As part of my Bat Mitzvah preparation, I had the opportunity to become involved in a few community service projects. This follows the Jewish obligation of tzedakah, or righteous giving, and tikkun olam, or bettering the world. One aspect of becoming a Bat Mitzvah is beginning to take responsibility for making the world a better place. In order to turn this concept into action, I looked toward communities that I was already a part of, and I also sought out new connections and causes that I would learn from. When I began these projects, I thought about the things one needs most to live. I wanted to try to make an impact in those areas that are truly essential to all of us, and started by asking, “What is most necessary for all human beings?” I decided that the right to education, shelter, food, and a safe environment in which to learn and live were the most basic rights of people, and I chose projects to contribute to, based on these needs.
I started volunteering for Make a Difference, or MAD, when I went to Moshi, Tanzania with my family when I was 7 years old. MAD is a not for profit organization that helps children rise out of poverty and become leaders within their country by supporting their education and providing a safe place for them to live. The 22 children in Tanzania who MAD helps have lost one or both of their parents to HIV/AIDS, and their extended families can’t afford to send them to school, or to buy the basic books and uniforms needed. My family first volunteered with Make A Difference in 2010 when my mom provided medical care to the children, and my dad and I set up a mini program to teach theater. I became friends with the children, and I learned, first hand, what it means to make do with very, very little, and what resilience truly is. I maintained a connection through letters and Skype with one friend in particular, named Innocent, and we exchange drawings and stories about what is going on in our lives. My parents decided to sponsor Innocent’s education, and have done this for the past several years. However, I also wanted to do something directly and I have been holding yearly bake sales and used book sales in my neighborhood since I was 7, in order to raise money for MAD’s students. I have also organized a grade-wide school supply drive at my own school to donate materials, and I serve as an ambassador for MAD, getting others involved in the cause. When I first started out trying to raise awareness, I was not sure how many people I would be able to reach. It was a fantastic feeling to see that so many others shared the same excitement about this cause as I did, and that I had the ability to make an impact. I plan to make a donation to MAD with my parents in recognition of my becoming a Bat Mitzvah and in the tradition of Tzedakah.
The Food Bank for New York City and the Community Kitchen & Food Pantry, whose mission is to end hunger for New Yorkers by offering food through a soup kitchen and a Harlem-based food pantry, is another place I spent time volunteering. The pantry provides 40,000 meals a month to low income New Yorkers, and I worked there stocking the shelves and helping clients find the items they were looking for, since the pantry allows people to select goods themselves in a supermarket-style setting. As I interacted with many of the people shopping there, I realized that hunger does not look any one particular, stereotypical way. Even though I knew this in a factual way before I worked at the pantry, spending the day there brought out this awareness in a very real fashion. All of the clients I met could have been any of us, and they seemed proud and happy to be at the pantry. Giving a person independence and ownership over their meals and lives by enabling them to shop and cook for themselves, instead of just providing a meal, is a great thing.
In early March I also volunteered at the main donation center in New York for Project Cicero, a partnership of organizations whose goal is to create and supplement classroom libraries in areas with limited resources. The project organizes a yearly citywide book drive that processed over 150,000 gently used books this year for children in public schools and homeless shelters. With other volunteers, I helped organize books and distributed them to teachers. There was a great deal of teamwork involved, and I discovered that I enjoyed creating a system for arranging the tables of books, even if my own desk and shelves at home are never that organized. It was wonderful to see the looks of happiness on the faces of the teachers who came with huge suitcases to collect the books for their classes, knowing that they would make a difference for other children.
In addition to these specific community service projects, I chose to embark on a social action project to try to bring about change on an issue that is of importance to me: gun danger and the insecurity that guns cause. Schools are sadly the target of shootings and threats of violence, and evacuations and lockdowns are no longer a rare occurrence. After several schools in neighboring towns to my own school, in New Jersey, had to go on lockdown over the past two years, due to bomb threats and gun violence directed at students, and after many of our own classroom lock down drills, I decided it was time to speak out. Everyone should be able to attend school free of the fear of violence, and no student should have to endure drills that entail hiding in closets or under desks, in any place of learning.
After research into the statistics surrounding gun violence, discussions with others, and in-class debates in school, I formulated a petition that speaks to the need to decrease the widespread accessibility of guns in our society, to keep them off the streets, and to keep them out of the hands of kids. I circulated the petition to kids in my neighborhood and to my entire school, and will submit the signatures to our senators and representatives. I know this debate has been going on for a long while, but maybe if it is expressed by the voices of kids someone may begin to listen. Finding the motivation to get momentum on this issue from my friends was a new experience for me. Asking others to sign a petition was not something I had done before, and I was not sure how comfortable I would feel doing it. However, I discovered that other kids have the same concerns that I do, and that we were hoping to change something crucial. Of all the projects that I contributed to, this one was the most meaningful to me, since it was I who took the initiative to try to change a significant issue, and because my peers and I carried out the action. As Anne Frank said, “How wonderful it is that nobody need wait a single moment to improve the world.”
All of these volunteer community activities have brought me a sense of responsibility and belonging to a bigger world. I have gained perspective, created bonds with people that might have otherwise not existed, and understood the hardship of those who don’t have the same opportunities that we have come to know as basic in our lives. The values of bettering the world and social action run deep in my family. In the spirit of the generations before me, I plan to continue these actions throughout my life, so that others may also achieve what we have come to know as basic rights.