December 25, 2013
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New York bat and bar mitzvah projects that help Israelis

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for The Brooklyn Paper
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Brittany Wayne, a manager in the Manhattan division of the UJA-Federation of New York, never ceases to be amazed at the creativity she sees in today’s bar mitzvah projects.

Wayne works on the organization’s “Give a Mitzvah-Do a Mitzvah” program, which helps budding teenagers come up with and execute their charitable acts as they prepare for the big day.

“It’s just been incredible to see all the different things we’ve done over the years,” says Wayne.

The program pairs up bar and bat mitzvah candidates with one of the more than 100 agencies the UJA works with in the New York area — as well as organizations and communities it supports in Israel and other parts of the world.

“Kids aren’t just making a donation somewhere,” says Wayne. “Instead, they’re finding something that can be really meaningful, something that’s important to them.”

Here are some of Wayne’s most recent fundraisers that made a difference in three communities. Think of it as inspiration for your upcoming mitzvah project:

Therapeutic knitting class for girls in Sderot

Noa Mintz’s pitch was a little unusual. She wanted to bring knitting therapy to the community of Sderot, an area near the Gaza Strip that is often under fire, so when kids have to go into bomb shelters, they have something to do.

“I recently fell in love with knitting as a group bonding and therapeutic thing, and decided that I wanted the same for the girls in Sderot,” Mintz explained on her Mitzvah Project website.

UJA-Federation decided to go with her pitch and, after raising more than $20,000, Mintz was able to hire an experienced knitter and youth programmer and open a class in Sderot where girls could learn how to knit, as well as provide the necessary yarn and knitting needles. Mintz also organized a class in New York that met at the same time, so that the two groups of girls could share in the experience via Skype.

The program has been so successful that they are now expanding it to another town in Israel and one in the former Soviet Union.

“It was so unique,” said Wayne. “We created something out of nothing.”

Funding a basketball team in Safed

Josh Wasserman loved to play basketball, so for his bar mitzvah project, he wanted to give that opportunity to kids who didn’t have it. He found a community in need in Safed, Israel, with UJA-Federation’s help, and raised money to renovate their court, hire a coach for a yearlong program, and buy uniforms.

“I was looking for a way to do something special and meaningful in connection with my bar mitzvah,” Wasserman told JPost. “Since my family and I are passionate about the sport of basketball, we were thrilled to find a way to allow Israeli kids to experience the sport that we love so much.”

Throughout the process, Wasserman and his family exchanged letters with the team to better know them, and visited to celebrate the new court.

“The team was so thankful and happy,” said Wayne. “[A basketball court] is something we take for granted, but it really brings the community together and is something kids should have.”

Renovating the kitchen at a central Israel crisis center

Charlotte Sack identified an event in more basic need for her bat mitzvah project. She loves to cook and wanted to provide that same opportunity to kids who were less fortunate than her.

Enter Neve Michael: a 24-hour emergency-crisis center in central Israel that serves hundreds of children suffering from mental, physical, or sexual abuse. The kitchen has shown natural wear and tear over the years, so Sack decided to raise money to renovate the space — bringing in new dishwashers, an oven, refrigerator, and freezer, so that the children can learn how to cook and have a place to socialize.

“This cooking therapy focuses on socializing, learning to cook together, learning about food, and learning about the health benefits that food provides,” Sack wrote on the website for her bat mitzvah project, which ultimately raised nearly $35,000 for the center.

How to get started

The mitzvah project is an opportunity to make a difference while supporting a cause that is uniquely your own, as these three students have demonstrated. Or to make something out of nothing, as Wayne puts it.

To get started, the natural first step is to identify your interests. UJA-Federation, for instance, first sits down with the students and their parents to discuss their hobbies and after-school activities to find that passion. The next step is to connect that interest with a community in need. Through its mitzvah program, UJA-Federation looks within its network in the New York region and beyond, to find a good match.

“We don’t want to provide something totally unnecessary if a community has other needs,” says Wayne.

The support of an organization like the UJA-Federation can also be instrumental, helping students learn about fundraising and developing those service skills. The most valuable experience, however, will come in of doing and giving that is the mitzvah.

“It’s that importance of doing things hands-on,” says Wayne, “of giving back and making a difference.”

For more information about UJA-Federation of New York’s Give a “Mitzvah–Do a Mitzvah” program, call (212) 836-1257 or email mitzvah@ujafedny.org.

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