He was a distant cousin — literally; he 6,000 miles away in Israel, she on the Upper East Side.
But Katy Mayerson, 13, had grown close to Noam Mayerson over her many trips to Israel to see family.
“I really, really liked him and everybody liked him,” Katy said of her cousin. “I don’t know one person who didn’t — he was really smart and nice and loving, and there wasn’t really any bad aspect about him.”
So when Noam was killed, at age 23, two summers ago in the second Lebanon war when a missile hit his tank near the Lebanese village of Bint Jbeil, he provided the inspiration — a natural one, Katy said — for the bat mitzvah project she was required to organize at Park Avenue Synagogue. Eventually, the $10,000 she raised in Noam’s memory — matched by $15,000 from the Jewish Agency for Israel — will help build a playground in the northern Israeli city of Kiryat Shemona, which was hit hard during the 2006 war.
Maya Levine found inspiration for her bat mitzvah project a little closer to home — but like Katy her gift will help children. The athletic 13-year-old studying at Congregation Rodeph Sholom on the Upper West Side raised $20,000 to renovate the exercise facilities at the Edenwald School in Pleasantville, N.Y., an agency of the Jewish Child Care Association that caters to children with emotional and cognitive difficulties.
Both Mayerson, who attends Riverdale Country School, and Levine got help on their bat mitzvah projects from UJA-Federation of New York’s Give a Mitzvah Do a Mitzvah (GMDM) program, now in its fifth year. This year’s GMDM class included some 50 projects that raised more than $600,000, said Lori Strouch Kolinsky, the associate director of the UJA-Federation’s Emerging Leaders and Philanthropy department.
The program works with each student individually to get the most out of their projects. Mayerson’s and Levine’s projects were seen as two of the most successful.
“We meet with the teens and give them ideas and we work with our partners in Israel,” said Kolinsky.
About half of the children involved choose to benefit organizations in Israel, and half of them work within the New York area, according to Kolinsky.
Mayerson, who said she couldn’t imagine her project ending up as such a success, was on hand earlier this month in Kiryat Shmona at the groundbreaking of the playground.
“I’m only 13,” she said, “but I can’t imagine having to live in Israel with bombs and war and having to think about all that stuff.” Mayerson wanted instead to provide the children of Kiryat Shmona, one of the hardest hit towns during the war, with a place to be happy again. “I know that Noam would want to help these kids and would want them to have a place to play and be kids again,” she said.
“I hope that one day the people who play in the playground can grow up to be as inspiring as Noam was.”
Once the inspiration for the project hit, Mayerson got to work, designing a T-shirt to sell to her friends and family to raise the money.
“I was out to dinner with my mom when I came up with the idea, so I started designing the T-shirt on the paper tablecloth at the restaurant,” she said laughingly.
Before long, as Mayerson worked on a T-shirt design Web site, the shirts, emblazoned with “Make Play, Not War,” were printed up, with her mother’s help and initial donation.
“It isn’t good grammar,” Mayerson admitted, but she felt it was the only appropriate motto for her project.
Then the selling began. “We e-mailed everyone in our e-mail box, and I sold a lot to my family,” said Mayerson, who also brought the T-shirts to school to sell to her friends. She was able to sell about 70 shirts total, but at $25 a shirt (and just $15 for her friends), Mayerson knew that she’d need more than T-shirt sales to meet her fundraising goal.
“We got so many donations from people I didn’t know… a lot of people just gave me donations without wanting a T-shirt and some people gave a lot. I was like, ‘you could get a lot of t-shirts for that!’”
As donations came pouring in from friends, family and total strangers, Mayerson was able to raise the money in about 11 months. The Jewish Agency matching grant brought Mayerson’s total to $25,000.
“The mayor of Kiryat Shmona came [to the June 19 groundbreaking ceremony] and made this amazing speech,” Mayerson said. “My Aunt Lynn and Aunt Gila read a prayer, which was really emotional, and the mayor presented me with candlesticks and a glass plaque that said thank you.”
The event was attended by a handful of family members and UJA officials, as well as “a few people I didn’t know [from the town], and it meant a lot to me that they came,” Mayerson said.
For her project, Maya Levine, daughter of Rodeph Sholom Rabbi Robert Levine, looked closer to home, trying hard to exemplify the dual aspect of the GMDM program’s goals — not just giving money (raised through gifts at her bat mitzvah) but also time. After officials at the GMDM suggested a trip to the Edenwald School, Levine, who toured the facilities with her parents, knew it was the right place.
“[Maya’s] an athlete and believes in physical fitness and wanted to give kids a place to be able to exercise,” said Gina Levine, Maya’s mother.
Last June, Levine exposed her bat mitzvah class to Edenwald, helping bring the Rodeph Sholom students there to spend the day with the students there.
“They played basketball together and had lunch together and did art projects together … and they had a great experience together and made friends,” said Levine’s mother. “[They] realized how much they can help out others just by coming and spending time there.”
“Even though we brought them small gifts, we realized that what they treasured most was the time we devoted to them,” Maya wrote in an essay about her experience.
Levine’s project came to fruition on June 16 when she — along with her parents — attended a ribbon-cutting ceremony at the school.
“Maya was able to try out the [fitness] machines, and they had a plaque up on the wall,” her mother said. “They gave her a duplicate plaque, and the kids told us how much it means to them,” her mother said.
Both Mayerson and Levine said their bat mitzvah projects are fueling more giving. Levine is already involved with the Jewish Association for Services for the Aged, where she volunteers to walk the dog of an elderly woman. And Mayerson says she wants to continue, “but instead of donating to huge charities that everyone knows about I would look for smaller ones that really need it and are good causes … I would donate money to things that people don’t know about that people don’t really see all the time,” she pledged.
“Judaism teaches that it is our job to repair the world. While that seems beyond my capability at age thirteen, I realize that everyone can make the world a bit better for someone else,” Maya wrote. “I hope I can carry this valuable lesson with me for a lifetime.”