September 16, 2019

How to Choose a Mitzvah Project

Before you jump into the process of choosing a mitzvah project, consider the following question: Why are we asking our b’nai mitzvah students to complete 10 hours of service work in the midst of an otherwise overprogrammed, stressful time in their lives?

If you can remember the “why” (as in, “why do you have to do this?”) as you consider the “what” (“what should you choose?”), you may find the process of choosing to be as instructive and transformative as the project itself.

Mitzvah projects redirect resources from consumption to tikkun olam.
The bar/bat mitzvah is a peak experience in our Jewish lives worthy of attention and celebration. During this time of increased consumption, a mitzvah project redirects some of our resources (our money, our time, our energy) toward social justice. It reminds us that the celebration of the bar/bat mitzvah student amid centerpieces, flowers and balloons is not only a celebration of age and accomplishment but also a celebration of his/her capacity to heal the world.

Mitzvah projects help us to express gratitude.
Saying “thank you” for all of life’s gifts won’t fit into the last few paragraphs of a student’s d’var Torah. At the moments when we are most aware of our blessings, mitzvah projects help us to concretize our feelings of gratitude through service to others. Sometimes, words are not enough; we need to act.

Mitzvah projects teach us how to live words of the Torah.
We can talk about the pursuit of justice (Deuteronomy 16:20), and then we can invite a student to Walk for Darfur or Race for the Cure. Ultimately, we are meant to live words of the Torah, not just discuss them. Mitzvah projects help us to embody and express our highest Jewish values, breathing life and giving modern-day form to an ancient tradition.

Homework assignment No. 1: Practice answering the question “Why?” using your own words and examples.

Start with self-interest.
Self-interest, not selfishness. There’s a difference. Self-interest helps us to serve others with an energy that emerges from our own particular story. Ask the young adult that sits before you: What keeps you up at night? As an Angeleno, what do you worry about? What makes you angry? Today, when you look out the window, what’s wrong with this picture?

And don’t tell me about the war if that’s not really what keeps you up. Don’t tell me about gun control if you’re really thinking about the homeless man you see every day on your way to school. Tell me about the racial divide in the lunchroom. Tell me how girls are treated differently around the world and here in Los Angeles, even in 2009.

Twelve- and 13-year-olds are perceptive and opinionated. Help them to identify what they see as broken. Where do they see it? How does it affect them? They will work harder if they see a connection between their lives and their concerns, local or global. They will be more committed, collaborative and creative if the work will change their lives.

Choosing a mitzvah project can open up a conversation about pain, loss, fear and uncertainty. (Welcome to the world of adulthood.) Create the space to listen and, if appropriate, to share your own story. See what you have in common.

Homework assignment No. 2: Ask your bar/bat mitzvah student, “What keeps you up at night?”

Once you’ve identified a concern (hunger, abuse, discrimination), begin to shape your action plan. The goal of a mitzvah project is not to make ourselves feel good or to check off another requirementfrom the list. We want to make an impact. We want to see real change. This requires strategy:

  • What are your goals? (e.g., 2,000 cans of nutritious food for SOVA; 100 one-to-one conversations to raise awareness about homelessness in Los Angeles; 10 letters to the editor about cutbacks in the public schools.)
  • What’s your timeline?
  • Who are your allies? What are your obstacles?
  • Will this project have an impact? How will you know?
  • Is your mitzvah project doable? Do you have the resources and capacity to complete it?

Once you’ve examined the project, then make your decision: Is this the best project for me to complete at this time? If the answer is yes, you’re ready to begin. If not, try again. Remember, the process of choosing can be as valuable and instructive as the project itself.

The bar/bat mitzvah is a rite of passage. It’s supposed to be difficult. The mitzvah project can be a bake sale with some fliers, or it can be part of the process that transforms a young adult into a Jewish leader.

Your child/student has a story to tell: a story about who they are, what they see and how they might become part of a local or global effort that brings about change. Partner with them. Talk to them. Challenge them. And help them arrive to the pulpit, and someday to the voting booth or city council meeting or national conference in Washington, D.C., with a vision of peace, justice and compassion, as well as the confidence to take the first step. n

Dara FrimmerAssistant RabbiTemple Isaiah ( Reform congregationin Los Angeles.