Preparing and planning for a bar or bat mitzvah is an exciting time for both the child and the whole family. Our family has gone through the process twice and is embarking on this journey for the third, and last, time with my son who is currently 12 years old. As a parent, it is incredible the amount of love and pride you feel watching your child shine at this significant milestone.
Along with leading a service, most temples also include a mitzvah project as part of this important rite of passage. My daughters had this requirement at Temple Sharey Tefilo-Israel and my son will also need to complete a mitzvah project at Temple Bnai Jeshrun.
With everything else going on at this time in their lives (preparing for their bar/bat mitzvah, secular school homework, after school activities and commitments), completing a mitzvah project can seem overwhelming for pre-teens and their parents.
Here are six ways to make the mitzvah project less daunting
1. Don’t think of it as a “project”
The idea of a mitzvah project is to be a starting point in a lifelong journey of tikkun olam, fixing the world. Don’t think of the mitzvah project as something that your child needs to “get done” or cross off the list. Instead, think of the mitzvah project as the first of many ways your child will continue to make the world a better place throughout their life.
2. Pick something meaningful
Choose a project that your child is really passionate about. There are so many valuable ways to help the world, ranging from raising money to hands-on volunteer opportunities. Spend time discussing with your child the causes that he finds most meaningful. It can be something personal to them (such a volunteering at an animal shelter or raising money for a disease that has directly impacted them or a loved one) or for the community as a whole (working at a soup kitchen or collecting clothing for a homeless shelter).
My oldest daughter decided to organize a charity walk in memory of a classmate who had passed away. Her friend died from complications from Spinal Muscular Atrophy (SMA), so we contacted an organization that had been helpful to her family in dealing with the disease. Cure SMA suggested a charity walk in her friend’s memory, so that is what my daughter decided to do for her mitzvah project.
My younger daughter knew she loved working with children. For her mitzvah project, she chose to work with The Friendship Circle (FCNJ) of Metrowest, located in Livingston. FCNJ has a wide variety of volunteer opportunities for teens who want to work with children with special needs.
3. Be honest about your commitment
Don’t let your child take on a project that he cannot see through to the end. My younger daughter wanted to become involved in a friends at home program which matches volunteers with children with special needs. It is a very rewarding volunteer opportunity, but it is also one that requires a time commitment beyond the bat mitzvah year. I explained to my daughter that this child might become attached to her, and that the family would rely on her. It would be unfair to take on the commitment and then stop volunteering if her life got too busy. She understood and worked with the child and his family for two years.
4. It does not have to be completed by their bar/bat mitzvah date
My older daughter’s bat mitzvah was in the fall, but we all agreed that it was just too chaotic at that time to also put together the charity walk. Instead, we picked a date several months after her bat mitzvah in the late spring when she would have more time to devote to the project. She discussed the walk in her speech at the service and invited everyone there to attend. Once her bat mitzvah had passed, she had plenty of time and energy to focus on the walk.
5. Make an impact—big or small
Don’t worry about the scope of the project. Great mitzvah projects range from huge undertakings to small significant gestures of kindness.
My older daughter’s walk started out as a small idea. The goal was to raise money and awareness for a disease and also to remember a wonderful little girl who had touched so many people in her short life. My daughter never thought that this walk would wind up attracting people from all over the state who had also been impacted by this disease. We decided to make it an annual event, and this will be the ninth year. The money and awareness it has raised is truly changing lives by funding valuable research. And it was all started by a 13-year-old girl.
As for my younger daughter, her one-on-one time spent with a child with special needs was very rewarding. She saw firsthand the difference she could make for a child and for their family by just devoting a few hours of her time. She also found out that she really enjoyed working with children with special needs so in high school, she continued to work with Friendship Circle in a program that required less of a time commitment called Torah Circle. This drop-off program in Livingston allows teen volunteers and children with special needs to enjoy a Sunday morning of baking, art, and music.
6. Get family involved
According to Jewish law, your child is now an adult. So let your child take the lead on the mitzvah project. They will get the most out of it if they feel like it is truly their project. For your part, give guidance, support, and encouragement. Praise their efforts and let them know how proud you are of them for helping to change the world, one mitzvah at time.
The Walk n Roll to Cure SMA in honor of Katherine Santiago will be held on May 14, 2016 at Slayton Field in Millburn. To learn more about the walk, go to events.curesma.org/2016KatherinesWalk.