The bar/bat mitzvah experience for many teens involves becoming involved with tikkun olam, repairing the world.  When I became a bat mitzvah, it meant donating a percentage of the money I received to the Elizabeth Glaser Pediatric AIDS Foundation.  I remember picking this organization totally at random and not thinking too much about what I was doing or why I was doing it. At the time, I thought that my donation was pretty generous.   After I sent the money, I got a thank you letter from the organization and that was the last time I was in communication with them.

Since many synagogues require a tzedakah or community service project as part of the b’nai mitzvah process, students may share my experience of picking an organization at random based only minimally on their own interests or experiences.  There is often not a lot of follow up after the mitzvah project is completed.  The money is donated or books collected and there’s a sense of satisfaction.

What about those students who want more?  

For those students that want to do more, this is where B’nai TELEM comes in.  B’nai TELEM is the combination of community service along with classroom learning.  Instead of one volunteer project, students have six volunteer experiences, each focusing on a different service theme such as the environment, poverty, or the needs of the elderly.  Students are able to experience different types of volunteering and connect with a particular area of interest to find out what they are really passionate about.   

Our tikkun olam and social justice values are deeply rooted in Judaism and the B’nai TELEM curriculum uses that as a foundation to build a rich classroom learning experience incorporating text, and a variety of activities.  Before students volunteer, they learn and discuss each topic with their peers and plan activities to prepare for their service visits.  Students often connect their B’nai TELEM experience with their mitzvah project and choose to donate money to an organization they volunteered with. 

As I think back on my Bat Mitzvah experience, perhaps if I was given the chance to learn more about the world wide AIDS epidemic, I would have felt inspired to stay involved with the Elizabeth Glaser Foundation and given much more to them then my one time donation.   Providing tzedakah and participating in community service is meaningful, regardless of your motivations.   But knowing why you’re doing it, and feeling passionate about that reason, makes the experience that much more significant.    B’nai TELEM is looking to create that passion in the next generation of Jewish youth, paving the way for sustained involvement in tikkun olam throughout their lives. 

Emily Reichman is the B’nai TELEM Coordinator at the Jewish Community Relations Council of Greater Boston. Emily graduated from The University of Vermont with a Bachelor’s degree in Political Science and has been involved in social justice work since the age of five.  She enjoys yoga, listening to NPR, as well as reading anything and everything about food. 

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