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Local teens featured in book of mitzva projects
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Local teens featured in book of mitzva projects

Staff Writer, New Jersey Jewish News

Salamis in Afghanistan, Alzheimer’s patients, and a rock concert have little in common — but they were all the focus of individual projects undertaken by local teens in honor of becoming a bar or bat mitzva — and landed those teens in The Mitzvah Project Book, a work by Liz Suneby and Diane Heiman, published by Jewish Lights in 2011.

Like many local preteens, Emily Schaerf, now 15, a freshman at Livingston High School, and member of Congregation Agudath Israel in Caldwell, attended the “Mitzvot of MetroWest” fair at the Aidekman campus in Whippany the year before her milestone event. Run by The Partnership for Jewish Learning and Life, the fair offers a smorgasbord of possible tzedaka projects for the youngsters’ consideration. At the fair, she said, the Smile on Seniors project — which entails working with patients at a local nursing home — “struck me as something I wanted to get involved with.”

She started visiting with seniors suffering from Alzheimer’s disease at the Inglemoor Rehabilitation and Care Center in Livingston in March 2009 and didn’t stop with her bat mitzva. Instead, she continued getting together with the patients — doing art projects, playing bingo, and assembling puzzles with them — until six months ago, when her schedule forced her to stop.

But, she said, she plans to resume her visits as soon as she can. “I like the hands-on part of helping people. It’s just a good feeling, and it’s fun,” she said in a phone interview.

Since starting at Inglemoor, she has taken on a variety of other mitzva projects as well. She does mitzva clowning, dressing up as a clown to cheer up hospital patients; participates in the Teen Buddy Program of Essex County, through which teens from the Caldwell area and from Agudath Israel serve as mentors to young students at the Valley Settlement House in Orange; and volunteers at The Children’s Institute, a school in Verona for children on the autism spectrum, where she plays sports and games with the students.

“All of it comes from my work with Smile on Seniors,” Emily said.

Jesse Glaser, another Livingston High School freshman, took a different route to choosing the project for his bar mitzva. He has family members in the military, he told NJJN in an e-mail, so he wanted to do something to support the troops. He got in touch with the legendary Hobby’s Deli in Newark, whose Operation Salami Drop sends salamis to American soldiers overseas for $10. Jesse set a goal of raising $3,650 — a salami a day for a year — which he reached by speaking to fraternal, civic, and veterans’ groups; setting up a table outside ShopRite in Livingston; and taking the cause to members of his own soccer club.

Midway through the project, a cousin of his was deployed to Afghanistan, so Jesse made sure he received one of Hobby’s salamis. “I realize how important it is to give back in some way,” Jesse said. “There are always people who are less fortunate, or who are sacrificing for others. It felt great to know that I was able to raise money and ship over 500 salamis.”

Another NJ teen featured in The Mitzvah Project Book was Max Bohm of Ocean Township. The rock concert he held on the occasion of his 2009 bar mitzva — featuring November Rain (a Guns N’ Roses tribute band), Lost in Society, and Della Valle — was open to the general public, not just invited guests. All ticket sales benefited the Interfaith Neighbors’ youth corps in Asbury Park.

“My bar mitzva got me thinking about helping others,” Max told NJ Jewish News at the time. “I thought beginning my adult life with a mitzva would start me off on the right foot.”

Theirs are just three of the hundreds of projects featured in the book. Organized by topic — 18 in all, including arts and crafts, fashion and design, the environment and the global community, animals, and fitness and health — the book’s sections offer an introduction to the kinds of efforts teens can undertake, suggestions on how to get the ball rolling, and real projects from all over the country.

Among the most popular, said coauthor Diane Heiman, were “carnivals, game-athons, and lots of sports.”

“I saw through my own kids’ eyes that it’s very powerful for kids to see they can make a difference,” said Heiman. “But with one of my children, we struggled pretty hard to find something that fit her interests.” When she realized that “there are so many kids across the country doing so many projects, but there’s no way to know who’s doing what,” she had the motivation for writing the book.

She and coauthor Suneby, who happens to be her best friend, got a little help from their publisher, who sent a mass e-mail blast to rabbis around the country, asking about the projects of recent b’nei mitzva. Emily was among those who responded to an e-mail sent out from their synagogue.

Although there were plenty of duplicate projects sent in, Heiman said, “the first 50 projects we received were totally different from each other. That was unbelievable.”

The Mitzvah Project Book, with a foreword by Rabbi Jeffrey Salkin and a preface by Rabbi Sharon Brous, was published in 2011.

On seeing her project in the book, Schaerf said, “I thought it was really cool that I got the opportunity to be in a book like that, and that my project was really the beginning of my passion for doing mitzvas.”

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