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Kids Contribute to Their Communities Through the Mitzvah Project 

click to enlarge Zoe delivering a carload of supplies
  • Zoe delivering a carload of supplies

Since last April, 12-year-old Orion Cooper of South Burlington has sewn 75 masks from brightly colored bandannas. He's donated them to the University of Vermont Medical Center, the South Burlington Food Shelf, and friends and family. By this April, he said, he's hoping to reach his goal of 100 masks.

In Judaism, a mitzvah is a good deed. At Ohavi Zedek Synagogue in Burlington, students like Orion who are preparing for their bar or bat mitzvah — a Jewish tradition that marks the transition from childhood to adulthood — create a Mitzvah Project, based on issues important to them.

In the age of COVID-19, both the Mitzvah Project and the bar or bat mitzvah that follows look different, explained the synagogue's Hebrew School principal, Naomi Barell. In normal times, Barell explained, she meets with seventh-grade students in person to discuss what issues speak to them. During an annual Mitzvah Day in January, students present their work to their families and other Hebrew School students and explore an issue in-depth. Last year, students learned about the University of Vermont Children's Hospital and made fleece blankets for patients there.

This year, the presentations and bar and bat mitzvah ceremonies have all been done via Zoom. Still, the projects are making an impact on the community, as well as the students who carry them out.

click to enlarge Orion sewing bandanna masks
  • Orion sewing bandanna masks

Orion, a fan of the fashion competition show "Project Runway," said making masks has not only helped him improve his sewing skills but taught him a larger lesson.

"I learned that even when things are really hard and you're really frustrated with something ... in the end, you'll learn that it's really worth it just to see the smile on someone's face when they say thank you," he said.

Twelve-year-old Zoe Smith of Burlington decided to support Steps to End Domestic Violence for her Mitzvah Project after her mom told her about the nonprofit organization's work to help people who've experienced domestic abuse.

She organized a drive, using an Amazon Wish List, to collect personal hygiene products, household items, and diapers and wipes. With the help of her parents, she's delivered several carloads of items to a shelter the organization runs. Seventh Generation also donated 37 cases of products.

Zoe said she appreciated learning more about the work of the organization. She plans to continue to support them, even after her Mitzvah Project is finished.

click to enlarge Bandanna masks
  • Bandanna masks

Another benefit: Because her presentation about the project was virtual, her extended family was able to log in and watch.

Barell said that, over the years, students' work has been "magnificent." One student raised thousands of dollars for Heifer International, an organization that helps purchase farm animals for people all over the world, by throwing dinner parties in which she cooked food from the countries the organization supports. Another student volunteered with Vermont Adaptive Ski & Sports at Bolton Valley Resort and now works there as a ski instructor.

Whether in-person or virtual, "there's never a Mitzvah Day that passes where I'm not awed," said Barell. "My comment always is, 'Look what a 12-year-old can do to change the world.'"

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