Many years later, Liz Suneby can barely recall the Torah portion she chanted or the d’var Torah she delivered at her bat mitzvah.
But if she had had a mitzvah project, that she would remember.
At least, that is what she believes.
“My guess,” she says of the current generation’s mitzvah projects, “is this is something they’ll remember. 10 years, 20 years, 30 years down the line.”
Suneby is co-author of “The Mitzvah Project Book,” published earlier this month by Jewish Lights. The book aims to provide a guide to what has become a fourth pillar of the Jewish rite of passage, alongside the traditional chanting, the sermonette, and the party.
The book reflects the experience of Suneby and her co-author (and friend since college) Diane Heiman of bringing children through the process of selecting and implementing a bar- or bat mitzvah process.
“What struck me was how important it is to find something to fit the talents of each child, something they could really do, to make them feel they could make a difference,” said Suneby.
“The Mitzvah Project Book” is designed to help a child (and his or her parents) think through the process of choosing and then implementing a mitzvah project. Eighteen chapters focus on different areas of youthful interests, from arts to technology to animals to the environment to Israel. Each provides six ideas for projects in that area.
“Rather than being prescriptive, they were meant to inspire,” she said.
The authors further interviewed 85 children about their projects, which are placed in each chapter. “Kids like hearing about what other kids do,” she said.
“It was really important to have an array of projects,” she said. “What’s appropriate for one kid really isn’t for another. If you look at the different ideas in the book, some are grand and some are simple. I don’t think the grand ones are any more important or impactful.”
“One of my favorites is a boy who noticed that in his middle school the kids who were the special needs kids were really separated from the other kids in the school. He went to the special needs teacher and said, ‘I’d like to get a buddy.’ And every week for the school year he had lunch with that buddy.
“That’s giving of your heart, of your time, giving of your soul. What a great mitzvah project it was. He changed the life of one child. Not only did he and his buddy enjoy each other, they each brought friends to join them, so more of the mainstream kids and more of the special needs kids took part. There wasn’t a penny spent, not a parent involved,” Suneby said.
“We’re hoping the book sparks ideas for kids and makes it fun and makes them motivated.
“If you think about that age, it’s an age where there’s a lot about ‘me.’ When you’re making that symbolic step into adulthood, what a great time to say ‘I’m going to do something for someone else.'”