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Mitzvah Day: Seventh Graders From Ohavi Zedek Make an Impact

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Finished kits with some of the students - COURTESY
  • Courtesy
  • Finished kits with some of the students

Each year, the seventh-grade members of Ohavi Zedek Synagogue in Burlington pick a mitzvah project, a months-long effort they undertake to help others. The word “mitzvah” means good deed, and the project is part of the youths’ preparation for their bar or bat mitzvah, the coming-of-age ceremony when a young person becomes an adult in the eyes of the Jewish community.

The b mitzvah candidates present their projects on Mitzvah Day. This year, for the first time, Ohavi Zedek invited its entire community to participate in a hands-on mitzvah project on Mitzvah Day. They created personal-hygiene and school-supply kits for refugee families in Vermont.

“Even when things are difficult for us, it’s really important for us to realize there’s people who have greater difficulties,” said the synagogue’s Hebrew School principal, Naomi Barell.

Preschool and Hebrew School families making kits for new Americans - COURTESY
  • Courtesy
  • Preschool and Hebrew School families making kits for new Americans

Seventy-five people attended Mitzvah Day and assembled 30 kits for the USCRI Vermont to distribute. The group also helped organize the synagogue’s thrift store, the Shalom Shuk, which supports the refugee community by giving those who can’t afford to pay clothing, housewares, bedding and other items.

Four seventh graders presented their individual mitzvah projects. Lila Mickenberg described how she created COVID-19 kits for people who are homeless. She filled them with items, such as cough drops, masks, tissues, lotions and lip balm and gave the kits to an outreach nurse to distribute to homeless Vermonters diagnosed with COVID-19. Lila said she was inspired, in part, by her mother’s profession in healthcare and by the synagogue.

Lila said the project taught her “to put myself in other people’s shoes especially when it comes to health. I think it’s really important during the pandemic that people aren’t just thinking about what they need, but they’re also thinking about what other people need.”

Lila and her sister putting COVID-19 kits together at home - COURTESY
  • Courtesy
  • Lila and her sister putting COVID-19 kits together at home

Lila remembers sitting in the synagogue on Mitzvah Day when she was younger and watching seventh graders present their projects. As she prepared her presentation, she hoped that she, too, would inspire younger kids.

After the event, Lila wrote in an email that she was happy to have created a mitzvah project that shared the same purpose as the greater community’s project because “everyone got to make a change” together.

And that is what the projects are designed to do for the students, Barell said. “The point is really for them to come to realize that even at the tender age of 12 or 13, they can affect change, they can make an impact, and they can do something to change the world.”