The bar/bat mitzvah rite of passage almost always includes an element of community service, but very few teens turn their mitzvah projects into passion projects. Take Julia Perry, whose project took her to Central America and back — twice. Born in Mixco, near Guatemala City, Perry was adopted by Jewish parents and celebrated her bat mitzvah at Herzl-Ner Tamid on Mercer Island in May 2017. Hoping to merge her Jewish and Guatemalan identities for her project, Perry and her family reached out to Global Visionaries, a Seattle-based leadership program that guides students in international service projects. The program connected them to a Guatemala City elementary school in need of supplies.
While the easy thing would have been to send donated items or money, Perry took it to the next level: In December 2017, she and her family flew to Guatemala to hand-deliver 30 backpacks filled with paper, pencils, and markers to elementary students. “It was really emotional to see kids who had nothing,” she says. “We gave 30 backpacks, but [more] kids found out and started walking over, and we were disappointed when we didn’t have any more for them.”
Less than a year later, Perry and her family returned to Guatemala City, this time with 330 backpacks. “It was great to see their smiles when we gave them the backpacks,” she says. “I liked bringing them down in person, because I could connect with them directly.”
Also celebrating at Herzl-Ner Tamid, Perry’s longtime friend Brooke Mihlstin used her coming-of-age ceremony one month later to educate others about the Holocaust. (Disclosure: Mihlstin is the daughter of Jewish in Seattle’s editorial board chair.) Mihlstin reached out to Seattle’s Holocaust Center for Humanity to sponsor a Holocaust Teaching Trunk, a traveling crate of archival materials, books, and lessons about intolerance and the genocide.
“I had a lot of Holocaust education in religious school, so it was great to see that students in public and private non-Jewish schools were learning about the Holocaust in a well-rounded way that teaches about intolerance and respect,” says Mihlstin, whose teaching trunk toured seven schools around the Pacific Northwest during the school year following her bat mitzvah.
The Holocaust Center invited Mihlstin to interview Holocaust survivor Agi Day, who was hidden as a child during the genocide and who now lives on Mercer Island. The two got along so well that Day attended Mihlstin’s bat mitzvah. What’s more, Mihlstin symbolically shared her milestone with a 13-year-old Polish girl named Golda Miler, who died in the Majdanek concentration camp in 1943. By researching Yad Vashem’s database, Miler’s family was detailed in the program at Mihlstin’s ceremony.
Mihlstin and Perry didn’t end their relationships with the organizations they partnered with after their bat mitzvahs. Now a sophomore at Seattle Academy, Mihlstin is in her third year serving on the Holocaust Center’s student leadership board and is planning a trip to Poland and Israel. Perry, a sophomore at Issaquah High School, hopes to return to Guatemala with Global Visionaries for a two-week cultural immersion program.
“The experience made me more appreciative of the life I have,” Perry says. “Because I was adopted, it was crazy to see the life I could have lived.”
Put Your Values to Work
Jewish teens have a unique opportunity through their bar and bat mitzvah projects to stand up for causes important to the community and to themselves. From supporting Jews in former Soviet countries to raising awareness for emerging communities in Africa, here are three ways that teens can take tikkun olam to the next level.
Kulanu provides tzedakah programs for bar and bat mitzvah teens to support emerging Jewish groups around the world, such as in Latin America, Asia, and Africa. One supporter held his bar mitzvah ceremony in Uganda to bring awareness to the African Jewish community, and in lieu of a big party, his family donated two classrooms to the Abayudaya school. Kulanu also encourages teens to fundraise or send mezuzahs to Jewish communities around the world to bridge distant congregations with the global Jewish community.
Gift of Life is an international bone marrow and stem cell registry that facilitates transplants for Jewish children and adults with life-threatening diseases like leukemia and lymphoma. Since bone marrow transplant matches are more successful within the same ethnic background, Gift of Life gives Jews around the world more opportunities to survive. To get involved, teens can organize or volunteer at a donor drive, or swab their cheek cells to join the registry.
For more than 100 years, the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee (JDC) has been aiding struggling Jewish communities worldwide. The organization’s “My JDC Mitzvah Project” works with teens to develop campaigns and fundraisers to end injustice. These teen-run campaigns, like Camp Szarvas, an international Jewish summer camp in Hungary, allow young adults to pursue their passions and make a long-lasting impact.