In our family we view the word “Mitzvah” in Bar and Bat Mitzvah to be of utmost importance. Learning how to read and understand Torah and lead a service are important, as is the whole symbolic meaning of the day of becoming a Jewish adult in our community. The big celebration with friends and family is always a focus of the planning and preparation for this simcha, but we have instilled in all of our children that their Mitzvah projects need to be substantial. As part of this philosophy, we have encouraged three distinct components: (1) fundraising; (2) collecting/donating goods and, most importantly, (3) volunteering their time.
The past few months, I have spent time with my two youngest children (Jacob and Michela, the twins whose B’nai Mitzvah is coming up) researching possible Mitzvah projects. During this process, we realized that there is a plethora of volunteer opportunities for teens. The problem is narrowing it down to suitable ones.
If working with animals is your teenager’s passion, many organizations offer volunteer activities that teach us that people must treat their animals humanely and prevent or minimize their suffering. There are many places that offer volunteer opportunities, most requiring the volunteers to be 16 or accompanied by a parent. Jacob is going to train our dog, Midnight, to be a companion with him for Pet Therapy at local hospitals, children’s homes and senior communities.
Working with children is a fun way to spend volunteer time and is a good experience. There are boys and girls clubs in most Orange County cities that welcome teens who want to help out with their programming. Local libraries, city parks and recreation camps are also happy to have teens help out. Harrison tutored kids in Santa Ana with their reading once a week for an hour. Michela has plans to volunteer her time at the Down Syndrome Foundation and KidsWorks in Santa Ana, a summer and after school program, where she can help the younger kids with their activities.
As Jews and as caring citizens, protecting and maintaining our earth and environment are our responsibility. Park and beach clean ups are fun ways to perform this Mitzvah and can be done with friends while enjoying the beautiful outdoors. Many organizations offer formal opportunities, or kids can get together with their friends, pick a beach or a park, grab a trash bag and get to work.
Jewish tradition regards living a long life and dying in old age to be a blessing. Most of the senior living communities in the Orange County area are thrilled when young people give their time to brighten the day of their residents, whether it be coming by to read to them, help them write letters, sing a song, or just say hello. Jacob and Michela are incorporating this into their Mitzvah projects by visiting with the residents at the Atria in Woodbridge, where their grandmother lives.
When we visit those who are ill, we demonstrate that we care about others. All of the hospitals offer programs where older teens can volunteer. There are also many organizations that welcome kids who want to perform community service, and they can also help with essential administrative tasks.
Helping those who have special needs, whether they are physical, mental or emotional challenges, is one of the most rewarding things a young person can do. Some opportunities include helping coach younger kids with special needs on soccer, basketball or baseball teams and volunteering with the Special Olympics.
The Jewish tradition of tzedakah requires us all to give charity to those in need. By providing clothing, food, shelter and other essentials to fellow humans to help them maintain their dignity and survive in our world, we are doing the righteous thing. Donating goods to various places such as the Salvation Army or Goodwill is a great way to pass on some of our many possessions that can certainly be used and appreciated by someone else. As part of their “repertoire” of projects, Jacob and Michela spearheaded the adoption of three different families this year at the holiday time and spent days gathering, wrapping and delivering gifts.
The world becomes a better place when we treat others as we would like to be treated. This provides the basis for helping our neighbors and encompasses many opportunities for involvement with groups such as the Red Cross, American Jewish World Service and Jewish World Watch. Volunteering with such groups not only fills a need, but teaches our youth to be engaged in and knowledgeable about what is going on in the world around us.
Raising money to be donated to a worthy cause is a wonderful experience, because the act of asking people for money is a good skill to learn at an early age. It is fun to let your kids be creative in how they want to ask for and donate the money. Harrison asked as many people as he knew for just $1 and raised over $400 to send a student from Santa Ana to summer camp, because he believed all kids should have the chance to go to camp. Jacob and Michela have come up with a “Give $5, High 5” campaign, where they are asking everyone for $5 and are hoping to raise $2500. They are going to donate the money raised equally to five different charities that they have selected, each from a different “category” of mitzvah opportunities.
Much of this information was obtained from the Teen Volunteer Resource Guide, which has specific information about hundreds of organizations. Thank you so much to the Bureau of Jewish Education for helping parents and kids find meaningful ways and opportunities to give their time and tzedakah. Please take a look at the guide (www.bjeoc.org/teen resource guide.html). Then encourage your Bar/Bat Mitzvah aged children to find projects and make volunteering and community service a family priority — and something you can all do together!