In Santa Cruz a Bar Mitzvah Isn’t Just a Party
It’s Giving Back, Repairing the World
By Michelle Dennis
People may be familiar with the idea of a Bar or Bat Mitzvah; the rite of passage for many Jewish teens symbolizing their maturation from childhood to adulthood. Although the word ‘mitzvah’ is more popularly used to mean a good deed, it actually means ‘commandment’.
Over 35 years ago, Temple Beth El began including a “Mitzvah Project” as a requirement for a student wishing to become a Bar or Bat Mitzvah through which each child would choose a community service project. As Dan Ackerstein remembers; “When I was growing up, a Mitzvah Project wasn’t even on the radar. Learn your Hebrew, wear your suit, collect your presents and that’s it. It means so much to me that [my daughter’s] experience of Judaism has this element of citizenship and philanthropy intimately integrated.” Not only was Temple Beth El on the forefront of instituting this now common and important practice of doing good deeds, but throughout the years our students have dedicated thousands of hours and made major contributions to our community, society and the planet! And they continue to do so.
Six years ago, Temple Beth El Bar Mitzvah, Asa Schaeffer, helped to start a Challenger Baseball program in Santa Cruz as a nearby program was shuttering. Challenger Baseball gives kids ages 8-22 the opportunity to experience playing baseball with mentors, making accessible what otherwise would not be for so many special needs children. Asa was inspired by his Torah portion, which focused on exclusion and isolation, finding empathy for so many young children blocked from playing Little League Baseball as he so loved doing.
Asa had to fight hard to get this program off the ground; as he was met with many obstacles. For his momentous achievement, last year, Asa was awarded the National Diller Tikkun Olam Award. Named for philanthropist, Helen Diller, who said; “It is never too late, too early, or too often to give back and make the world a better place” and Tikkun Olam, a Hebrew phrase translated to mean “Repair of the World.” And Asa and Temple Beth El are going to keep those important ideals alive; Asa has donated a portion of his award to keep the Challenger Baseball Program going strong and another portion to create a Temple Beth El Teen Tikkun Olam Award for teens going forward. We are so proud to announce that we have our first recipient; Sae Hana Ackerstein!
Sae’s Bat Mitzvah Mitzvah Project was to volunteer with Ride-A-Wave, coincidently, also a program that works with special needs children and whose goal is to give these children the thrill of riding a wave and the fun experience of a day at the beach whether they are physically, developmentally or economically challenged. Ride-A-Wave’s founder, surfing champion Danny Cortazzo, who has been running this 100% volunteer-based program since its inception in 1998, has been able to provide over 2,500 kids this kind of positive, thrilling and life changing experience.
Sae’s participation included organizing a team of 13 additional volunteers and leading three training sessions on kayak rescue, surf escort safety and rescue skills. This included many hours of emailing, preparation, scheduling and practice. Sae and her team then joined with many other R-A-W volunteers to host five separate ocean sessions for the community. These widely popular events draw many participants and the volunteers’ duties are endless. There is the set-up of 20-ish paddle-boards, 75 wetsuits and helmets and lifejackets and other equipment. Then the volunteers work one of a handful of activity stations; including obstacle course, boogie boarding, kayaking and surfing. The volunteers accompany the participants and assist with everything from sunscreen to safety. They become part cheerleader, part lifeguard and definitely part friend!
Sae’s first love is the ocean and so it was natural for her want to share her passion with others. She actually started surfing when she was only 4 years old and she now surfs competitively for her school team at Mission Hill and the Santa Cruz Longboard Union. She also swims, runs cross country, races prone paddle-boards and participates in the Junior Lifeguard Program. Sae plans on becoming a marine biologist or marine mammologist someday and she has qualified for the California State Science Fair the past two years with projects relating to harbor seals and sea otters. She really loves all animals, and when not in the water, also enjoys hiking, camping and read- ing.
As parents, community members and good global citizens, it is our goal to raise conscientious, compassionate children who will take up the cause of making our world a better place. Mazal Tov to Asa Schaeffer and Sae Hana Ackerstein. You have made a very positive impact on so many lives and we couldn’t be prouder of you!