While there is no doubt that a bat mitzvah is an opportunity to celebrate a milestone date in a pre-teen girl’s life, much of the emphasis is on the bat, the guest of honor herself. While many soon to be twelve year old girls focus on their clothing, hair, invitations, menu and color scheme, it is refreshing to see how many spend an equal amount of time addressing the mitzvah aspect of this event, by integrating a special project, designed to benefit others, into the festivities.
Incorporating a mitzvah themed project can be as simple as baking challah, taking up a collection for needy individuals or packing up activity bags for hospitalized children. But just as we rack our brains trying to come up with unique activities and creative menus, the sky is the limit when it comes to finding ways to infuse the celebration with at least a modicum of kedusha.
For Raina Dubin, a Maryland seventh grader and the oldest of three girls, the way to elevate her bat mitzvah to a higher level involved an item that we all take for granted: pencils. Partnering with Right-to-Write, a New York City based organization that donates pens and pencils to schools, orphanages and hospitals in developing countries, Raina’s invitation included a request for pencils and/or donations to her chosen cause.
“Raina is an exceptional student and education is the most important thing to her,” Anat Dubin, Raina’s mother, told The Jewish Press. “Something about helping kids, giving them a solid educational foundation suited her perfectly.”
“I chose this project because it seemed like something everyone could be a part of,” added Raina. “It is simple and easy for anyone to help out kids in need.”
Right-To-Write was born when Kim Oppenheimer, a special educator of babies and small children, discovered how in demand writing implements of any kind were when she traveled on medical missions to Peru and Namibia. Realizing that households in America always seem to have an abundance of unused pens and pencils, she established the organization in an effort to further education in third world countries.
“The hardest part is having people in the United States realize that there is a need for these items,” said Ms. Oppenheimer. “I know that everyone has extra pens and pencils in the bottom of their handbags or backs of drawers and the impact is big. One pen equals almost a year of education for one child and I love the idea of having everyday people realize how they can help. I have always wanted to expand into schools, from preschools to high schools, so that they can create pen drives in their communities. Then came along this wonderful girl, on her own, and she has really wowed me by how humbly and simply she added to the project. Instead of a teacher bringing the idea forward, she brought it forward on her own to her friends and opened their awareness.”
In addition to collecting 3,458 new pens and pencils at her Bat Mizvah celebration, Raina’s guests also contributed ancillary items that would prove useful to aspiring students: pencil grips, erasers and sharpeners. While Right-To-Write collects pencils in any condition, Raina asked her guests to contribute new pencils.
“We felt that these kids deserved new pencils and this was a very concrete, tangible experience,” explained Mrs. Dubin. “There is a brilliant simplicity in what Right-to-Write is doing and it gave Raina the ability to visualize what she was doing for others and see the results of her campaigning.”
2800 of the writing implements collected at Raina’s Bat Mitzvah were sent to schools in Uganda and Kenya, with the remainder going to educational institutions in Cuba.
Having gotten a taste of how satisfying community can be, Raina hopes to take on other projects in the future and expressed her gratitude to everyone who contributed to her campaign.
“To me, helping others is taking time away from what you are doing to do something for someone else,” reported Raina. “It felt so good knowing that other people cared so much to help me with my project.”
For another twelve-year-old girl, the quest for an appropriate Bat Mitzvah project evolved into a continuing movement to collect kosher food for soldiers, now in its fifth year.
Kosher Troops got its start with the bat mitzvah of Leah Fuerst, now a seventeen-year-old Monsey high schooler. The idea began quite simply: an Israeli themed event, with a blue and white color scheme, a Middle Eastern menu and, given the time of year, packaging mishloach manos for Israeli soldiers. But as the idea began to take shape in the mind of Sara Fuerst, the mother of the guest of honor, the focus shifted to helping Jewish members of the United States military.
“My father-in-law had had a job with the government and was stationed in Germany for two years,” explained Mrs. Fuerst. “I remembered that for military members, you could ship to an APO box for a nominal amount of money.”
Figuring that by keeping shipping costs down she could send packages to more people, Mrs. Fuerst changed her focus.
“There had to be Jews in the American army,” recalled Mrs. Fuerst. “I started calling around. I called West Point and the Jewish welfare board and by the time the bat mitzvah rolled around we had the names of approximately 150 Jewish soldiers.”
While Leah’s party was a small affair for her nearest and dearest, the Fuersts contacted what Mrs. Fuerst termed “all the people we would have invited had we been making a wedding,” and the donations came rolling in.
In addition to shipping out packages with snacks, Sudoku books, anti microbial socks, candies and other items, including Meal Mart ready to eat meals for the soldiers who kept kosher, the guests wrote letters to the soldiers as well.
“The response we got was incredible and we realized that while we had sent the soldiers packages for Purim, what we were going to do about Pesach?” said Mrs. Fuerst.
And with that, Kosher Troops really came into being.
Working hand in hand with partner Ava Hamburger, the pair solicited donations from both individuals and local businesses. A Kosher Troops collection bin was placed in Wesley Kosher, a local kosher supermarket, encouraging shoppers to contribute goods on their way out of the store. Kosher Troops sent out packages for Pesach, followed by additional shipments in time for Shavuos and Rosh Hashana.
To date, Kosher Troops has sent out packages to approximately 5,000 soldiers, on army bases in the United States as well as in Kuwait, Afghanistan and Qatar. Donations come both from local vendors, including shrink wrapped challahs from the Rockland County based Challah Fairy as well as national and international companies including Streits, Manishewitz, Golden Blossom, Kedem, Entenmanns, Abeles and Heymann, Gold’s, Osem, Yehuda Matzos, Zadies Bake Shop, Joyva, JoBurg Kosher, La Briute, Amazing Savings, King Zak Industries and J.R. Kelly.
“There are other organizations that do what we do, but none of them do as much as we do,” said Mrs. Fuerst. “I never dreamed into would turn into anything like this.”
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