A small voice with a big message

Jacob Tragarz didn’t take the easy route when it came to his mitzvah project — he went big. The 12-year-old student decided to raise awareness about the suffering and violence in Darfur by organizing an assembly for nearly 700 of his peers at Marshall Fundamental High School, a public school in Pasadena.

Jacob said he first learned about Darfur in fourth grade through his synagogue, Pasadena Jewish Temple & Center, which participates in the annual Walk for Darfur and educates its congregants about the issue. After he walked for Darfur last year, he was shocked to find that his friends at school were unaware of the ongoing genocide.

“I was telling my friends at school about the walk, and they didn’t even know what Darfur was,” he said. “From that point on, I wanted to spread the word about Darfur, more than just doing the walks.”

Jacob teamed up with Mina Rush of Jewish World Watch, an organization dedicated to fighting genocide and sponsor of the Walk for Darfur. Rush, the group’s synagogue resource director, said that Jacob’s enthusiasm, passion and motivation about the topic and for his project were inspiring.

“What’s unique about Jacob is he’s not looking for a one-off,” Rush said. “He knew years ago that this was something that was important to him and that he was going to use his bar mitzvah as an opportunity to raise awareness. That really makes him special.”

Jacob said that the suffering in Darfur resonates with him because he is Jewish, explaining that of all people, Jews should be working to stop the violence in that country because of their experiences in the Holocaust.

“Jews have suffered a genocide before, and I think it’s not right to have people killed because of who they are,” he said.

Jacob first had to present the idea to Marshall’s teachers and administrators — not an easy task for Jacob, who said that he was “very nervous.” Once the actual assembly came, the school publicized the event on the message board in front of the school. Jacob had to give another speech at the assembly, this time in front of 700 students, and then introduced Rush, who gave a presentation.

“He practiced that speech so many times,” said Mark Tragarz, Jacob’s father. “He really nailed it.”

Students from grades six through 12 attended Jacob’s assembly. Rush said she had never given a presentation on Darfur to such a wide range of ages, or to students as young as sixth-graders. However, she said, the assembly was a success.

“It’s hard to get people moved about people they are never going to meet in a country really far away and have it affect them in a way that they’re going to say, ‘Yes, that matters to me,’ ” Rush said. “And I think [Jacob’s assembly] did. I think there were people who were definitely touched. And that’s all because of Jacob; he definitely gets it.”

Jacob’s mom, Roberta Tragarz, agreed that Jacob’s assembly had a significant impact on the students who attended, opening their eyes to the horrors Rush recounted.

“The kids were riveted during the stories,” she said. “You could see the wheels were turning in the kids’ heads.”

After the assembly, Jacob and Rush handed out cards with the White House’s phone number on them and a script so that students could call and tell the White House staff that Darfur is an important issue that they want President Barack Obama to address. Jacob says students have since approached him to say that they had made the call.

The next part of Jacob’s project is fundraising. His school holds an annual charitable competition each spring, known as “Penny Wars,” and all of this year’s profits will go to Darfur. In addition, Jacob will have Jewish World Watch tzedakah boxes on the tables at his bar mitzvah party on Jan. 7 to encourage donations from his guests.

Although raising money for the cause is an important goal for Jacob, he said the assembly was the most important aspect of his project because it helped him teach his peers about an important global issue.
“I knew the first step to saving a place like this was to raise awareness,” Jacob said.

He explained that his classmates’ lack of knowledge on the subject is part of what is perpetuating the current violence in the region.

“One of the things about Darfur that I was shocked by was that the leader of Sudan [Omar al-Bashir] … began to kill all those people because he figured that nobody was paying attention to them in the first place,” Jacob said.