Last summer, I met with the Rabbi, Assistant Rabbi and Education Director at our synagogue. Our congregation had been piloting a new initiative as part of the Religious School program. The initiative had many innovative and engaging components– including a series of family learning sessions in which the kids had a session with one teacher, and the parents had a concurrent session on the same topic with another teacher, then we all meet up and share what we learn. The concept is phenomenal… it just wasn’t working for our family. At eight out of eight programs, I ended up leaving the adult program to join G with the kids. I called the meeting to see if there were elements of the program that could be reworked in order to meet the needs of G and other kids with special learning needs.
It was a great meeting, and we left the gathering with some concrete steps we could take towards making the programs work for everyone.
I thought the topic was closed, but to my surprise, I got a message from the Rabbi about a week later. She informed me that one of the seventh graders in the pre-Bar Mitzvah class was looking to do a Mitzvah Project* working with young children with special needs. Since Eve was only twelve, her mom was having trouble finding an organization that could accept her as a volunteer. The Rabbi was wondering if we might be interested in linking up with Eve. Eve could come with us to the family programs and other events at shul and help G participate.
Wow. On the one hand, it felt like the perfect solution to the dilemma we were having. On the other hand, it felt a bit uncomfortable to think about being someone’s Mitzvah Project.
But the more I thought about it, the more I loved the idea. First off, it’s good to know when to accept help. The offer was extended as a kindness, and it seemed the gracious thing to do was to accept appreciatively. Second, I loved the idea of a teenager (especially a teen within our congregation) developing an interest in working with kids with special needs. That just seemed wonderful on so many levels.
As it turned out, the match between Eve and G was pure magic. G (and S) adored Eve from the first meeting. Eve was thoughtful and pleasant, and very easy to integrate into our family as we attended events together.
Time passed. It ended up being a very difficult year for Eve’s family. Eve’s twin brother was diagnosed with a rare illness in the winter, and spent extended time in the hospital. In the spring, Eve’s grandmother passed away. As a family, we found we were able to reach out and offer support to Eve’s family through this difficult time.
This past weekend, Eve and her brother Max celebrated their Bar/Bat Mitzvah. We were delighted to attend as a family. The ceremony was beautiful… a true celebration of two very different thirteen-year-olds and their accomplishments. The speeches were thoughtful and heartfelt, the chanting of prayers and Torah was close to flawless.
It was a little challenging to pay attention– as G was climbing on me, and playing “pull off Mommy’s kippah” throughout most of the ceremony. However, we stuck it out, because it felt important for all of us to be there.
At the very, very end, the tradition in our shul is that all the children come up to “help Rabbi T with the blessing over the challah”. I rushed G up to the front of the room and gave him a nudge. The sanctuary was more crowded than it is on a typical Shabbat, and G seemed reluctant to go join the other kids. At that moment, Eve caught sight of G. She came toward him and offered her hand. G broke into a huge smile. He grabbed Eve’s hand and the two of them raced over to the challah.
I looked over to Eve and Max’s parents. They had witnessed the moment as well.
The whole experience with Eve was a learning experience for me. I had always thought of a “mitzvah” as one-directional. Our family would be getting assistance from Eve, so therefore, we were the recipients in this equation. What surprised me was how reciprocal the relationship ended up. Yes, Eve’s presence filled in the missing piece for us, and allowed us to fully participate in some activities that we really wanted to be a part of. However, while participating in the programs was my original goal… that participation (as great as it was) was not, in itself, what made our pairing with Eve so special. To me, the beauty of the Mitzvah Project was the relationships that formed.
Eve and Max’s family are new to our shul. They are a family with two teenagers, and they don’t live near-by. If it weren’t for the Mitzvah Project, I think it’s unlikely that our paths would have ever crossed. And yet, I now feel a connection to their family that runs just as deep as the connection to other families who are closer to us geographically, have kids the same age, etc.
There’s a vulnerability that happens when you open up and ask for help. I felt that sense of vulnerability in accepting help from Eve. I know Eve’s parents must have felt some of it when accepting help to overcome the challenges life threw at them this year. The vulnerability can be scary and uncomfortable… but there’s an openness and honesty that can only grow when you let down the walls and drop the defenses. There’s an interconnectedness that can only take root when you let other people know you need help.
So, yes, I felt a little uncomfortable becoming Eve’s “Mitzvah Project”… but I’m so glad I didn’t let the discomfort stop me. I learned that a “mitzvah” when done right, does not have a giver and a recipient. I learned that there can be so much giving and receiving that happens between both parties, and hopefully, there can be a relationship that flourishes in the middle.
*The word “Mitzvah” has several definitions. It means commandment. It is also used to describe a good deed or kind action. A “Mitzvah Project” is a project taken on by a pre-teen during the year leading up to his/her Bar Mitzvah. Parents and teachers help the child determine a cause that is of interest, and some way that he/she can take action on that cause.