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'Mitzvah Bowl' Helps Whip Up a Project Just Right for Teens

June 3, 2010 By:
Aaron Passman, JE Feature
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Cheryl Friedenberg (left) and Valerie Franklin
When Rabbi Lisa Malik sits down with families to begin the B'nai Mitzvah process, one of the first things she does, she explained, is discuss the child's service project. Malik, who leads Suburban Jewish Community Center B'nai Aaron in Havertown, said that she used to refer students to the Youth Mitzvah Corps, a program run by Jewish Family and Children's Service. But when that was disbanded a few years ago, she began keeping her own file of potential volunteer opportunities -- a list that's grown to about 30 different organizations.

She also refers them to Web sites, but that doesn't always work; some sites, she said, don't specify if their volunteer opportunities are open to tweens and early teens, for example.

That's where Cheryl Friedenberg and Valerie Franklin come in.

The friends -- members at Congregation Beth Or in Maple Glen -- are the force behind the Mitzvah Bowl (www.themitzvahbowl.com), an online compendium of local organizations that B'nai Mitzvah students can partner with for their Bar and Bat Mitzvah service projects.

The new address is significant because it offers a centralized listing of outlets appropriate for such projects, something Philadelphia hasn't always had.

Friedenberg said that the idea came in part because the stay-at-home moms were looking for a way to give back to the community, but also because she had looked around a bit for projects for her daughter's Bat Mitzvah next year and was uninspired by what she found.

The two consulted with Beth Or's Rabbi Craig Axler and other area leaders to get an idea of what various congregations suggest for their students. Friedenberg said that "it didn't go much further than 10 or 12 organizations," with many synagogues suggesting the exact same projects.

"What we wanted to do," said Friedenberg, "was to make it easy for kids to find something that would interest them -- that was the most important thing."

Interested in sports? The site directs youngsters to Pitch In for Baseball and others. Like animals? There's the Israel Guide Dog Center for the Blind. A yen for Israel? Why not help out the American Friends of Magen David Adom?

The site, with about 50 listings so far, includes Jewish and secular groups from around the world. As word spreads, Friedenberg and Franklin plan to add additional service outlets.

"We want them to really be able to see where their efforts and their resources are going to," Friedenberg said of the B'nai Mitzvah students, "so that they can feel that they've made a difference in that organization -- or in the world, for that matter."

'A Coordinated Effort'

In addition to Axler, one person who helped the pair put it all together was Shelley Rappaport, senior project coordinator for the Kehilah of Bux-Mont. She noted that the Web site was the realization of something many in the Federation community had long meant to establish -- "a coordinated effort that's not static," and is relevant and revised "on a constant basis," she said.

Both Axler and Rappaport pointed out the importance of having this type of centralized, community-wide resource.

"I grew up in the Philly area, and I know that there was nothing like this," said Axler, adding that the idea of B'nai Mitzvah projects only extends to the last 15 or 20 years. He cited the now defunct Youth Mitzvah Corps as perhaps the only city-wide hub for information on service opportunities for Jewish teens.

But what mitzvahs are the kids actually doing?

Hannah Stern's Bat Mitzvah isn't scheduled until next June, but that hasn't stopped her from getting a headstart. The 12-year-old from Plymouth Meeting has already chosen "Think Pink" as her Bat Mitzvah theme, initially considering doing something related to breast cancer.

But she struggled to find anything special to do for that topic, so she switched gears, turning to the Mitzvah Bowl for help.

Stern said that she scrolled through the various listings, at first considering a project with children. But when she found options for working with the elderly, she said what came to mind was, " 'Oh, I know the Abramson Center,' and I read the description and I thought that would be good for me."

Malik seemed eager to recommend the site, adding that such assistance lets students narrow the search and speed up the process.

"A lot of my kids," said the rabbi, "spend more time hunting down the opportunities than actually doing the community service."

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