The Play Dough Project

I have a confession to make. The idea of a “mitzvah project” for a bar/bat mitzvah has always made me feel a little cynical. When parents ask me if I know of a good organization or project for their pre-teen to take on, I want to respond, “Life is a mitzvah project!” After all, each day presents full of opportunities to give back, make a difference and shoulder responsibility for one’s local community. Just like a bar/bat mitzvah celebration shouldn’t be the end of a Jewish journey, adopting a particular cause should ideally be part of each individual’s life journey well beyond the prescribed projects of their teenage years. However, in our overbooked, chaotic world, it is far too simple to reduce the experience of service, of time and resources given, to a box on the check list, somewhere after the Torah portion, the speech and the party planner.

And when I’m feeling particularly snarky about this important element becoming rote and perfunctory, I remember that at its core, the process of becoming a bar or bat mitzvah captures a once in a lifetime opportunity to expand the worldview of preteens. Through the act of participating in a mitzvah project at 12 or 13, you not only become responsible for your tradition, but you also become increasingly more responsible for the broader community and the world around you. Moreover, the possibility of taking on a single project now has the potential to impact the course of a life and grow a developing person’s own connection and relationship to the work of doing good in the world.

In our weekly bar/bat mitzvah preparation program, we have been exploring the Jewish relationship to justice (tzedek), in part through inviting different organizations to share the impactful work they do in a variety of communities. Each week, these diverse and amazing organizations present and partner with our teens, empowering them to see their own potential impact as individuals as well as their own ability to improve the world at large through their unique gifts and talents.

Last week, we found an unlikely and delightful partner in the Dough Project, a local New York-based start-up owned by a fabulous entrepreneurial woman who makes her own handmade (from scratch!), plant-based, chemical-free play dough to sell and to give to those in need. It was like resistance training for mitzvah projects—if we could figure out how to connect play dough to repairing the world and to Jewish tradition, we could pretty much do that with any affinity in the weeks to come.

We started by challenging our learners to think: How can we use play dough to make a difference? Who do we think would benefit most from play dough? What’s Jewish about making and giving away play dough?

Not only did they have a blast creating their own jars of play dough from scratch, but the depth of their thoughtful answers blew us away: I would give dough to people who are less fortunate; senior citizens; people who have experienced bad things and need comfort; young kids; sick people in hospitals; people with anxiety.

So what’s Jewish about making and giving away play dough? We reflected as a group on the Jewish values our learners have been studying throughout this course: Tzedekah – charity; B’tzelem Elohim – all people are created in the image of God (therefore worthy of a type of dignity you would reserve for the divine); Chesed – kindness (whether you like the person or not); Bikkur Cholim – visiting and comforting the sick; Mitzvah – a Jewish obligation; Tikkun Olam – repairing a broken world. We tried to find the right Jewish label or category for giving away play dough—was it Tzedakah if the play dough went to a person in need? Or Chesed if it went to a friend or teacher? Or Bikkur Cholim if it went to someone in the hospital?

One learner shared a connection to a traditional text from the Mishnah about human beings all being minted from the same original coin; likewise, each group made play dough from the same recipe, but chose colors that made each dough unique. While humans may be similar physically, it is their personalities, character traits and individuality that makes each one special and worthy of respect. I love seeing a Jewish text digested in that way, especially when our goal is for each learner, as they approach bar/bat mitzvah, to see themselves as capable of contributing to the world around them in a way that is unique to their own interests and passions.

Mostly, I was struck by how convinced they all were that “giving” itself was a fundamental Jewish concept. And no matter how hard we tried to break it down into categories of mitzvot and Hesed and tzedekah, they responded, “No, it’s giving. Giving is just a Jewish thing to do.” And you know what? I’m actually pretty okay with that takeaway. Maybe there’s really something to that whole “mitzvah project” thing after all.

Photos courtesy of the DOUGH project.