Teenagers Give the Gift of Charity

By Rick Harrison

Published November 12, 2004, issue of November 12, 2004.
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On the Sunday of her bat mitzvah weekend last month, Rebecca Schwartz — dressed in pink, as composed as any 13-year-old could be and displaying a set of straight teeth in a wide smile — rose before a crowd. She did not read from the Torah, as she had done with perfect pitch the previous day at Manhattan’s Park Avenue Synagogue, wearing a different pink outfit. Instead, standing before two-dozen guests at a community center in Canarsie, Brooklyn, she made a speech.

Rebecca and her guests had traveled an hour-and-a-half on a chartered bus from Manhattan’s Upper East Side for the dedication of a new computer room at the Hebrew Education Society. The facility, Rebecca explained, was a gift funded by about $45,000, which her loved ones donated in her honor in lieu of bat mitzvah gifts.

Her gesture was part of a trend among American bar and bat mitzvah students, who are seemingly keener to perform extravagant acts of charity today than ever before.

“There’s a new maturity of American Jewry,” said Jeffery K. Salkin, senior rabbi at The Temple in Atlanta and author of “Putting God on the Guest List: How to Reclaim the Spiritual Meaning of Your Child’s Bar or Bat Mitzvah.” “I’ve never seen it quite as powerfully as I’ve seen it in recent years.”

Rebecca participated in a year-old program sponsored by UJA-Federation of New York called Give a Mitzvah, Do a Mitzvah. The program works with students who plan to donate all or a portion of their bar or bat mitzvah gifts to charitable agencies here or abroad, or to arrange a volunteer project.

Vicki Compter, director of capital gifts and special initiatives at UJA-Federation of New York, founded the program. So far, 60 children have contributed their time or money to the program, raising a total of $300,000. According to Compter, about a quarter of the students donated all their gifts for an average of $15,000 each. Other participants contribute a portion of their gifts, averaging about $2,000 each.

Students work with the program to select projects that suit their interests. Some have asked their guests to bring sports equipment for a camp. One student supplied $10,000 for new dormitory furniture at Ramat Hadassah Szold Youth Aliyah Village, located in Tivon, near Haifa, in Israel. That agency also received a gift of $11,000 to buy a home theater system.

Molly Klosk, whose mother, Tricia Kallett, also helped found the Give a Mitzvah, Do a Mitzvah program, celebrated her bat mitzvah in Jerusalem last December along with 20 Ethiopian children from Rehovot who, thanks to Molly’s $11,000 gift, were able to celebrate their own bar and bat mitzvahs. Outfitted with new yarmulkes, prayer shawls and New York Yankees caps, the Hebrew-speaking children of immigrant parents prayed at the Western Wall, played D.J. at the community center, and feasted and partied with the town’s mayor. (Molly also gave $5,000 to Beit Hashanti, an Israeli home for troubled kids, located in Tel Aviv.)

Compter recognizes the benefits of the program beyond the help it provides for those in need. “Some of the kids are seeing others less fortunate than them for the first time,” she said. “They are gaining an appreciation for what they can give to others, and for so many kids, it shows them how lucky they are.”

Speaking from her family’s spacious East End Avenue apartment a few days after the dedication ceremony, Rebecca understood this implicitly. “It’s a great way to let people experience what I get to every day at home,” she said. “I was looking forward to the jewelry and the things I would get and, to some extent, will some time in the future get to have anyway. But these kids don’t have computer access, which I feel is such a basic thing and more important than me having some pocketbooks and electric stuff.”

Rebecca’s gift provided funds for 24 custom-made computers, 20 Hebrew keyboards, game control pads, a slew of new software and rapid cable Internet connections at the Hebrew Education Society. The room will be called the Rebecca Schwartz Computer Learning Center.

Marc Arje, executive director of the Hebrew Education Society, has been working to put together a computer room for his center, the first Jewish settlement house in Brooklyn, for eight years. “Most of my population don’t have access to computers,” he said. But Rebecca’s gift has changed the situation. “Now this is probably the only place within a mile of here where you can get on a computer and use the Internet. Kids can play games, do homework and go places they never imagined they could go — see beyond Brooklyn.”

While most bar and bat mitzvah projects stem from local synagogues, organizations like UJA-Federation of New York and MAZON: A Jewish Response to Hunger work with students and parents to stress mitzvot — good deeds — on this special day.

Jeremy Deutschman, director of communications and development for MAZON, an organization that asks people to donate 3% of the cost of their celebration to help fight hunger, has — through this and other projects — raised $31 million since 1986. Giving, he says, is an essential part of Judaism. “There is a drive for social justice in our religion,” he said. “The Torah mentions 36 times the obligation to help strangers. To build a stronger world, we need to build stronger communities.”

Erica Schwartz, Rebecca’s mother, trusts that word will spread about what bar and bat mitzvahs can accomplish. “My hope for the program is that the idea for doing a mitzvah project at bar and bat mitzvahs will become as much a tradition as the candle-lighting ceremony,” she said.

“I have heard of crazy, extravagant parties with hundreds of people and casino themes,” Rebecca told the Forward. “I love parties and dancing and all that, but for someone my age… not only don’t I need that, no one needs that really.”

At a time when Jewish families still compete for the most lavish spectacles to celebrate the arrival of their 13-year-old children into adulthood, a new focus on charity can be most welcome. A sense of competition remains, however, even among mitzvah projects.

Rabbi and author Salkin said: “I’ve also seen a kind of altruistic one-upmanship, a subtle competition to come up with the glitziest bar and bat mitzvah project. The spiritual side of me says that it is unseemly; the pragmatic side of me says, as long as people are doing good, we should remember that rising tides lift all ships. If you have to compete, let it be about compassion.”

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