There are 7,053 miles separating Wyckoff and Rwanda.
Eisenhower Middle School seventh-grader Sarah Miller traversed that distance last February as the culmination of an unusually long bat mitzvah project. She flew there, of course, but you also could say that she danced her way to Rwanda.
Back in 2015, a “Mitzvah Mall” event at Barnert Temple in Franklin Lakes introduced Sarah to MindLeaps, a nonprofit organization that prepares former street kids in Rwanda, Guinea, and Bosnia-Herzegovina for a stable life in school or in the workplace through education, vocational training, and a dance program to improve cognitive development.
“I fell in love with the charity very quickly,” said Sarah, who studied classical ballet for much of her childhood. She also felt an affinity to MindLeaps’ chairman, Rabbi Joel Soffin, who been the social action rabbinical scholar-in-residence at Barnert Temple.
Sarah raised more than $3,000 in donations for MindLeaps by speaking about its programs in area schools and cultural centers over the course of two years. Through the Sarah Miller Scholarship Fund, she sponsored a Rwandan street child named Mugisha so that he was assured two years of tuition at Sonrise, a private Christian boarding school for Rwandan orphans. And she provided a year of health insurance coverage for 40 Rwandan girls who recently joined the program.
“I felt it was an appropriate thing to do for my bat mitzvah, because from a very young age we’ve been taught in my Jewish community that what you have, you give, and when you can, you help,” Sarah said. “That’s really made an impact on my life. With this charity, I was able to connect in my personal life and in my Jewish life.”
Also, Rwanda was the site of a genocide; in four months in 1994, about 800,000 Rwandans were murdered for the crime of being Tutsi in a Hutu-led country. They were slaughtered, in other words, for being who they were.
When Sarah celebrated her bat mitzvah on October 1 — her 13th birthday — she told guests about her project but didn’t mention that she hoped to go to Rwanda because the details hadn’t been completed.
Eventually she did make the journey, accompanied by her mother, Rebecca Holland, and Rabbi Soffin and his wife, Sandy. Visiting the MindLeaps Center in Kigali and Sonrise boarding school gave her an opportunity to meet many of the students she has assisted — and to dance with them.
Meeting Mugisha had a profound effect on her, Sarah said. Though they already had emailed one another through MindLeaps (“At his boarding school they learn English and his English is actually really good,” Sarah said) the face-to-face meeting forged a true connection.
“Mugisha is 15 and I’m 13, almost the same age, yet he is literally handling the complete opposite of what I’m handling,” she said. She knows that he’s faced many difficult challenges in his young life, and she has not. “I learned that people-to-people connections can be the most important thing,” she added.
“Sarah shows us that every person can make a difference in our world,” MindLeaps’ executive director, Rebecca Davis, said. “There’s great hope in the next generation.”
In her encounters, which were facilitated by MindLeaps and also by Jewish Helping Hands, a nonprofit social-action organization Rabbi Soffin founded to support additional initiatives in Rwanda, Sarah discovered that Rwandans have an affinity for Jews. “They feel we have something in common with them, and they really love and embrace the Jewish culture,” she said.
The Soffins took Sarah and her mother to visit Jewish Helping Hands projects, including a Kigali cooperative where local women tend chickens and sell the eggs to a local restaurant, and a maternity hospital where Jewish Helping Hands distributes a daily egg and pint of milk to new mothers. (The hospital does not provide its patients with meals.) The New Jersey visitors brought four suitcases full of medical supplies to the hospital.
The Millers also met with many of the 30 Rwandan genocide widows supported by Jewish Helping Hands, and they helped interview them to determine their needs.
“That was an incredible, sobering experience,” Ms. Holland said. “They all loved Sarah and couldn’t stop hugging her.”
Ms. Holland added that supporting and raising money and awareness for MindLeaps “has enlightened, expanded, and significantly altered Sarah’s view of the world. Sarah has always been compassionate, but her passion, energy, and dedication toward the groups of people we met in Rwanda was something to see. She learned through this experience the difference that just one person can make, and I think her passion to continue to support MindLeaps and social action in general will continue to be a large part of her life.”
Sarah, whose family includes her father, David, and her 12-year-old brother, Matthew, enjoys learning about science and physiology. She said she hopes one day to study how poverty affects cognitive development in children.
Meanwhile, another trip to Rwanda is on her dance card. “We still have two more suitcases to deliver — one with clothes and one with medical supplies — so I hope to go again at the same time next year,” Sarah said.