A Mitzvah-Making Machineby Jessica Hanewinckel February 28, 2013
By Jessica Hanewinckel
Hebrew school classes and one-on-one tutoring sessions. Torah study. Choosing a Torah portion and Haftorah portion. Setting a ceremony date. Preparing speeches for the child and parents. Selecting outfits for the big day. Planning the logistics of the service. Mailing invitations. Planning the big party and the Kiddush luncheon. With so much to do in the year before a bar or bat mitzvah, both the child and his or her parents can easily feel overwhelmed. It’s no wonder parents and kids can be tempted to postpone the mitzvah project longer than they should or neglect to give it the attention and time it deserves. That’s especially true when the children don’t have a structured mitzvah project program through their synagogue to help guide them, or when the family decides it wants to embark on a particularly unique, personal or complex mitzvah project that they’d have to contribute significant family time and resources to accomplish.
“A lot of families feel overwhelmed at doing their own mitzvah project,” says Karen Grossman, director of The Mitzvah Makers, a program of the Jewish Federation of San Diego County that seeks to address this issue. “A lot of people realize, ‘I don’t know how to get started,’ or ‘I don’t know how to find a project.’ It’s also very difficult for kids to find a volunteer project at the age of 12 or 13.”
About a year ago, a local family offered the seed money for the program, which began in the Women’s Philanthropy arm of Federation. According to Grossman, who was already a member of Women’s Philanthropy when she was hired to manage The Mitzvah Makers, the program was created out of the belief that “the b’nai mitzvah journey is so much richer when the children step out of themselves and try to take on a mitzvah project that has more depth than things they’ve been doing all their lives,” she says. “It really helps them learn about an issue and see how they can help solve the problem and make a difference in someone’s life. It’s an added dimension to the experience of learning Torah and standing before the community, and it’s an affirmation [that the children are becoming adults in the Jewish community]. … It’s important that kids make it part of their b’nai mitzvah experience.”
The program can best be summarized as a concierge service that helps local children — free of charge to the families — successfully complete a mitzvah project, with as little or as much assistance as they need. The programs offerings are expansive. The Mitzvah Makers can assign kids their own URL and help them design a customized donation page on The Mitzvah Makers’ Web site, which gives local and international friends and family a safe, trusted way to donate to the child’s chosen charity (with 100 percent of the donations going to the intended recipients). There’s no managing checks or credit card numbers for Mom or Dad, and it centralizes donations and makes it easier to get them to the charity. Grossman can also work with kids to learn about their interests and research suitable organizations toward which they can focus their project (if they don’t know where to begin) and put them in touch with those entities. The kids can also count on organizational support, leadership development, fundraising assistance and skill development, education about the needs in and out of the Jewish community, assistance in finding volunteer opportunities, suggestions for ways they can become activists for their causes in their own synagogues and schools, and mentoring and guidance throughout the entire process, with as much or as little involvement from the child’s family as they’d like.
Adds Grossman, children don’t necessarily have to raise funds for their projects, if volunteerism or some other aspect of tzedakah is more their preference. The Mitzvah Makers just requires that the project benefits a 501(c)3 and has some sort of Jewish element to it, to keep in line with Federation’s mission to enhance the well being of Jews locally and worldwide. To date, they’ve worked with nearly 20 children and have facilitated mitzvah projects benefiting more than a dozen nonprofits. Friends and family of b’nai mitzvah kids have donated more than $25,000 through the kids’ pages on The Mitzvah Makers Web site.
“We’re trying to be flexible,” Grossman says, adding that at just a year in, it’s still a growing and evolving program. “We’re trying to work with the needs of the families and what they want to do. We’ve been learning with each student. … I try to be as helpful as I can and take the pressure off for the parents. … Every bar or bat mitzvah student is invited to participate in the program. We want to make it as welcoming as possible.”
They’re also trying to work with local rabbis, Grossman says, considering many work directly with students in their Hebrew schools and often already have their own mitzvah project curriculum established.
Congregation Beth Am is one of those synagogues that has its own well-structured mitzvah project curriculum for its b’nai mitzvah students, but that didn’t stop Rabbi Matthew Earne from eagerly agreeing to partner with The Mitzvah Makers. (At Beth Am, the curriculum allows students two pathways: to participate in monthly mitzvot assigned by Rabbi Earne, or, alternatively, to take on a yearlong mitzvah project on their own, which is where The Mitzvah Makers could be helpful.)
“I really like how Karen has balanced the needs of our synagogue’s mitzvah program with the needs of Federation,” says Rabbi Earne, who says eight to 10 of his own students have taken advantage of The Mitzvah Makers. “I think it’s a wonderful model.”
Though The Mitzvah Makers has partnered with eight local synagogues and two Jewish day schools, the b’nai mitzvah students who seek its services don’t necessarily have to be a member or student at any of them — unaffiliation, or affiliation with another school or synagogue, are fine — and Grossman says she’s working to build partnerships with more local and international agencies to spread the word about the program and create ties that might lead to mitzvah projects for kids who enter the program in the future.
“We hope our teens, who are the future of our community, understand that Jewish philanthropy is of paramount importance,” Grossman says, “and we hope that through their positive experience with being a mitzvah maker and seeing the impact they’ve had on someone’s life, that they will carry that with them through their life and they’ll want to continue to support Jewish philanthropy. That’s really important to us.”
A year ago, when the program was newly founded and still nameless, Grossman worked with San Diego Jewish Academy to conduct a focus group with seventh grade students there and do Project Afghanistan with the students, to send Passover treats and cards to Jewish members of the U.S. military stationed in Afghanistan.
“It’s who we are as a school in terms of tikkun olam activities,” says SDJA upper school principal Jeffrey Davis, who worked closely with Grossman when she came to SDJA in the program’s early stages. “We pride ourselves on the fact that by the time our kids graduate, they get it. They understand that the world doesn’t revolve around them. It’s the other way around. They understand their commitment to community, to their family, to making the world a better place. When [Grossman] came in with this idea, it was such a natural fit for our school to have her come to us with this program.”
It wasn’t long before b’nai mitzvah students sought out the program for assistance with their own mitzvah projects. To date, eight SDJA students have worked with The Mitzvah Makers on their mitzvah projects.
Jacob Kornfeld, now an eighth grader at SDJA, was the first bar mitzvah student to take advantage of The Mitzvah Makers’ services, when the program was still becoming formalized. In honor of his October 2011 bar mitzvah, he chose to raise funds (he ultimately raised $17,000) for Save a Child’s Heart, a Israeli nonprofit that brings needy children to Israel for lifesaving cardiac surgeries. After Kornfeld decided on his cause, he sought out The Mitzvah Makers to help him make it a reality.
“[Raising funds] was a lot cleaner,” Kornfeld’s mother Teresa Dupuis says of working with The Mitzvah Makers, “because Save a Child’s Heart doesn’t have any representation in San Diego, so people were able to make their checks out to Federation and make the donations with a credit card online through Federation, so we didn’t have to deal with any of the funds. … their help was a huge relief because I didn’t have to worry about gathering cash and getting credit card numbers and everything else.”
Adds Kornfeld, who is an example of a student who needed only minimal assistance, “They were super helpful the whole time, and I probably couldn’t have done it as well as I did without them.”
Unlike Kornfeld, Mia Harris really took advantage of all of the assistance The Mitzvah Makers could offer in advance of her November 2012 bat mitzvah. And she was a unique case; she chose to partner on her mitzvah project with her good friend Madison Henkin. Both girls, who knew they loved art, had been volunteering locally for a non-sectarian organization that helps student artists create pieces that are donated to local hospitals and community health centers to brighten sterile-white rooms. Karen Grossman researched similar organizations and found Havuret, an Israeli organization that brings pairs of art students into hospital wards to do art projects with the patients. When the girls were able to meet Havuret’s founder when she happened to be in San Diego a short time later, they knew it was a match.
“I never would have found out about it if it weren’t for Karen and The Mitzvah Makers,” says Naomi Harris, Mia’s mother. “[Havuret] had a bigger meaning and impact to [Mia] just because the founder was such a deep person. She offered all these other ways in the future the girls can continue helping her organization by collaborating with the art students long distance, so I think there are really limitless possibilities for the collaboration to continue, which is also very exciting.”
Another unique situation came when bat mitzvah student Julia Price, a student at SDJA, came to The Mitzvah Makers for help with her mitzvah project. According to mom Cheryl Rattner Price, Julia wasn’t sure what she wanted to do for her project, but when she began looking at options suggested to her by The Mitzvah Makers, she couldn’t decide on just one — so she chose four: Remember Us (a child Holocaust remembrance program); The Friendship Circle, where she donated art supplies and still volunteers with the disabled children there; Special Delivery (meal delivery to the needy); and Jewish National Fund, for the indoor playground it funded in Sderot.
“I think Karen really encouraged me,” says Rattner Price. “I felt like we were just going to do something simple, like make a poster board. I was just really busy and needed support, and I think I felt really supported that this was an organized community system I could plug into. It helped me to nail it down and get it done. It didn’t cost me anything and it was really available to make it organized. It’s just a fun way for kids to make a difference.”
Audrey Jacobs, whose son Gabriel Jacobs raised money to give three iPads to autistic children through The Friendship Circle, found that her son’s mitzvah project was greatly enhanced through The Mitzvah Makers.
“It was truly a godsend to have Federation and The Mitzvah Makers,” Audrey says. “We reached out to Federation … and they went above and beyond our expectations. There’s no way we could have done this on our own. … I wanted the opportunity for my son to have a sense of ownership on his own and for people to feel comfortable and safe in how they donated their money. … Without any cost to the family, they did so much, and my son and I and our whole family are very grateful to the Federation for creating a way for his bar mitzvah to leave a legacy.”
According to Rattner Price, the service The Mitzvah Makers provides benefits more than just the child, the child’s family or the child’s charity of choice.
“I think [The Mitzvah Makers] is really valuable for our community,” she says. “I think the mitzvah project is the most important part of the bar or bat mitzvah. It makes the kid who’s becoming a young adult feel like they have some power to contribute to make the world a better place.”
For more information, visit www.themitzvahmakers.com or call Karen Grossman directly at (858) 876-7527.