My middle child and only son is preparing for his Bar Mitzvah. Well, “preparing” may be overstating it; he knows the blessed event will happen March 12, and he usually manages to commit the required lines of Hebrew text to memory each week during the car ride between school and his lesson with the Cantor. Beyond that, I can’t get him to focus on much beyond which hats and sunglasses the DJ should distribute at the kid party.
After weeks of threats and nagging, however, I did finally get him to commit to his “Mitzvah project,” the act of community service or charity that is meant to be voluntary but has become practically a prerequisite for the modern-day ceremony. The idea, I suppose, is that a child should look beyond himself and demonstrate philanthropy and commitment to the community as part of his passage to adulthood. This is a relatively recent development, and a welcome one. Kids do anything from collect supplies for a local animal shelter to raise money for UNICEF or The Central Asia Institute, as my daughter did. My son decided to support the Anti -Defamation League, an organization whose mission of eradicating bigotry resonates with him. He is working with his middle-school guidance counselor to bring a speaker to school, and will attend an ADL youth conference in April.
What strikes me about these mitzvah projects is that they usually come to a crashing halt when it’s time for the kids to collect their loot. While some ask guests to bring children’s books or pet food to the service, shockingly few ask for donations to a particular cause in lieu of a gift. Why don’t more parents force their kids to do this? The assumption seems to be that the Bar Mitzvah kid is entitled to mountains of gifts and wads of cash, which as far as I am concerned, contradicts the whole point of the exercise. A friend of mine has devised a good way to force the issue: she typically writes two checks, one made out to the Bar or Bat Mitzvah kid and one with the “Pay to” line left blank, with instructions for the child to donate it to a favorite charity. It’s fun to see where the checks come back from–and tax-deductible, too.