This act of charity, generosity or simple compassion can range from anything to raising money for the local homeless shelter or volunteering at the town library to collecting and donating clothing for children in developing countries. It’s a pretty standard step along the path to becoming a Bar or Bat Mitzvah these days.
Looking around at how things are typically done, I’ve been struck by an odd, unsettling paradox: a hefty majority of the projects kids are doing and those touted by the various how-to resources out there come packaged as activities that are so much fun, so cool and so…chic!…that any kid participating could easily forget what the heck the point was in the first place.
- Making and selling beaded necklaces to raise money for sustainable water pumps in Sub-Saharan African communities.
- Creating a decorative box and placing it in a dance school to collect used leotards to donate to dance students who can’t afford to purchase new ones.
- Assembling hand-made gift baskets of food items to donate to food pantries, shelters, etc.
- Hosting a sleepover party at which each guest brings and leaves an extra pair of pyjamas to donate to children escaping from domestic abuse.
Each and every one of these missions is, without a shadow of a doubt, invaluable, generous, educational and kind. The mere fact that they get kids thinking in terms of helping others and expose them to some of the myriad ways in which our world indeed needs repairing is priceless. But I wonder: Don’t all these cute whistles and bells — these frills — like making necklaces, hosting sleepover parties and creating decorative boxes and baskets distract the kids from the very problems their projects focus on?
In many cases, these frills have even become status symbols kids can brag about to their friends. Kind of like the fancy fundraising benefits attended by adults.
I have nothing against doing anything and everything possible to educate our kids about society’s problems and the steps we can all take toward positive change. And I know that a spoonful of sugar always helps the medicine go down. But I can’t help wondering why the spoon has to be heaped so high — and what this does to the meaning.
What about one-on-one projects that bring kids into direct contact with the people they are helping so they can get a taste of poverty, illness, aging or illiteracy for themselves and develop genuine compassion? Or projects that go on over time rather than coming to an end when the Bar or Bat Mitzvah is over? How about making a small sacrifice in the form of time, belongings or favorite activities instead of having fun crafting baskets or throwing a party, in order to develop a sense for what loss and struggles are all about?
A family I knows devotes one day a month to helping deliver furniture and supplies to the residents of low-income housing complexes. Their four kids skip soccer, play dates and whatever else they might have on their calendars and immerse themselves in the lives of families on the opposite end of the social spectrum. I’ll bet ongoing acts of *repairing the world* (tikkun olam) will become an important part of their lives for good.
As for my own family….*Sigh.* We’re as guilty as anyone of having good intentions but taking initiatives that are cosmetic at best. Sam has decided that for his Mitzvah project, he’ll raise money from friends and family to cover the sponsorship of a child in a developing country. A worthy cause and one that he’s committed to sticking with over the years, with no distracting frills — but no direct contact or involvement either.
One more nap that I wish would end.