February 25, 2020

Mitzvah projects see youths extending themselves to help others

Sadie Weil’s mother, Laura Goldberg, is a board member of Homeless Health Care Los Angeles, so it only seemed logical that when Sadie sought out a bat mitzvah project for her big day in March at Temple Israel of Hollywood, she would follow in her mom’s footsteps.

Sadie volunteered at the organization’s needle exchange. She packed syringes, water, cotton balls and wipes into packages, and handed them out to residents on skid row. She also ran a holiday program for the homeless and spent a few hours with a young veteran, hearing his story about how he fell into his circumstances.

“What was amazing is that [Sadie] interacted with all of the folks and learned that while these [people were] homeless, some very bad circumstances got them to where they [are] today,” Goldberg said. “Sadie’s dvar was very powerful because she talked about opening our eyes and not living in a bubble. [It was about] getting out there, seeing other lives and seeing how we can help.”

Sadie is one of many area teens who choose to do something more for their b’nai mitzvahs than have a fun party. While the concept of a mitzvah project is nothing new, some have developed into particularly creative and meaningful ways for youths to give back to their favorite causes and do tikkun olam (repairing the world).

When Jonah Bard was preparing for his bar mitzvah at Temple Beth Am last summer, he learned that his oldest childhood friend, Koby, had been diagnosed with a malignant brain tumor. Jonah decided to make his friend 1,000 origami cranes.

Jonah had been practicing origami for six years. He decided on 1,000 cranes because it was the Japanese tradition senbazuru, and the cranes represented healing and good luck. He realized, however, that making all the origami himself was too much, so he enlisted the help of friends and family. At the end of the project, he received more than 1,300 cranes from people around the world, and he delivered them to Koby personally.

“My bar mitzvah project had become more than a gesture for a friend,” Jonah said. “It became proof that compassion grows infinitely more powerful when people work together.”

Josh Lefferman, who celebrated his bar mitzvah at Temple Beth Am in February, loved Legos growing up. So, for one year, he worked on original Lego vehicle kits, eventually assembling 100 of them. He packaged the kits and donated half to children in the slums of Mumbai and half to local homeless children through LA Family Housing. Now, he is working with his friends to give out even more Legos kits.

Seeing pictures of the kids in Mumbai playing with their Legos and using them for learning, he saw that he had made a positive impact on their lives. “I was able to actually do something and make a change that was important to me,” he said. “I wanted to make a difference.”

Josh wasn’t the only Lefferman to participate in a special project. His sister Maia, who held her bat mitzvah at Temple Beth Am and B’nai David-Judea Congregation in February of 2014, sewed more than 100 baby blankets. She donated them to organizations throughout the world that she felt personally connected to or had visited.

According to Josh and Maia’s mother, Jill, Maia donated the blankets to the children’s ward of a Jewish orphan agency in Philadelphia, where her great-grandmother had been an orphan in the 1920s; a hospital in Phoenix, where her grandfather delivered babies in the 1970s; and the Hadassah Medical Center in Jerusalem. Maia personally dropped off the blankets to all three places, and she hopes to deliver blankets to Ukraine someday.

“My kids continue to engage with their projects,” their mother said. “You don’t have a bar or bat mitzvah and then you’re done.”

Molly Litvak, another Temple Beth Am member, still is pursuing her special project, even though her bat mitzvah took place in March 2016. Growing up, she attended Camp Ramah, where she worked with special needs children through the camp’s Amitzim program. Leading up to her bat mitzvah, she wanted to get involved with the special needs population again, so she volunteered with the Friendship Circle and made friends with a boy named Ethan.

According to Molly’s mother, Nina Davidovich Litvak, Ethan attended the bat mitzvah and later danced with Molly and her friends. “[Molly] decided to stick with it because she realized Ethan was depending on her,” Davidovich Litvak said. “She couldn’t just say, ‘My bat mitzvah is over, so goodbye!’ ”

According to Davidovich Litvak, Molly wants to keep volunteering with the Friendship Circle through high school and continue her work with children with special needs.

For her bat mitzvah, Vivian Wolfson focused on the arts. “The two organizations I worked with were Inner-City Arts and Los Angeles Drama Club, the youngest Shakespeare troupe in the U.S., where I have been performing in shows for several years,” said Wolfson, whose bat mitzvah was March 25 at Temple Israel of Hollywood.

At Inner-City Arts, Wolfson helped set up its Red Door family performance series and did preshow art projects with kids. At LA Drama Club, she worked the backstage, box office and concession stands for its festival of plays. She also planned a fundraiser bake sale for the organization through the Hollywood Farmers Market. “I called it ‘Shake & Bake’ and asked kids from L.A. Drama Club to come to the market to perform scenes from Shakespeare plays during the sale,” she said. “I raised more than $1,000 to donate to Inner-City Arts and to the scholarship program at LA Drama Club.”

Hannah Corwin, who had her bat mitzvah at Temple Emanuel of Beverly Hills in February, also chose arts for her special project. She and her friends made packs full of art supplies to donate to foster kids through the nonprofit organization Hope In A Suitcase (HIAS).

According to Hannah’s mother, Kara, the nonprofit creates packs that contain pajamas, a book, some outfits, hygiene products and a stuffed animal or blanket. Hannah always has been interested in art, so she and her friends did research on the healing benefits of drawing and painting. In a letter to the founder of HIAS, they wrote, “We found that children who have access to art have a significantly decreased chance of becoming violent. Art also decreases stress levels, [and] makes people more open-minded and more socially tolerant.”

Together, the three friends supplied an entire HIAS packing day with art supplies, including pencils, crayons and markers in each bag.

“The best part,” Hannah’s mother said, “is that they all then went and participated in a packing event, and they want to continue on an ongoing basis to support and be involved with such an amazing organization that supports kids in transition.”