How Our Son Put the Mitzvah in His Bar Mitzvah
The most memorable part of our son Liam’s bar mitzvah on December 31st, the seventh day of Hanukkah, was also the most meaningful. On Shabbat morning, he chanted from Parashat Mikeitz about Joseph creating a plan to distribute food in Egypt in a time of scarcity. That night, after Havdalah, friends and family joined Liam to pack 21,600 meals that would be sent to Honduran orphanages, schools, and clinics where nutritious food often is not available.
We spent two hours doing this mitzvah before our synagogue social hall was transformed from an assembly line into a festive New Year’s Eve party. The party was great, but many of the 200 guests, ages 3-80, said that packing the food was the highlight of the evening.
Our congregation has a family education program entitled “Putting God on the Guest List” after Rabbi Jeffrey Salkin’s book with that same title. Our colleague, Rabbi Esther Adler, guides families in conversations about the mitzvot (commandments) that emerge from their children’s Torah portions and ways to have those mitzvot come to life in the service or the celebration. When we talked with Liam about Parashat Miketz, the chapters of Joseph’s life in which he emerges from Pharaoh’s dungeon to becoming second in command in Egypt, we were quickly drawn to Joseph's masterful economic plan, and how it was linked directly to the basic need for food.
The mitzvah of ha’achalat re’evim, feeding the hungry, was one often discussed at home. During the last couple of years, Liam volunteered with a local food shelf in the summer, collecting vegetables from a farmer’s market so that people using the food shelf could have fresh food. With a little research, we found an organization that did mass food packing events and could assure us that the food would not be distributed by missionaries spreading their faith.
Rise Against Hunger was founded in 1998, originally as Stop Hunger Now, with the mission to “end hunger in our lifetime by providing food and life-changing aid to the world’s most vulnerable and creating a global commitment to mobilize the necessary resources.” Their Kansas City office sent Baylee DeLaurier, their community engagement manager, to coordinate the event at our synagogue, Mount Zion Temple in Saint Paul, MN.
Rise Against Hunger was able to do this event only with a commitment to pack a minimum number of meals and to raise funds (29 cents per meal) to cover the costs. To reach this goal, Liam asked for donations in lieu of gifts. He raised $9,800 from friends, family, and congregants. He felt great about what he was able to do, but, like any bar mitzvah, he didn’t mind receiving some gifts from his family and closest friends.
When Baylee arrived Saturday evening, we gathered in the sanctuary to watch a couple of videos about the organization, and Liam explained to the group why he chose to do this mitzvah. Then, as we went to the social hall, Baylee engaged everyone to set up assembly lines for packing the meals of enriched rice, soy protein, dried vegetables, and 23 essential vitamins and nutrients. There were separate tables for weighing and sealing the plastic bags and others for packing the boxes. Our guests were happy, the energy so alive, as everyone filled, measured, packed, and ran back and forth with supplies. The DJ was so moved by the scene that he started the music early, playing Liam’s favorite music from Hamilton and throwing in a few Hanukkah songs for good measure. In the meantime, every time the group finished packing a couple thousand meals, Baylee rang a gong, and everyone cheered.
It is not always easy to match values and mitzvot with concrete actions that large groups can do together, and we are fortunate that Liam’s project was so successful in this and so many other ways. Nonetheless, there are many ways to find the mitzvah in bar and bat mitzvah and when kids lead us in doing mitzvot, the result is unforgettable – and we truly feel the meaning of becoming b’nai mitzvah.
Cantor Rachel and Rabbi Adam Stock Spilker are members of the clergy team at Mount Zion Temple in Saint Paul, MN.