Students Give Back to their Communities with Mitzvah Projects

Neeva Patel, Staff Writer

While preparing for their Bat, Bar, or B’nai Mitzvahs — the celebration of becoming a Jewish adult — many Jewish students participate in charity and service projects to give back to their communities, Maxwell Lascher (7) said. “A Mitzvah project is a special chance to do something good as part of the Jewish tradition,” he said.

Mitzvah projects are often based around students’ interests or hobbies, Lascher said. Mitzvah directly translates to “good deed,” and these projects are based on a Jewish value called “tzedakah,” which means charity.

For his Bar Mitzvah, Lascher’s synagogue connected him to different organizations to help him brainstorm ideas for his project, he said. From there, his synagogue helped him create his own specific project, he said. “I heard that people in the past had held Zooms with Holocaust survivors and made bagged lunches — really anything that was a good deed for others.”

Since Lascher is interested in technology and robotics, he assembled marble run kits for children with autism at Washington Heights’ the Y, a Jewish community center, he said. The kits included materials to build a run: marbles, pieces of cardboard, and rubber bands.

Once he sent out kits, Lascher hosted two Zoom classes to teach the children how to build the marble runs themselves, he said. To prepare for the class, Lascher had Zoom meetings with his synagogue to help execute his vision, he said. He also visited the kids at the Y, he said. “It shows that doing small acts of service can make a difference in someone’s life,” Lascher said. “I only had to take a few hours out of my weekend to host the classes, but the kids I helped said it was the best part of their weekend,” he said.

Along with the marble run class, Lascher’s family helped fund a robotics course for the Y’s Sunday Funday program, he said. “These kids normally don’t have the funding for robotics projects, so being able to donate money so they could have two years of courses was really enjoyable,” Lasher said.

If Lascher was given the opportunity he would have tried to rework his project so that it was more focused on the marble runs instead of his parents’ donation, he said. “I only conducted the class twice and then after that, the Y chooses how they spend the money we donated, so in the future, I would work on making my part more impactful, he said.”

In preparation for her Bat Mitzvah this year, Sarah Korn (7) also completed a Mitzvah project, she said.“I always knew I wanted to do something that would help a community, so helping to save the environment and a park was something I was very interested in.” Korn’s temple introduced her to the concept of a Mitzvah project, though her parents mostly helped her come up with the idea for hers, she said.

Korn decided to conduct her project — picking up trash in Central Park — on a weekend because she wanted to devote as much time as she could to it, she said. This plan worked out well because she filled up two big bags of trash by the end of the day. “Cleaning the park made me really happy and I hope it makes other people happy to see that the bench they are sitting on doesn’t have a used Starbucks cup on it,” Korn said.

Similar to Korn, Leya Hecker (7) wanted her Mitzvah project to be based around a topic that was special to her, she said. Hecker started planning her Mitzvah project in February, about three months before her actual Bat Mitzvah, she said. “I didn’t really look for other ideas when planning because helping refugees was something my family and I wanted to focus on most,” Hecker said. Before she began her Mitzvah project, Hecker’s mom had met a refugee family in person and was accompanying them to the doctor’s office. “The family moved to America just two months ago, so my mom’s act of kindness served as the inspiration for my project,” she said.

Hecker’s synagogue partnered with the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society (HIAS), an organization that works with refugees around the world. For her project, Hecker collected donations from her family and friends to help refugee families, she said. She also included a link to the HIAS website on her Bat Mitzvah invitation and asked guests to consider donating, she said. In addition to promoting financial donations, Hecker hopes to donate phones and participate in a sandwich-making program that HIAS hosts, which delivers bags of food to refugees, she said.

The Mitzvah project has inspired Hecker to become more involved with service learning both inside and outside of school, she said. “I know that helping one family won’t solve all the world’s problems, but it is really nice to know that I have changed a couple of people’s lives for the better,” she said.