Boy’s Inspired Mitzvah Home Runby Michael Fox February 1, 2015
As his bar mitzvah approached several years ago, the athletic San Francisco teenager mulled various community-service projects before hitting on the idea of sending baseball gear to the isolated island.
His altruistic campaign, and eye-opening odyssey to Cuba, is vividly depicted in “Havana Curveball,” an inspiring and unsentimental one-hour documentary suitable for all ages.
Recognizing the positive trend of bar and bat mitzvah celebrants looking beyond the party and gifts to causes deserving of support, the husband-and-wife team of Marcia Jarmel and Ken Schenider originally envisioned a short film that would trigger conversations about social responsibility during the bar mitzvah process.
Cuba had granted residency to Mica’s grandfather in 1941 when his family was fleeing the Nazis and couldn’t gain access to the U.S. The humanitarian act resonated with Mica and informed his project, even though the Schneiders didn’t stay in Cuba very long before relocating to America. In fact, Mica’s grandfather declined to travel to Cuba with the lad.
“My dad was deeply grateful that Mica was inspired by his life experience to go and perform this bit of service in Cuba,” Schneider says, “even though he no longer feels a connection to the country which saved his life.”
Mica was also influenced by another well-known tenet of the Jewish experience, Schneider relates.
“His rabbi told him the story of tikkun olam, which is about putting a broken piece of the world back together, and how small or large acts can be part of that.”
Jarmel and Schneider’s previous documentary, “Speaking in Tongues,” explored bilingualism in public schools. They are aware of the increasing augmentation of community service (performed outside of school) with service learning, in which service – and critical thinking about that service – is part of the curriculum.
“That was certainly what Mica experienced on the ground, that this was difficult, it was complicated, it was messy,” Schneider says. “Today he asks himself a different set of questions than he did four years earlier. More complicated questions. Not just ‘How do I change the world?’ but ‘Is it possible for me to change the world? What are the barriers in my way?’”
Although Mica the college student may occasionally cringe at the onscreen portrayal of his younger self, he revels at “Havana Curveball” screenings at being treated by his peers as a bit of a rock star.
Jarmel sees “Havana Curveball” as a poignant bookend to the final scene of her debut film, “The Return of Sarah’s Daughters,” which explored traditional Jewish values in cotemporary women.
“At the end of that film, I posed a question: ‘Now that I have a child of my own, what am I going to pass on?’ So here we fast-forward and this is what I passed on, this is what my son got from my passion for my Jewish tradition and exploration of that. It’s a reflection on how we brought Judaism to our household and nurtured what we see as core Jewish values in our children.”