Mitzvah Projects: What Motivates a Teenager to Do Good

Linda Cohen is the author of 1,000 Mitzvahs: How Small Acts of Kindness, Can Heal, Inspire and Change Your Life (Seal Press/November 2011). In addition to writing, Cohen speaks around the country on the subjects of volunteerism, parenting, philanthropy, and, of course, mitzvahs! Today’s post, adapted from original post on her website: www.1000mitzvahs.org.

I am a writer. I write about volunteerism, “mitzvahs” or acts of kindness and charity. In the course of writing my first book, 1,000 Mitzvahs: How Small Acts of Kindness Can Heal, Inspire and Change Your Life, I learned of many teenagers that started non-profits as part of their Bar and Bat Mitzvah celebrations. Jewish children become Bar or Bat Mitzvah at twelve or thirteen years old. At this time, they are eligible to become full members of the Jewish community, assuming adult responsibilities for their choices and behaviors according to Jewish law.  Many of the children I learned about, took on “mitzvah projects” that were quite exceptional. Of course, it isn’t necessary to start your own non-profit to learn the importance of giving and participate in a mitzvah, but I guess the bar was set pretty high and I was fairly naive when I first started talking to my own daughter about embarking on a meaningful mitzvah project as part of her Bat Mitzvah this past July 2011.

Intellectually, I understood that, of course, our children are not carbon copies of us but the push back I received while encouraging her to find a project was somewhat startling for me.

There were plenty of ideas suggested for meaningful mitzvah projects all of which she nixed or we couldn’t make happen for logistical reasons. We suggested volunteering at a local food pantry, collecting books for a children’s book bank, volunteering at a local recycling art center (which had to be nixed do to time restraints and location though this probably could have worked otherwise), volunteering at a senior center or with animals. Mostly she’d respond that all of these were too typical.

When I was feeling deflated and unsuccessful as a mitzvah role model, I’d remember that it isn’t like my daughter doesn’t ever think of others. In fact, just a few weeks before when she was cleaning her room and found a pair of barely used jazz dance shoes she suggested we donate them to a local dance studio, so another child could benefit from them. It’s just that she’s thirteen which means we needed to find something that was meaningful to her at that age.

So it was with utter relief that we finally, found something she was eager to do — well that might be a bit of an exaggeration — but at least she thought  the project was worthy of some of her time and attention and she gave it both. And not a minute too soon, since we were only a couple of months away from her Bat Mitzvah.

My daughter partnered with a group called Gift Card Giver. They estimate that there are approximately $8 billion in gift cards that goes unused every year. She collected unused and partially used gift cards from any stores around the country and donated the collected cards to a local charity called CHAP that also fits her passion for the arts. CHAP (Children’s Healing Arts Project), brings the healing power of art to children in crisis with a mobile team of teaching artists who work in several Portland children’s hospitals. She collected a total of $450 worth of used gift cards.

As a mom, I learned that while I may teach and play a role model for my child, ultimately she will have to willingly choose to participate in her own meaningful opportunities for giving. Luckily, before the home stretch of her Bat Mitzvah celebration she finally embraced a project that had meaning and taught her something about helping others. I know we both learned an important lesson this summer.

Linda Cohen is the author of 1,000 Mitzvahs: How Small Acts of Kindness, Can Heal, Inspire and Change Your Life (Seal Press/November 2011). In addition to writing, Cohen speaks around the country on the subjects of volunteerism, parenting, philanthropy, and, of course, mitzvahs! Today’s post, adapted from original post on her website: www.1000mitzvahs.org.

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