There’s a proverb that charity begins at home. Just as important, learning to give charity starts at home, too. Children who grow up with parents who give tzedaka and donate their time to helping others, follow in their footsteps. When they approach bar and bat mitzvah age, incorporating a chesed project in their celebration is a natural step.
This month, Emunah is honoring “Changemakers” at their virtual annual dinner on Monday, November 1 at 8 p.m. (www.emunahdinner.org), including many boys and girls who made helping Emunah a part of their bar/bat mitzvah observance. Volunteering is a commitment they learned from their families, sometimes going back a few generations. Several Teaneck parents of children being honored shared with me how they helped their sons and daughters plan and execute fundraising events that gave them a sense of accomplishment as they reached this milestone in their lives.
Chani Chesner got involved in Emunah about five years ago, inspired by her friend
Alana Karp a”h, Emunah’s beloved senior director of events, who passed away suddenly last year. Both Chesner’s grandmothers had volunteered for Emunah, as did her parents. The Chesners visited Emunah’s Achuzat Sarah home, where Chesner’s parents had helped fund the remodel of a dormitory, two years ago.
The visit was an eye-opener for Ben, 11 and Abigail, 10, who forged a connection with the kids there. “It was hard for our kids to hear the stories about kids with parents who were abusive or couldn’t take care of their children so they had to be taken out and raised by counselors and teachers,” said Chesner. “It was a little emotional to be outside the scope of their happy, easy life.”
Abigail and her friend Avigayil Berkowitz held a Shavuot bake sale this year for their bat mitzvahs, raising funds to create a music room at Achuzat Sarah. Abigail was home when I spoke to her mother and told me what she gained from the experience. “When I went to Achuzat Sarah it was very sad,” Abigail said. “I wanted to raise money for them. [The bake sale] was very fun and exciting. I got to help people myself. It was my turn to do my share. I also had a party and had a fun, happy, amazing time.”
Avigayil’s mother, Tamara Berkowitz, helped organize the bake sale with Chesner. President of her Emunah chapter, Berkowitz has hosted visiting Achuzat Sarah graduates in her home and brought her family to visit Achuzat Sarah in Israel. The two moms conducted online ordering to be Covid safe. They made a spreadsheet for their daughters’ friends to sign up to bake and sent forms to their friends to pre-order. “Avigayil had a party for her bat mitzvah but she also wanted to do something to benefit other people,” said Berkowitz.
For his bar mitzvah, Ben Chesner organized a car wash with his friends to benefit Achuzat Sarah, but still wanted to do more. He created an online website where people could donate. “We asked Achuzat Sarah what the kids could use and they suggested school supplies,” said Chesner. “That really resonated with him. Ben said, ‘Can you imagine kids without supplies?’” Last month, despite Covid, the family also had a wonderful backyard bar mitzvah celebration under a tent, where Ben leined and davened.
Yael Penn is another Emunah volunteer who became involved through her “best friend” Alana Karp, a” h. Her daughter Sophie Bistritzky and her daughter’s friend Katie Weiss are making mask chains to raise money for Emunah as part of their upcoming bat mitzvahs. Stuck at home during Covid, both girls liked crafts and were looking to do something for Emunah. “In addition to the party and the dress, we wanted to do something meaningful,” said Penn. She hopes one day to travel to Israel and visit Emunah’s homes.
Yonaton Faber is the fourth generation to grow up supporting Emunah’s children’s homes, so a fundraising project for Emunah as part of his bar mitzvah celebration was a given. “We spearheaded ideas and came up with a basketball tournament to fund recreation activities like foosball and a ping pong table at Bet Elazraki, something kids his age could benefit from,” said his mother, Miri.
The three-on-three tournament took place on September 30, before school started. The tournament had been scheduled indoors but when Covid started to spike again, Yeshivat Noam offered their outdoor court. Yonaton planned the entire event, recruiting sponsors and players.
The weather cooperated for both the tournament and celebratory meal. The entire event was in lieu of a party. “He was proud of himself and humbled by the experience—that it really works,” said his mother. “It started with an idea and then it really happened.” Faber has no doubt that when her daughter is a bat mitzvah in two years, she will do something similar and meaningful.
Mordechai Faber, Yonaton’s father, is proud to see his grandparents’ mission being continued. His grandmother Melanie Oelbaum left the European inferno on the Kindertransport with no family. She became the national president of Emunah of America for many years, founded the mission department, and is currently the senior fundraiser. His mother, Ronnie, is Emunah’s senior director of philanthropy.
Mordechai spent many Shabotot at Emunah’s Bet Elazraki when he was younger, after the director Yehuda Kohn stayed at his parents’ home and despite knowing no English, invited him to visit. “When you go to someplace like that for Shabbos, and go to shul with the kids, you understand that there are Jewish people born into situations that are not good for them. My grandmother dedicated her life to the idea that all Jewish children should be taken care of. That’s the lesson I learned and that’s what I’m showing my children.”
Ilan Sugarman’s family had three goals when planning his bar mitzvah: celebrate together despite the isolation imposed by the pandemic; honor the memories of Ilan’s great-grandmother Shirly Billet z”l, a founder of Emunah of America, and his grandfather Allen Sugarman; and raise money for Achuzat Sarah, where Shirley and Leo Billet had dedicated a medical wing in memory of Allen Sugarman. The extended Sugarman family had visited Israel two years ago for a cousin’s bat mitzvah and Ilan got to know the kids.
Both Ari and Lisa Sugarman compete in marathons, and Ilan, a talented athlete, trained with them. With help from Ronnie Faber, the Sugarmans planned “The Shugee Run,” (Ilan’s nickname) to fund a running program at Achuzat Sarah. Lisa created a fundraising page, secured sponsors and made T-shirts.
Ilan’s bar mitzvah was celebrated in two parts. On a cold February Shabbos, Ilan leined and had a Havdala/melave malka in an outdoor tent. The Shugee Run was held a few weeks later, on March 31, so it was between the yahrzeits of Shirley Billet and Allen Sugarman.
“Achuzat Sarah sent Ilan a video showing that the running program had begun, and thanking him for it,” said Sugarman. “He saw firsthand those smiles from the kids and it made him feel like a million dollars that he could provide so much good and have that outlet.”
A bar or bat mitzvah celebration can have everything. It’s a coming-of-age event with learning and fun. For children who have family role models in chesed, it’s also a time when they can grow from observers to leaders, becoming changemakers in their own right to help people in need.
By Bracha Schwartz