This article originally appeared on www.JewishFamily.com, an online magazine published by Jewish Family & Life! Everyone has heard of bar and bat mitzvah parties where street performers and people in costume are hired to entertain the guests, 12- and 13-year-old children arrive in limousines, and the mother changes her outfit every time a new course of dinner is served. Although we will probably always find such ostentation, the days of splashy, flashy, flamboyant Jewish coming-of-age celebrations may be on the decline. Tikkun olam, "repair of the world," is now the buzzword for bar and bat mitzvah celebrations. Mitzvah (commandment), after all, refers to acts that fulfill our obligations toward God and other human beings. Believing that there is something special about becoming a bar or bat mitzvah--something bigger than the celebration afterwards--students across the country are taking on socially responsible community projects, such as collecting clothing or canned foods, giving money to charities, or planting trees in Israel. Michael Vidmar, 16, of Gaithersburg, Maryland, is one such teen. When he became a bar mitzvah in 1993, he decided to give the money he received as gifts to the B'nai B'rith flood relief fund. "I was sick about the materialistic greed surrounding my bar mitzvah, and I was ashamed of it," he said. "I didn't think I deserved the amounts of money I was receiving, and I felt it was taking away from the religious experience." Michael did know that he wanted to help other people, and that is why he decided to donate his money to the relief fund. Nine years ago, when Alison Stieglitz became a bat mitzvah in Miami, she decided that instead of having expensive flower arrangements on every table at her party, she would use baskets filled with food as her centerpieces. The baskets would then be donated to the local United Way. "I thought that becoming a bat mitzvah was part of taking on adult responsibilities," Alison says. "Since my bat mitzvah was around the time of Thanksgiving, and I was receiving a lot of gifts, I wanted to give something back to the community. I wanted to contribute." Ilana Gildenblatt of Cincinnati, Ohio, is also making a difference. Her synagogue, Temple Sholom, required her to participate in a family mitzvah project before she became a bat mitzvah last year. She knew she wanted to involve others and raise money for Cincinnati Dreams Come True (a program similar to the Make-a-Wish Foundation). So Ilana organized a three-mile "mitzvathon" around Sharon Woods Park. Inviting family and friends to participate, she helped raise $1,500. Ilana has decided to plan another mitzvathon, this time to raise money for the HIV Family Care Center at Children's Hospital.
Then there is Alexandra Alper of Rockville, Maryland, who says, "I felt that part of becoming a bat mitzvah meant doing a good deed." Alexandra collected close to 900 toiletries from neighbors, dentists, beauty salons, supermarkets, and hotels. All were donated to Luther's Place, a shelter for women in Washington, D.C. Alexandra plans to continue her collections by placing a donation box in her synagogue for people to make contributions throughout the year. Danny Siegel, founder and chairman of the Ziv Tzedakah Fund, says, "Individuals can make a difference and individuals do make a difference. If anything, tzedakah [charity] demonstrates that individuals have immense power, mitzvah power. "There are a million possibilities out there for fighting the Bat Mitzvah Party As One Big Shopping Spree syndrome," Siegel added. "If some people want to take a portion of their gifts and gift money and give these away, that is fine, and if they want to take the flowers left over from the party to a hospital--wonderful. Let us hope that this becomes the standard practice rather than the exception. Let us hope that the [young person] will speak from the gut on the Great Day, getting down to the real issue--growing up and becoming a responsible member of the Jewish community." The bar and bat mitzvah program at the Indianapolis Hebrew Congregation is based on the principle that the world stands on three pillars: Torah learning, divine service (worship and ritual), and deeds of loving kindness. Candidates must perform 26 mitzvot distributed among these three categories (A certain number of mitzvot must be completed in each). Cantor Janice Roger wants her students to see the connections among these three pillars and to have a full understanding of the mitzvot. She points out that when you become a bar or bat Mitzvah, you are declaring that you are a part of the Jewish community. So how can the community, meaning other families and teachers, help bar and bat mitzvah students begin to see those connections? Rabbi Jeffrey K. Salkin, author of "Putting God on the Guest List: How to Reclaim the Spiritual Meaning of Your Child?s Bar or Bat Mitzvah," recommends that parents ask during the planning stage, "What Jewish values do we hope this bar or bat mitzvah celebration will embody?" and make a list of them. The list may include, for example, compassion, dignity, justice, learning, social action, generosity, humility, moderation, and a love for the Jewish people and the Jewish homeland. "Plan your celebration around these values," he says, and stick to them. "Jewish celebrations [should] celebrate Jewish values," Salkin emphasizes. "The educational and spiritual part of Bar and Bat Mitzvah can extend beyond the final hymn at the service. It can permeate the lives of our young, and it can enrich what they take with them into the world." That is what happened for Alison Stieglitz, now 22 and a social worker. She says her experience during her bat mitzvah helped guide her into her current career. "I learned how easy it is to make a difference," she says. "It's important to try and make things better."Stieglitz and her family and friends continue to assemble food baskets that feed a family of four, every year. Currently they are making 200 baskets and feeding 800 people. All this from a small bat mitzvah project.
Here are a few ideas to help you get started with a socially responsible bar or bat mitzvah:
· Plant trees in Israel for each person who lights a candle on your cake.
· Donate leftover food to shelters.
· Donate leftover flowers to senior homes.
· Donate a portion of the gifts you receive to charity.
· Ask guests to bring canned foods or clothing with them to the party.