A 12-year-old orphan from the IDF Widows and Orphans organization (left) at the Aliyah l’Torah in Israel of his “twin” from Germany
A 12-year-old orphan from the IDF Widows and Orphans organization (left) at the Aliyah l’Torah in Israel of his “twin” from Germany

If you’re a parent of a Bar-Mitzvah or Bat-Mitzvah-aged child today, you’ve probably heard that dozens of celebrations are embracing the new party trend: giving back. As volunteering, fundraising, and “matching” Bar/ Bat Mitzvahs are gaining popularity, Israeli organizations are gratefully embracing the demand. Whether it’s helping orphans, children with special needs, or poverty-stricken families, 12-and 13-year-olds around the world are becoming increasingly inspired to use their celebratory opportunities to give back to the Jewish community.

For example, “Mitzvah Projects” allows Bar- and Bat-Mitzvah-aged boys and girls from around the world to use the occasion of their Bnei Mitzvah to fundraise and raise awareness for orphans whose parent was killed while in the IDF or Israel Security Forces. Organized by the IDF Widows and Orphans (IDFWO) Organization, the project makes it easy for Bnei Mitzvah to establish a personalized online fundraising campaign to raise charity either for a chosen project or the nonprofit in general. For example, Serena Eshaghoff from Great Neck, NY met some of the orphans during their North America Bar/Bat Mitzvah trip last year. For her Mitzvah Project, she decided to sell shawls and scarves to raise charity for IDFWO. Another program of theirs, Mitzvah Twinning, arranges a pen-pal-type correspondence between a child in the Diaspora and an orphan. Through phone, email, or Skype, both children get to learn about the life of their “twin,” as well as the preparation process for their party. In one instance, a 12-year-old girl from Germany united with her “twin” from the IDFWO when she came to celebrate her Aliya l’Torah in Israel. Besides for gaining a valuable feeling of meaning and satisfaction in taking on their own tzedakah campaign to symbolize their entry to Jewish adulthood, the teens abroad get to fulfill the special Torah commandment to be especially kind towards Jewish widows and orphans.

“A Bar or Bat Mitzvah is one of the most important celebrations in a Jewish child’s life, but orphans need to celebrate this significant milestone without their father: one of the two most valuable members of their family,” explains Shlomi Nahumson, Director of IDFWO’s Youth Department. “That’s where we step in. While there’s no way we can bring their fathers back to them, we can put our hands on their shoulders and help these orphans feel loved, cared for, and supported by all of us, all around the world—especially at such an emotional and momentous occasion as their Bar/Bat Mitzvah.”

a Bar Mitzvah boy dances with his friends from Seeach Sod, an organization for special-needs children and adults in Israel

Another example: Bar and Bat Mitzvah-aged children internationally can now participate in a program to sponsor a celebration for an intellectually disabled child who wouldn’t otherwise have a party. Seeach Sod, one of Israel’s leading rehabilitative and educational centers for special needs and physically challenged children and adults, conducts unique celebrations for children with developmental and intellectual disabilities.  In these “special” Bar Mitzvahs, Seeach Sod excels at making sure that each kid feels connected according to their level of ability. The boys are taught how to put on tefillin, how to receive guests, how to give a drasha, and even how to make the brachot for an Aliyah.

Leket Israel, Israel’s largest expert in food rescue, has a plethora of opportunities for b’nei mitzvah who travel to Israel: Bar and Bat Mitzvah boys and girls can join staff and volunteers in the field to collect harvest and help pack the 8,000 sandwiches given to thousands of Israeli school children every day. Leftover food from their parties can be donated to Leket, who will safely and hygienically recycle it for poor schoolchildren.

For parents of the Bnei Mitzvah who want the volunteer experience included in their Israel trip itinerary but don’t want to deal with the hassle of logistics, there are middlemen (such as Eddie’s Kosher Travel) that organize tours and the volunteer experience between the charity and the volunteers. Daphna Secunda, an event planner in Israel, attests to the popularity of  Bnei Mitzvah (and their families) asking how they can share their simcha in Israel with those less fortunate.

Once, one of her clients—a “lovely Bar Mitzvah boy who just wanted to share”—decided he wanted his “give-back” project to involve a generous candy buffet for the children of Bet Elazraki Children’s Home in Netanya—a foster care facility which provides a warm home and loving family for children whose parents are unable to care for them. “We approached the event with great excitement and anticipation as we heard that over a hundred disadvantaged children from varying difficult home situation and backgrounds would be present. As we built the rainbow display of overflowing candy and chocolates, we watched the mood of the environment spiral into one of excitement and thrill! The pure delight and gratitude on the faces of these children validated everything—both for the Bar Mitzvah boy, his parents, and of course myself.”

No matter how you choose to celebrate, remember that long after the party is over, what stays with your son—or daughter—are the memories of the day. It’s vital to ensure those memories are meaningful.