For many teens, their mitzva projects end when they have their bar or bat mitzva celebrations. Not so for Olivia Lange. The Short Hills eighth-grader had her celebration at Congregation B’nai Jeshurun in January, but her effort to empower girls in Zimbabwe deepened recently when she came across a California filmmaker just as passionate about the cause as she is.
Olivia had never been to Zimbabwe, the country where her father grew up. In recent years it has become too dangerous for tourists, and people there have faced increasing hardship. But when the time came for her to choose a mitzva project, she saw it as a chance to connect with her dad’s background.
“I looked on Google and found out about The Girls Club of Zimbabwe,” she told NJ Jewish News. In a society where many men believe that raping a virgin will cure them of HIV AIDS, this is no casual social venue; the club, part of the Girl Child Network of Zimbabwe, is a temporary haven for victims of sexual violence.
Until other safe homes are found for them, the club provides the girls — some just toddlers — with affection, counseling, song and dance, play, and education. Across the country, 30,000 girls are now involved with GCN.
“I learned that even girls my age were being abused. I wanted to do something to help them,” said Olivia. With letters to friends and family members, and sales of bracelets she designed, Olivia raised around $1,000 to help GCN.
On Oct. 15, she and her parents, Ellen and Trevor, hosted a screening at their home of Tapestry of Hope, a documentary about the network; the film’s director, Michealine Cristini Risley, was there in person to answer questions about it.
Risley and her executive producer, Michelle Titus, brought the film to the Lange home two days before its first showing in Manhattan and about a week before she showed it to members of Congress in Washington, DC (see sidebar).
Thanking the hosts afterward, one visitor said, “I can’t say it was an enjoyable evening; it was harrowing — but it was fascinating, and so moving.” She made a contribution, and went away proudly wearing one of Olivia’s blue rubber bracelets imprinted with the words, “Empower Girls of Zimbabwe.
Olivia said she heard about the Risley film by chance.
“I contacted her and told her about my mitzva project,” Olivia said. Risley and the Langes have since become friends, bonded by their shared concern.
“It’s so exciting to see this connection, to see a girl in a setting like this care so much about how other children are suffering,” said Risley, who is the mother of three boys.
Meanwhile, Olivia said she feels empowered herself by the wonderful response she has had from people here. “It feels really great,” she said.
Her father, who said that at first he was wary of his daughter’s getting involved in a Zimbabwean issue, agreed that her project was “terrific.”
For more information on Risley’s film and the Girl Child Network of Zimbabwe, go to www.tapestriesofhope.com.