did we need to start planning her bat mitzvah but also her service project. We didn’t have a clue what we would do. My husband and I wanted her to engage in a Mitzvah Project that was long term and involved helping others. So, we researched and found The Birthday Giving Project.
The Birthday Giving Project is all about kids helping kids have an amazing birthday. Jordy would create “Party in a bag”: for underprivileged kids. Each bag contained a book, a toy, cake mix, frosting, and candles. I thought, “ok this is great,” but I recalled being one of those kids that got the “charity bag” for the holidays. I remember excitedly opening the gift and finding a dusty puzzle, or a book on cars. I would smile and say “Thank you,” but inside I was cringing. I could always tell it was an item that someone had lying around and just threw it together. The adults expected me to be grateful and thank them for their generous gift. I hated that feeling, and I didn’t want any kid to feel as I did.
Using those memories as inspiration, Jordy and I took it one step further. We asked Family to Family to link us up with a local organization, the Boys and Girls Club. They agreed to email us five children’s likes, hobbies, music choices, interests, etc. every month until Jordy’s bat mitzvah (15 months away). We would create personalized birthday bags for them and drop. It didn’t matter what the child was into, we would make it happen. Beatles? Pokémon? Baking? Knitting? One Direction? No problem.
We spread the word about our project, and friends and family donated gift cards, cake mix, and frosting. Eventually, our temple got involved and for Mitzvah Day 2016 we created an additional 50 personalized bags. Altogether with Jordy’s project and Mitzvah Day, we gave out over 120 bags! We created a banner, gluing every thank-you card and hung it up during Jordan’s service. The best part was reading the cards from the kids. They were in awe that strangers cared about what they liked and wanted. The project was a success.
I am happy to say that we are doing the Birthday Project again for Mitzvah Day May 7th, 2017. This time our goal is 100 bags. The recipients will be children from a local school where 80 percent of the student population lives below the poverty line. It’s a tall order, but I know our community will pull together and make it happen. Upon learning about our project, a temple member said, “Maybe by doing this we are giving children hope. Hope that they can have a bright future. By giving something that they want, we are planting seeds in the next generation to continue the good works, the mitzvot.”
I like that idea. I imagine in 20 years a reading about a scientist that has discovered THE cure. Maybe she will talk about as a child she received birthday bag from the community and it contained a chemistry set. How this ignited her passion for science and inspired her to change the world. I know this may be far-fetched…. but I kind of like the idea, don’t you?