Putting the mitzvah into b’nai mitzvah

As they come of age, these young people follow their passions to help others

The bar and bat mitzvah process is filled with learning, faith and celebration. For many Oregon students another important aspect is finding a community service project that resonates with them. In this way, bar and bat mitzvah students not only prepare for their special day by studying Torah, but also endeavor to learn about tikkun olam, or healing the world. We have featured a number of students from around Oregon and what inspired them to choose their unique b’nai mitzvah projects.

For the Love of Animals

Molly Benson is a true animal lover. Therefore, it was no surprise that for her bat mitzvah on June 9 at Congregation Shaarie Torah she decided to work with the nonprofit Oregon Friends of Shelter Animals.

OFOSA’s mission is to reduce the number of adoptable animals euthanized in shelters, restore them to good health, and through adoption, provide them permanent, loving homes. Molly had already worked with OFOSA for two years when she decided to dedicate more time and energy to the organization as part of her bat mitzvah project.

For Molly, supporting the animals is paramount. “I love animals and want to make sure they get into good homes,” says Molly. As dogs wait for adoption, Molly walks, plays with and cares for them. She also brings pet food, toys and blankets. She has helped with a number of adoption events held at her local PetSmart, encouraging Portlanders to bring a furry friend home with them.

Over the course of her project, she learned that part of being a Jewish adult is giving back. “It’s important to give to the world, and I have been taught that part of adulthood is giving to charity,” explains Molly.

Her work with animals will not end with her bat mitzvah. Molly says, “I plan to continue this project because the people were friendly and the animals are lovable.”

Ritual and Ethical Mitzvot

On his 12th birthday, Jonah Pappas realized he had it all. With his birthday approaching, he decided to ask for donations for people in the community instead of gifts.

“When I realized I had everything I need, I realized I could help others instead of getting gifts,” says Jonah. He decided to help a nonprofit called Vina Moses, which accepts donations and then provides used clothing, household goods and emergency financial assistance to residents of Benton County.

After raising $463 for his 12th birthday, Jonah decided to continue with the project for his bar mitzvah at Beit Am in Corvallis on May 5. He made it his mission to solicit financial donations as well as material goods that could be given to Vina Moses’ families in need.

“I asked my Boy Scout Troop, my homeschool group and my synagogue to try to get donations,” says Jonah. In addition to the $463, Jonah received more than 20 bags of toys, clothes, appliances, stuffed animals and more, as well as a check for $183.

Jonah’s favorite part of the project was bringing the donations to Vina Moses. He reminisces, “When I gave the check to the woman who runs Vina Moses, her smile just made me feel so happy, it was amazing!”

Jonah believes service projects bring balance to the bar mitzvah process. “I think service projects are important because, my bar mitzvah gave me experience in ritual mitzvot like lighting Shabbat candles, but service projects allow you to experience the ethical mitzvot like helping people. I think you need a balance of both.”

Jonah attributes his mature outlook to his house full of Jewish values and intends to continue helping others wherever he can.

Making a Safe Home for Infants

Abigail Edwards loves helping children and believes every child deserves a safe haven. Abigail decided to volunteer at the Relief Nursery for her upcoming bat mitzvah at Temple Beth Israel in Eugene on Dec. 29.

The Relief Nursery is a nonprofit child abuse and neglect prevention agency that provides a safe environment for families and children. Abigail decided to work with the Relief Nursery because she sees how important it is for high-risk families. “The kids are in a tough place, and I believe everyone should have a place where they feel safe,” says Abigail.

Besides playing with the children, Abigail feels that helping others also has taught her valuable lessons. “Doing something completely selfless can teach you about what’s going on around you,” she explains.

Her mother, Kelley Edwards, adds, “Abby gets to see young children in real need, not just wanting iPods.”

Abby and Kelley are able to volunteer together. A surprising benefit for the Edwards mother and daughter is that the Relief Nursery does not allow volunteers who are under the age of 14 to volunteer without a parent, so Abby and her mother get to give back and bond at the same time.

Sisters Unite for Africa

Abby and Alana Cogen, despite becoming b’nai mitzvah a year apart, decided to unite and support the same cause for their bat mitzvah preparations. Both girls were inspired when their father gave them a new perspective on a simple pair of shoes.

“My sister and I both wanted really expensive shoes. We asked our dad if we could get them and he started to explain that many kids in Africa don’t have shoes at all. This inspired us to start raising money to help kids in Africa,” explains Abby.

The girls have chosen a number of African nonprofits to support, such as the Itafari Foundation, the Africa AIDS Response, Project Rwanda and Nothing But Nets. They also chose to support Portland’s sister city, Mutare, Zimbabwe.

Alana’s bat mitzvah was on April 9, 2011, and Abby had hers on Sept. 1, 2012, at Congregation Neveh Shalom. Both girls started the project long before that.

“The girls developed and were committed to this project before they knew that a service project would be a part of their bat mitzvahs. So, it was natural for them to continue to focus on and raise money for it,” according to Arlene and Mitch Cogen, parents of Abby and Alana.

For Alana, this project is extremely important. “I think it’s important for everyone to have the basic necessities in life and to be able to drink, eat and stay healthy in their home environment. And get an education,” says Alana.

Abby also loves helping those in need and sees it as an important part of her Jewish identity. “An important part of Judaism is giving back, and this teaches you to give back to your community,” says Abby.

Both girls plan to continue on with their project and are making their parents proud in the process. Their parents say, “When Alana and Abby put their minds to it, they accomplish incredible things. We are so proud of them and their achievements.”

Supporting Campers

When Claire Rosenfeld could not decide what to do for her bat mitzvah service project, she dug deep into her most special memories. “I thought about things that meant a lot to me,” says Claire.

She realized the B’nai B’rith camp was a huge part of her childhood and family heritage. For her bat mitzvah on May 19 at Congregation Beth Israel she started a fund to provide enough income to support a scholarship or campership each summer for at least one person at B’nai B’rith camp.

Claire has attended camp for five years and had family members who attended and contributed to the camp before her. “Both of my parents attended BB camp; and my grandfathers, Lloyd Rosenfeld and Mort Nemer, and my great-grandfather Harry Nemer helped start it,” explains Claire.

Claire hopes to continue to grow the fund every year so that more campers can benefit. She says, “Service projects help focus my family and friends, as well as myself, on things that other people need. A bat mitzvah means becoming a part of a Jewish community and taking responsibility for one’s community.”
Camp Fund Clarification

An October Oregon Jewish Life article about mitzvah projects noted that Claire Rosenfeld had created a fund to provide financial assistance for one or more children to attend B’nai B’rith Camp. The story did not note that the fund was established at the Oregon Jewish Community Foundation. Claire set up the fund for children who need financial assistance so that “no one will have to miss out on the great Jewish activities, learning and fun.” Others who wish to support campers can contribute to the fund at OJCF via the website at ojcf.org/for-our-donors/claire-rosenfeld-bb-camp-fund. Donors do not need to have a PayPal account to make a donation.

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