When you’re 13, the world seems very small to you. You mainly spend time in your bubble, not yet concerned with solving world hunger or keeping the peace between nations. But when I was 13, I became a Bat Mitzvah. Through that process, I was exposed to a new world, which sent me down a path that would change my life forever.
My temple has a great tradition of tying volunteerism to the Bat Mitzvah process. Every student develops a service project that corresponds to a Jewish value. Ever since I can remember, I’ve been volunteering. My parents always wanted me to understand that I’m privileged, and therefore have an obligation to do what I can to help improve the lives of others who are less fortunate. So whereas volunteering was nothing new to me, this was the first time I would be doing the service on my own. Plus, I had the freedom to pick any type of service I wanted, which was both daunting and exciting to me.
After much thought, I finally decided that I wanted to sew pillows for children with cancer, and those impacted by cancer. Each pillow had a hand-drawn fairy or superhero on it to remind the kids that they’re strong, brave and cared for. This project changed my life because it made me realize how much I love serving others. Since then, I have dedicated much of my time to community service.
My next service project was with a non-profit called Selah Freedom, an anti-sex trafficking organization. As part of the program, they house victims of sex trafficking, and along the same lines as my Bat Mitzvah project, I decided to sew bracelets for those living in the home. Each bracelet was made out of brightly patterned fabric and had a positive message written on it. I started this project soon after I became a Bat Mitzvah, and I still do it today.
My Bat Mitzvah project also brought me closer to my religion. I delved into the Jewish value of Bikkur Holim (serving the sick), but the experience got me more interested in the larger value of Tikkun Olam (acts of kindness performed to perfect or repair the world). I feel that giving back is the most important thing that we can do if we want to build strong communities. The importance I place on the value of Tikkun Olam is why I’m constantly involved in service that strengthens my community.
Through my efforts to repair the world through acts of kindness, I have also become a feminist. Around the same time I became a Bat Mitzvah, I heard a story on NPR that shocked me. One in five girls and one in 16 boys will be sexually assaulted at college. I was furious. If this was something that was going to affect me and my peers, why was no one talking to us about it? At that moment, I decided I wanted to change this. My passion for service transformed into activism, which led me to become an advocate for sexual assault victims.
My Bat Mitzvah introduced me to the intersection between Judaism and social justice.
I feel that one way we can practice Tikkun Olam is through learning, another important Jewish pillar. With that in mind, I held pledge drives against sexual assault at all the high schools in my county. I showed the documentary It Happened Here, thus educating more than 2,000 students on the facts of sexual assault, what constitutes consent and how to stay safe. Currently, I am pushing for Title IX programs to be implemented in my county’s K-12 schools.
Looking back at my Bat Mitzvah, it wasn’t just about that one moment when I came of age as a young Jewish woman. My Bat Mitzvah sparked a true passion for activism and service, and I will always attribute that to my service project. My Bat Mitzvah introduced me to the intersection between Judaism and social justice, and now I think deeply about how Jewish values apply to my community service. I also learned that the world isn’t so small like I once thought it was. It is bigger than my bubble and can be filled with pain and injustice. But when people take the time to care for one another, it makes that big world just a little bit better.
Minnah Stein is a senior at Pine View School in Osprey, Florida.
Editor’s Note: This content was produced in partnership with the Jewish Women’s Archive.