Preparing for your bat mitzvah is always a busy time – but it was even busier for 12-year-old Olivia Varkul, who decided to make hers more meaningful by doing a mitzvah project to commemorate the occasion.
“At our school, we’re always taught to give back,” said Olivia, who is in Grade 7 at Toronto Heschel School. “I thought I could do something nice for other people and recognize I’m really lucky to be having a bat mitzvah, and it’s nice for other people who are less fortunate than me.”
Since she always used to carry around a security blanket as a child, she was excited when she heard about Project Linus, an organization that makes homemade security blankets and donates them to seriously ill children. Since its founding in 1998, the project has delivered more than four million blankets to sick kids.
“I carried [my blanket] around all the time when I was really little,” said Olivia. But rather than just donating a blanket, she wanted to make them herself – and include her family and friends. Fabricland donated the fabric, and the Sewing Studio in Toronto donated sewing instruction time. Olivia, along with 13 friends and her brother, went to the studio to learn how to make blankets from a piece of fabric. She’ll be using them as centrepieces for her bat mitzvah in March and donating them afterward.
To learn how her project would directly affect ill children, Olivia went to Scarborough Hospital to see how the blankets are used in the child nursery there. “I thought it was cool because I was actually able to go to the hospital and I saw the blankets on all the incubators on the premature babies and saw them being put into use,” she said. “Some of [the premature babies] weren’t with their parents, so it’s nice for them to have a little bit of colour compared to just the white flannel blankets that they have.”
Olivia’s eagerness to help others and turn her bat mitzvah into something more than just a party has impressed her entire family, especially her mother.
“This wasn’t something that she was waking up and saying let’s take on the world. She was very open to finding a project and working on it, and through the course, I’ve seen a lot of maturity and growth in her,” said Olivia’s mother, Joanna Shapiro. “It’s given her some really nice leadership skills and a nice sense of ownership, and has shown her how she can take on mitzvot going forward, not necessarily just giving money, but actually doing something.”
Olivia’s desire to give back doesn’t end there. In lieu of gifts, she’s asked her guests to make donations to a B’nai Tzedek fund, a program where teenagers create tzedakah funds in their name, and then donate that money to organizations they choose. And, despite giving up some gifts, Olivia said she’s not worried about missing out on anything. “I don’t need to be getting so many of these gifts. There are less fortunate people that need it more than I do,” she said. “I’m not feeling short of anything.”
That’s the message that her mother said they try to send at home.
“The amount that kids get for their bat mitzvahs is so much that it’s so easy to use it as an opportunity to give to others and still feel like you will get so much yourself,” said Shapiro.
“It’s hard to strike a balance when planning a bat mitzvah – to make sure we stay focused on the religious milestone, in the midst of all the busyness and excitement of event planning,” said Shapiro. “Having this mitzvah project, and needing to work on all the steps to make it happen and be meaningful, really helped us as a family and Olivia to have a grounding through this process.”