When I celebrated my bar mitzvah in October 1989 there was no such thing as a "bar mitzvah project" yet. I had a handful of requirements I had to achieve like chanting from the Torah, leading parts of the prayer service for the congregation and singing the Haftorah with my squeaky, changing voice. I didn't have to volunteer at any social service organizations, collect books for inner-city schools or get people to send school supplies to Africa.
It would be a few more years until the concept of the bar mitzvah project would take shape. Encouraged by social action guru Danny Siegel, synagogues across North America began requiring their 12-year-olds to take on a project as part of their path toward becoming a bar mitzvah (bat mitzvah for girls). Early on these pre-teens would simply log volunteer hours at the local food pantry or old folks' home, but eventually their projects became more creative. Budding entrepreneurs started using their bar mitzvah projects to make a real impact, launching social justice initiatives based on their own interests that have continued long since their bar mitzvah date.
I'm always interested in hearing about imaginative bar mitzvah projects and an intriguing one was brought to my attention yesterday. A Manhattan mom, Amy Kohn, got in touch with me to let me know about her son Nathan's recent bar mitzvah project. Knowing I'm a rabbi who loves sports and lives in Detroit, she found me online and told me about her son's initiative that helps bring new sports equipment to youth baseball teams in Detroit.
The idea for this project began when Nathan's older brother, Max, began preparing for his bar mitzvah, which was two years ago. At his family's synagogue, Congregation B'nai Jeshurun on the Upper West Side, the teens have the option to do a mitzvah project. Max likes baseball and is a Detroit Tigers fan (his stepfather's late father lived in Harlem, but adopted the Tigers because of its star Jewish player Hank Greenberg), so he began researching little league baseball in Detroit and stumbled upon an organization called Detroit PAL. This nonprofit positively impacts the lives of more than 11,000 children each year by creating safe and supportive places for kids to play sports. In partnership with the Detroit Police Department and community volunteers, Detroit PAL trains and certifies more than 1,500 volunteers each year to become encouraging coaches and mentors to Detroit's youth. Through athletic, academic and leadership development programs, the organization helps young people gain character, lead active and healthy lifestyles, and give back to their community.
Like his older brother Max, Nathan decided to continue this important project when it came time for him to designate a bar mitzvah project leading up to his March 2015 milestone. Both boys are public school students in New York City and split their time between mom's home on the Upper West Side and dad's home in Queens.
Following Max's bar mitzvah, the family traveled to Detroit and had a chance to meet the team they sponsored by encouraging the donation of new baseball cleats. The next summer at the Max Scherzer pitching clinic in Detroit they learned from the team's coach, a Detroit police officer, that the players had passed the baseball shoes down to younger kids. After hearing that, Nathan determined that he too would choose Detroit PAL as the beneficiary for his bar mitzvah project, but this time he decided he would collect new sports equipment specifically for the Nationals youth baseball team at Detroit PAL.
At the end of this month, the Nationals will travel from Detroit to New York City to play against Nathan's baseball team in Riverside Park. The boys from Detroit will also be going on a Staten Island Ferry ride and taking in a New York Mets game.
For Max's bar mitzvah project he was able to collect about 25 pairs of cleats from all over the world, including from New Zealand and Germany. The response for Nathan's project has been overwhelming with all sorts of new baseball equipment being donated to the Nationals. Those who are participating are thanking Nathan for allowing them to help in such a meaningful and impactful way.
This, of course, is the true meaning of a bar mitzvah. A charitable initiative like the one these boys have created combines their own passions, helps those less fortunate and brings more meaning into their Jewish coming-of-age ritual. At the bottom of the email I received from Max and Nathan's mom was this quote from Howard Zinn: "Small acts, when multiplied by millions of people, can transform the world." Indeed.