New books attempt to put the ‘do’ in mitzvah


 NEW YORK (JTA) — Chanukah, though minor on the rabbinic calendar, is major for most American Jews and often is associated with receiving gifts — eight crazy nights worth. 

Here are three new books that emphasize the opposite — giving to friends, family and the community. One is for kids on the precipice of adulthood, one is for adults looking to infuse their daily lives with mitzvot, and one teaches communities how to act on their values.

The Mitzvah Project Book: Making Mitzvah Part of Your Bar/Bat Mitzvah … and Your Life
By Liz Suneby and Diane Heiman

The idea of writing a guide to bar and bar mitzvah projects was inspired in part by Mitzvah Day, a project that was started by Rabbi Bruce Lustig 20 years ago at Diane Heiman’s synagogue, the Washington Hebrew Congregation in Washington.

“There would be 10 or 20 choices on things you can do on that day,” Heiman recalled. “Wouldn’t it be wonderful if kids realized that there are so many things they can do that match their own interests?” she thought.

Liz Suneby’s revelation came as she watched her youngest daughter struggle to find a mitzvah project that fit who she was and what she cared about.

“I wanted her to do something that wasn’t nameless or faceless,” Suneby said.

Heiman and Suneby, both mothers of two, decided to write a guide. They organized the chapters around things that interested teens, from arts to bullying to animal care and protection, and suggested ways for the teens to launch their projects. But they’re not looking to tell the young people exactly what to do.

“We don’t want to be prescriptive,” Suneby said. “We just want to inspire.”

Heiman added, “I think having a resource like this gives a really good launching point for the kids because they can look up their own interests and hopefully springboard some ideas from the book,”

Suneby and Heiman both mentioned the story of a boy who could not settle on a project that inspired him, He took one of the book’s myriad ideas and put his own spin on it: Rather than merely compiling a cookbook as the authors suggested, he went to the senior citizens’ retirement community where his grandparents lived and began collecting recipes from the residents. In the process he interviewed residents about their lives. So his cookbook will have not only recipes but the personal anecdotes.

“He’s paying attention to elders, giving them time and a chance to be respected,” Suneby observed, which is much more than the book had advised.

For young people who choose a project for which they have a passion for, the project could very well outlast the bar/bat mitzvah itself.

“It’s amazing how many kids we’ve spoken to who have continued from a project they started for their bar or bat mitzvah,” Suneby said. 

1,000 Mitzvahs: How Small Acts of Kindness Can Heal, Inspire, and Change Your Life
By Linda Cohen

After Linda Cohen’s father passed away, she decided to take some time off. The time off didn’t turn into down time but became an opportunity to do mitzvot — a thousand of them to be precise. Cohen performed one mitzvah a day for 2 1/2 years, an odyssey that she has recorded in a book, “1,000 Mitzvahs.”

Cohen says the idea to turn her personal grieving project into a book was not hers.

“A rabbi saw that it [the project] was helpful for me and thought it would be beneficial for others,” she said. 

The book is not arranged chronologically, starting with her first good deed and ending with her final. Instead it is structured according to theme, ranging from “green” acts to synagogue-related deeds to travel. The account of each mitzvah begins with a personal anecdote from Cohen before delving into more general advice and suggestions for action.

No mitzvah is too small or seemingly insignificant to make the list, and teach readers something important about charity. In fact, Cohen counts “changing the toilet paper” as one of her 1,000 good deeds. (She had been traveling with her husband in Spain and put a roll into the stall for the next person.)

“I think the point is that it isn’t about the big thing. A lot of times people get stuck,” she said, explaining the inclusion of smaller charitable acts. “I’m just showing people that it can be an everyday thing.”

Where Justice Dwells: A Hands-On Guide to Doing Social Justice in Your Jewish Community
By Jill Jacobs

Rabbi Jill Jacobs hadn’t planned on writing a book after she completed “There Shall Be No Needy,” which was published 2009. In that volume she established that the imperative to engage in social action and social justice could be found in Jewish legal tradition. She thought her work on the writing front was done. 

Yet as she toured with the book, readers often asked, “How do I get social justice work in my own community moving?”

 “I wish somebody would just write a book about how to do social justice work within communities,” she recalled thinking. That person, she soon realized, would have to be her.

“Where Justice Dwells” is Jacobs’ practical guide to bringing social action to synagogues and communities.

“I broke down the different strategies that people use,” she told JTA. 

Though the book begins with some textual and theoretical information that supports the Jewish perspective on social action, Jacobs spends several chapters suggesting ways to engage, from direct service to giving money to advocacy to community organizing, along with warnings about the pitfalls to avoid when assembling a plan.  

In addition to believing that the book will prove useful to communities that want to engage in social action, Jacobs also hopes that it helps to change the notion that this sort of work is an altruistic add-on, merely a nice thing to do rather than something that one is obligated to observe, just as many Jews regard the laws of kashrut. 

“I want it to be obvious that every single Jewish community has to do social justice,” she said. “Just as every synagogue has Shabbat services, every synagogue should have a social justice program.”

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