Seventh-graders giving bnai mitzvah cash to charity

Michael Kesselman of San Francisco was kibbitzing with his family about his younger daughter's upcoming bat mitzvah when he realized that something had gone terribly wrong with the tradition.

He turned to his older daughter and asked her what she remembered of her myriad bat mitzvah presents. The 17-year-old thought for a moment and offered a hazy recollection of a bat mitzvah memory box, but couldn't recall anything else.

Kesselman then pulled out a pen and started tweaking numbers. Using $18 as an arbitrary amount that a Brandeis Hillel Day School family might spend on a bar or bat mitzvah gift for their child's classmates, he figured each family would average $648 per year.

That amount times 33 families meant the class would be spending $21,384 on b'nai mitzvah gifts, he figured.

Then, of course, parents have the additional cost of paying for their own child's ceremony and party, which entails many more thousands of dollars. It all seemed rather ostentatious, Kesselman said this week.

A program officer for the S.F.-based Koret Foundation, Kesselman realized that the b'nai mitzvah gift money alone could be a tremendous resource if pooled and given to charity rather than spent on token gifts.

The Brandeis Hillel parent wondered whether there was a better way for teens to celebrate such an important event.

"There's enormous pressure to perform and not to make mistakes. It's a wonderful time for a big party, but the pressures have brought more focus on the party and presents, while the richest part of the ceremony has been lost," he said, referring to the ritual's emphasis on tzedekah and assuming adult responsibilities in the Jewish community.

After talking it over with his family, Kesselman last spring appealed to other parents to donate their kids' b'nai mitzvah money to a joint fund. The fund would become a charitable foundation, which the students would operate to learn the principles of tzedekah first hand.

"Some [parents] saw the value initially. Some didn't think that [the extravagance] could change," he said. "As it went on, they realized we may be involved with something that could really change things."

Brandeis Hillel parent Hannah Marks said she became interested in the strategy because it promised to make the frenetic shopping of the year "more manageable."

"In addition to putting on the event, you have to wardrobe your child, and there are the gifts as well."

As the program is designed, each family donates $300. One hundred dollars of that sum will be paid out to each student at their bar or bat mitzvah. One hundred and fifty dollars is placed in the new Seventh Grade Fund for charity. The remaining $50 is placed in a separate account that serves to buy a bulk order of same-kind gifts for the students, such as 33 kiddush cups.

Kesselman said the projected fund will contain up to $9,000 when all the cash has been collected this school year. That sum includes a matching donation of $2,800 from the Walter and Elise Haas Fund and a personal grant from Stephen Dobbs, former president of the Marin Community Foundation.

Brandeis Hillel teachers also plan to pitch in some cash, Kesselman said.

"Brandeis Hillel is like a little shtetl," he quipped, pointing out that the project had served to pull together the school community as well as the wider Jewish community.

Each seventh-grader, including the few who could not yet afford to donate money, has been researching organizations that might become beneficiaries of the fund. Their causes range from homelessness and brain tumor research to the environment.

As Seventh Grade Fund board members, every student takes part in the interviewing of grant-seekers. When the time comes to name beneficiaries, a majority vote of the board will decide which organizations will receive their money.

"We may have little George Soroses amongst us," Kesselman joked.

Not all the kids were gung-ho in the beginning, according to seventh-grader Sarah Schwartz.

"Initially, we wanted the money and presents. It was the parents' idea."

But after interviewing grant-seekers and learning more about the needy, Schwartz and her classmates have come around.

"Everyone in my class has a computer, dinner every night and a roof over their head. There are others who don't even have homes," she said.

Perhaps most importantly, "We're not just learning about tzedekah, we're doing it."

Lori Eppstein

Lori Eppstein is a former staff writer.