Putting the 'Mitzvah' Back into Bar and Bat Mitzvah

Mitzvah projects are becoming part of the bar/bat mitzvah observance and are changing lives in the process.

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Reprinted with permission from Jewish Family and Life: Traditions, Holidays, and Values for Today's Parents and Children, published by Golden Books.

Tikkun olam, repair of the world, is now the buzzword circulating through bar and bat mitzvah celebrations. Mitzvah, after all, refers to our obligations toward God and toward other human beings. Believing that there is something special about becoming a bar/bat mitzvah--something bigger than the party afterward--students across the country are taking on socially responsible community projects, such as collecting clothing or canned foods, giving money to charities, or planting trees in Israel.

bar/bat mitzvah projectsEveryone has heard of bar and bat mitzvah parties where street performers and people in costume are hired to entertain the guests, 12- and 13-year-old children arrive in limousines, and the mother of the bar mitzvah boy changes her outfit every time a new course of dinner is served. Although a certain amount of ostentation will always be with us, there is evidence that the days of splashy, flashy, flamboyant celebrations may be on the decline.

Personal Experiences with Mitzvah Projects

When Michael Vidmar of Gaithersburg, Maryland, became a bar mitzvah in 1993, he decided to give the money he received as gifts to the B'nai B'rith flood relief fund. "I was sick about the materialistic greed surrounding my bar mitzvah and I was ashamed of it," he said. "I didn't think I deserved the amounts of money I was receiving, and I felt it was taking away from the religious experience." Michael did know that he wanted to help other people, and that is why he decided to donate his money to the relief fund.

Alison Stieglitz, now 22, became a bat mitzvah nine years ago. Instead of expensive flower arrangements, she placed baskets filled with food in the center of each table at her party. These baskets would then be donated to the local United Way. "I thought that becoming a bat mitzvah was part of taking on adult responsibilities," Alison says. "Since my bat mitzvah was around the time of Thanksgiving and I was receiving a lot of gifts, I wanted to give something back to the community. I wanted to contribute."

Ilana Gildenblatt, 14, from Cincinnati, Ohio, is also making a difference. Her synagogue, Temple Sholom, required her to participate in a family mitzvah project before she became a bat mitzvah last year. She knew she wanted to involve others and raise money for Cincinnati Dreams Come True (a program similar to the Make-a-Wish Foundation). So Ilana organized a three-mile "mitzvathon." Inviting family and friends to participate, she helped raise $1,500.

Alexandra Alper, 13, from Rockville, Maryland, says, "I felt that part of becoming a bat mitzvah meant doing a good deed." Alexandra collected close to 900 toiletries from neighbors, dentists, beauty salons, supermarkets, and hotels. All were donated to a women's shelter in Washington, D.C. Alexandra plans to continue her collections by placing a donation box in her synagogue for people to make contributions throughout the year.

The World's Three Pillars

The bar/bat mitzvah program at Indianapolis Hebrew Congregation is based on the principle that the world stands on three pillars: Torah learning, divine service (worship and ritual), and deeds of lovingkindness. Students are expected to do 26 mitzvot that fall within these three categories.

Cantor Janice Roger wants her students to see the connections among these three pillars and to have a full understanding of mitzvot. She points out that when you become a bar/bat mitzvah, you are declaring that you are a part of the Jewish community. So how can the community--other families and teachers--help bar/bat mitzvah students begin to see those connections?

Rabbi Jeffrey K. Salkin, author of the book, Putting God on the Guest List: How to Reclaim the Spiritual Meaning of Your Child's Bar or Bat Mitzvah, recommends that in the planning stage, parents ask, "What Jewish values do we hope this bar or bat mitzvah celebration will embody?" and make a list of them. The list may include compassion, dignity, justice, learning, social action, generosity, humility, moderation, and a love for Jewish people and the Jewish homeland. You might want to have your child make a list as well and compare them. It is a great conversation starter with your child to get onto the same page about the values you hope the Bar ot Bat Mitzvah experience will embody.

Plan your celebration around these values, and stick to them. "Jewish celebrations [should] celebrate Jewish values," Salkin emphasizes. "The educational and spiritual part of bar and bat mitzvah can extend beyond the final hymn at the service. It can permeate the lives of our young, and it can enrich what they take with them into the world."

This is what happened for Alison Stieglitz, who is now working as a social worker in Pennsylvania. She says her bat mitzvah experience helped to guide her into her current career. "I learned how easy it is to make a difference," she stated. "It's important to try and make things better." Alison and her family and friends continue to assemble food baskets, which feed a family of four, every year. Currently they are making 200 baskets and feeding 800 people. All this from a small bat mitzvah project.

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Suzanne Borden served as program director at The Washington Institute for Jewish Leadership and Values, which sponsors Panim el Panim High School in Washington, D.C.