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Mitzvah Impossible?

Mitzvah Impossible?

‘What about an Israeli pen pal?” my daughter Talia asks. She waits expectantly, smiling a wary smile, hoping that this time I won’t wince. In a quest to fulfill a bat mitzvah requirement, she’s floated idea after idea in recent weeks — from eliminating illegal smoking in Central Park to purchasing projectors for underfunded schools — and I’ve torpedoed them all. Later, I suggest minor adjustments to her proposals, but she’s no longer interested. Not even a bit.

This is the delicate, awkward dance of mom-tween relationships, I know. Even as I celebrate Talia’s ongoing steps toward independence, I can’t help but wonder at my own role. It is approaching the eve of Talia’s 13th year, and our discussions revolve around a new ritual that is rapidly becoming standard practice for Jewish children entering religious “adulthood.” We are in the midst of trying to design a “mitzvah project” that will underscore the values (and value) of Talia’s Jewish roots.

“There is an old custom of the bar mitzvah boy doing a learning project,” says Jonathan Sarna, professor of American Jewish History at Brandeis University. “Nowadays, the social justice project essentially replaces that learning project. In all cases, the bar/bat mitzvah reflects the old anthropologically-familiar idea that one undergoes various ‘ordeals’ prior to being accepted into the clan as an adult.”

The ideal project joins an adolescent’s passion, whether it’s playing violin or soccer, together with one of society’s problems, as in “what issues drive you bananas?” says Daniel Rothner, who is the founder and director of Areyvut. Areyvut will help families craft suitable projects in exchange for a small donation. The possibilities are endless, ranging from tutoring children to conducting concerts at hospitals.

I’m thinking that Talia, a baker of growing proficiency, might want to make and deliver hot, homemade challahs to apartment-bound seniors in our Manhattan neighborhood. I’m thinking that my shy child would benefit from volunteer work of any kind. But Talia doesn’t look happy.

“I kind of want to come up with the idea myself,” she tells me politely. Her gentle manner surprises me. She seems concerned about my feelings. “I don’t want it to come from the Internet. I don’t want it to come from you.”

Some synagogues, like ours, welcome almost any initiative, while others provide detailed guidelines. I like the structure offered by my friend Naomi Wilensky, who is the religious school director of a Reform synagogue in Ithaca, N.Y., and encourages students to devote at least 15-20 hours to their projects. She says that these endeavors often metamorphose in shape and size. Her oldest daughter, for example, volunteered at an assisted living facility, putting up bulletin boards and the like, but shifted course when she met an elderly lady in search of a young Scrabble partner.

Some projects live on long after the bar or bat mitzvah party’s final hora. Noa Mintz, the daughter of our friends, for example, created an ongoing project, “Do Knitzvah,” with the aid of UJA-Federation’s “Do A Mitzvah, Give A Mitzvah” program. Noa organized a virtual knitting club, using Skype chats to stitch together a community of Manhattan girls with Israeli girls living under the constant threat of terrorist attacks.

I summon Talia to view a YouTtube video of Eric Greenberg Goldy, a student at Columbia Grammar and Preparatory School, who hosted a bowlathon for his bar mitzvah a few years back and raised thousands of dollars. The sixth annual Strike Out Pediatric Cancer event was held this past December. “OK, I get the idea,” says Talia. She’s already walking away from the screen.

After all, Talia is the type of girl who at the age of 8 held her first of several lemonade sales. She never considers keeping any portion of the proceeds for herself. This year, after three years of growth and 20 minutes of sheering, without a moment’s reservation, Talia donated her thick blond curls to Locks of Love, an organization that makes wigs for cancer patients.

Last night, as we dragged ourselves through slushy dark streets after a friend’s bat mitzvah, Talia grew excited. “How about I organize a big fundraiser? We could do tie-dye!” She takes a moment to think, and I hold my breath. I’m getting an idea too. Trust in Talia.

Elicia Brown’s column appears the second week of the month. E-mail her at

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