As part of my bar mitzvah preparation, I needed to take some actions to exemplify the values of tzedakah (charity) and tikkun olam (repairing the world). Becoming a bar mitzvah means taking on responsibility in making the world a better place. Doing community service has allowed me to begin putting my values into action.
As I began exploring different options for my community service, I was met with several obstacles. I found that it is really difficult for a 13-year-old to be accepted for volunteer work. For example, I initially thought I would volunteer at the soup kitchen in our community, only to find out that I would not be allowed to interact with the residents and that the soup kitchen is only open during school hours. Next, I tried volunteering at the local animal shelter, but due to liability concerns, they wouldn’t allow me to work there either. Liability issues seemed to come up in many other organizations that I approached, including nursing homes and hospitals. No offense to many of those in this room…. there go the lawyers again!
However, last year I found an organization called Project Challenge, that helps those Spanish- speaking members of my community. I have been studying Spanish since first grade and I thought I could use my bilingual skills to help others. Here, I was given the chance to help newly immigrated Spanish speaking elementary school kids with their homework. I spent one hour a week for 15 weeks helping these kids out. In the beginning, I was concerned about how they would respond to me and whether it would be beneficial to them. But, a couple of kids really liked me and wanted me to come every day to help them. I really wanted to help them even more, but unfortunately I couldn’t because of my own work and study responsibilities. But, it was a great experience to help those kids.
Since I continued to have difficulty connecting with other organizations, I decided to be creative. I approached the owner of our local tennis club and proposed that I organize and conduct a free tennis clinic for low-income kids in my community to introduce them to the sport of tennis. The club agreed to host the event and support my efforts. So, I set out to advertise and get the word out in the community. I created flyers, both in English and Spanish, and distributed them to community organizations that work with kids. The flyer read:
Le Levitan A…
Aprenda el TENIS y el JUEGO
Llamar a todos que tienen 7,8,9 años
Ningún Coste: Instrucción y Juego
In English, this means: You are invited to learn and play tennis. Calling all 7, 8 and 9 year olds. No cost, instruction and play.
I was scared that no one would show up after all I did to arrange the event, but fortunately, 10 kids did attend. The clinic lasted for about two hours and I had a great time with the kids. They all had a wonderful time, too. I gave out a tennis racquet to one kid who I thought showed the most enthusiasm, and the expression on his face told me how much of a difference I was making.
One way I tried to help heal the world was by participating in a Breast Cancer Walk in Long Beach this past spring. I had never participated in a march or rally before. Despite waking up very early on a Sunday morning, after attending a bar mitzvah the night before, I walked a few miles and it felt really good to do that to help raise money for cancer research. The organizer of the walk asked how many people were breast cancer survivors for one year, 2 years, 3 years, 4 years, 5 years, and even over 5 years. It was very moving to see how many people raised their hands. I saw that a lot of women were very brave in surviving and persevering through their cancer. I have a lot of close relatives and family friends that are breast cancer survivors, many of whom are here today. One reason I went was to support a good cause, but I also wanted to show my support for all of our family and friends who have survived breast cancer.
Another way of giving is by making donations to charities or good causes (tzedakah). In keeping with the principles of Humanistic Judaism and my own beliefs, I am very proud and pleased to announce that I will be donating 10% of any gifts that I may receive today to the following three organizations:
First, the American Jewish World Service. This is an organization that fights poverty, hunger, and disease and responds to disasters around the world. It also supports Jewish and human rights projects in Russia and the Ukraine through its Jewish Community Development Fund.
The second organization is the American Red Cross. After watching the news reports of what happened to the people along the Gulf Coast, I realized that so many of these people had very little to begin with, and now they lost the little they had. I saw the small kids who lost their parents and were being moved all around the country to get away from New Orleans. I told my Mom and Dad that I needed to do what I could to help, and I plan to donate money to the hurricane survivors through the Red Cross.
The third organization is the Southern Poverty Law Center. My mentor, Ira, actually suggested this to me, and after I researched what they do on their website, I became convinced that it was a worthy cause that tied in closely to the issues that I explored in my papers. The Law Center is internationally known for its tolerance education programs, its legal victories against white supremacists and its tracking of hate groups such as the KKK.
I also made a decision a couple of weeks ago that I wanted to tell you about. For the party that we are having for my friends tonight, we had hired a company to make and show a photo montage of my life. This is something that many of my friends have had at their bar and bat mitzvahs, and it was something I really wanted to do also. But, after seeing what the kids in Louisiana were going through, I just could not go along with spending so much money on the montage, when that money could really go to help others. So, I talked to my Mom and Dad about this and we decided to not do the montage; instead, we have already donated the money we would have spent on that to the Katrina Relief Fund.
I am indeed very lucky to have such wonderful friends and family, and to live a pretty privileged life. Each of these experiences has allowed me to put my values into action, and they were a very meaningful and important part of my bar mitzvah.