Friday, July 25, 2014 Tammuz 27, 5774

Teens Find Call to Action in B'nai Mitzvah Projects

March 13, 2014 By:
Gail Snyder, Simchas Feature
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Sasha Hochman (holding sign) and her team of Wissahickon Restoration Volunteers.

Selecting just the right community service project for a Bar or Bat Mitzvah is a very personal experience. While some students will use an online resource like The Mitzvah Bowl to find an idea that suits them, others will draw inspiration from friends and family members. In doing so, they may still find themselves taking a bold step out of their comfort zones. 

Such was the case with 12-year-old Sarah Warren. About six months ago, on the advice of her cousin, Reid Czapor, Warren joined Richboro Middle School’s Buddy Club and began to get to know some special education students for the first time.

For an hour and a half each Monday during school, Warren and her fellow club members watch movies, play games and do arts and crafts projects with their special needs buddies. 

Warren says, “I walk around the hallways with them and spend time with them. They know my name and when they see me in the hallway they give me a high-five and say ‘Hi.’ ” She is the daughter of Adam and Michelle Warren of Richboro and will celebrate her Bat Mitzvah on April 5 at Ohev Shalom. 

Warren was surprised to discover that her work with the Buddy Club ties in with her Torah portion, Metzora. One of the takeaways she has already gleaned from the portion is to not judge people simply by their physical appearance. And in the age of bullying, that’s a lesson every middle school student should learn.

She has also concluded that special education students are “really fun and nice” and capable of doing much more than she had expected. She says of her mitzvah project, “It makes me feel good because I like helping people. It makes me feel good about myself and I feel happy when I leave” Buddy Club. She anticipates being in Buddy Club long after her Bat Mitzvah is over. 

A desire to work with family friend Steve Jones of Wissahickon Restoration Volunteers is what caused Sasha Hochman of Mount Airy to put aside her strong dislike of dirt, worms and bugs to fulfill her mitzvah project of ridding two acres of Philadelphia’s Wissahickon Valley Park of invasive plant species. The 13-year-old spent the months preceding her Jan. 11 Bat Mitzvah at Mishkan Shalom organizing and participating in six work parties that drew about 50 volunteers. The daughter of Anndee Hochman and Elissa Goldberg, Hochman and friends identified and removed invasive plants like Japanese knotweed, devil’s walking stick and multiflora rose. In the cleared space, they planted 17 poplar, oak and maple saplings. 

To staff the work parties, Hochman got a kick out of using Doodle, a free app that lets invitees select the dates that fit their schedules. Still, she says, “sometimes, it was frustrating when people said they would come and didn’t or forgot about it.” More typically, though, family, Hebrew school and public school friends from Julia R. Masterman Laboratory and Demonstration School showed up, worked, laughed, ate snacks and reveled in the vast improvement their hard work made in the landscape.

In her d’var Torah, Hochman said, “For the past seven months, I have worked to nourish the Wissahickon Woods back to a home for native plants. In June, when I first went to visit the site, I looked at the dense forest of invasive plants and thought, where do I ever begin? Where do I look, where do I put my effort, and where do I take the first jump? I realize now that these questions were the exact same ones plaguing the Israelites when they stood before the” Red Sea.

Meanwhile, 12-year-olds Lance Steiner of Yardley and Isabelle Simmens of Maple Glen both found inspiration for their mitzvah projects from a parent. For Steiner, it was the influence of his father, Cory, a former Marine who makes it a priority to help active-duty soldiers. About four years ago, the Steiners encouraged children from area synagogues to mail cards to Jewish soldiers overseas and collected toiletries and snack items to send with the cards. Recalling the satisfaction of doing that drive was what made Steiner decide to do something similar for his Bar Mitzvah at Kehillat Shalom on May 17. 

This time around, Steiner — who has named his project Hand To Hero — is seeking donations of greeting cards, iTunes cards, sporting goods, toiletries and other goodies to send to Jewish American military personnel deployed overseas. To round up support and donations, he has been sending out emails and blogging about his progress. The Charles Boehm Middle School student has been able to find Jewish soldiers with the help of a military mother who maintains a list of their whereabouts and acts as a facilitator. She told Steiner that packages were especially needed at Landstuhl Regional Medical Center in Germany, where soldiers wounded in Iraq and Afghanistan are sent, and by soldiers serving in Africa. He has already sent a box of care packages to Germany and has been given photos of some of the soldiers who received them.

“I want to get as many synagogues and children’s groups as possible to participate and send cards,” Lance says. He has also reached out to veterans’ groups, receiving some financial assistance from the Levittown-based Fegelson Young Feinberg Post 697 of the Jewish War Veterans. 

In Isabelle Simmens’ case, it was her mother’s health that prompted her to want to raise money for the Oral Cancer Foundation. Her mother, Michelle, was diagnosed in 2010 with a rare form of oral cancer that was spotted during a routine dental visit. 

Michelle leaned heavily on the Oral Cancer Foundation’s resources to get through the ordeal of surgery, radiation and recuperation. “I’m thrilled that she wanted to do something for people like me who have a rare cancer like that,” Michelle Simmens says. She recalls that the foundation put her in touch with other people like herself and helped her know what to expect. After her successful surgery Michelle now wears a prosthetic device that allows her to speak, eat and swallow. 

To date, mother and daughter have already raised $3,400 for the foundation by making and selling 230 burgundy-and-white beaded bracelets; they hope to sell a lot more. 

Making the bracelets is a natural for Simmens, who will have her Bat Mitzvah at Temple Sinai on May 17. With interests that include jewelry-making, shopping, dancing and playing soccer, it’s easy to see why the Sandy Run Middle School student thought making them “would be a cool idea.”

Jordan Spivack’s mitzvah project was also inspired by a family member — his grandfather, Mel Hunn. Since last year, Spivack has been collecting gently used stuffed animals from family, friends and strangers who have responded to the fliers he has put up all around the Yardley area. The 13-year-old Spivack has already collected 16 huge lawn bags full of stuffed animals, which he has donated to five different police departments, including Falls Township, Middletown Township and the Fraternal Order of Police in Philadelphia for the police to give to children who are experiencing any kind of crisis where law enforcement has to get involved. 

“My grandfather gave me the idea about a year and a half ago,” recalls Spivack. “After I did it the first time, I felt really nice inside. It was something I hadn’t experienced before: a sense of gratitude. I wanted to repeat the process.”

The 7th grader at William Penn Middle School in Yardley says that the police departments have been receptive to his project. “They were very excited — for some of the departments, it was something new. We got a letter back saying that the stuffed animals have already been used.”

Spivack plans to continue collecting and distributing his plush bounty even after his Bar Mitzvah at Congregation Beth El in Yardley on March 29. “I’m even thinking of branching out,” he says.

Gail Snyder is a Chalfont-based freelance writer who often contributes to Special Sections. This article originally appeared in Simchas, a Jewish Exponent publication.

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