By Ema Schumer, New York City
From an early age, basketball has been my passion; whether it was working on the fundamentals of the game until I mastered them, or watching and rooting from the sidelines for my favorite team, the Knicks. As the time came for my Bat Mitzvah — a time when the B’nai Mitzvah assumes new responsibilities as an adult under the laws of Judaism — I wanted to apply the principles of tzedakah that had been discussed and practiced for years in Hebrew school. To me, this meant giving on two levels: the donation of money to further a cause, and volunteering to make a difference somewhere where it would be appreciated. Given that basketball has been a huge part of my life, I wanted to be involved in a mitzvah project that related to it. However, I struggled with the idea of how I, Ema Schumer, a 7th grade girl living in Manhattan, could help people who do not have the same opportunities as I. What could I do to make a difference?
Pictured left: NY Knicks MVP Carmelo Anthony presenting Ema Schumer with a customized jersey in thanks for her work volunteering and donating to the Garden of Dreams Foundation
After much consideration, I decided that the Garden of Dreams Foundation was the perfect organization to become involved with. Garden of Dreams is a charity associated with Madison Square Garden. Its mission is to help inner city kids and kids who have life threatening diseases. The foundation does this, in part, by organizing activities for them to participate with professional athletes, entertainers, coaches and others who are part of the Madison Square Garden community.
In addition to requesting that my friends and family donate to Garden of Dreams, I was mindful of the second level of tzedakah, which is giving of your own time in furtherance of a cause. And so, last August, I spent a week volunteering at the Garden of Dreams summer camp known as “Dream Week.” During this week, the participating kids played basketball with Knicks players and coaches at the Knicks training facility, played hockey with some of the Rangers, and danced with the Rockettes at Radio City Music Hall.
One of the main objectives of Dream Week is to expose the participating kids to a positive, caring environment away from the struggles that they are so often faced with in their daily lives. Another goal is to make these kids see that there is hope in life, and that many people are rooting for them to succeed, even though it may not seem like it at times. After Dream Week, volunteers, staff members, and some of the athletes involved told me how great it was what I was doing for the foundation, and even though I might not realize it, I am helping to make a difference in these kids’ lives.
My experience at Garden of Dreams was enlightening in several respects. First, until that very moment when members of the Garden of Dreams community thanked me for my support of the foundation, I had not realized that I could contribute in a meaningful way to the lives of so many children. Individually, my mitzvah project may not be of such a force to shake the world, but if every B’nai mitzvah contributes in his or her own personal way to improving the lives around them, this combined impact will certainly serve to make this world a better place. Second, even though I have heard people say how great it is to participate in charity work, the satisfaction I felt helping others was more rewarding than I had imagined. And while I had decided to completely forego bat mitzvah gifts in favor of contributing to a charity, I must confess that at the time I did have mixed emotions. Some of my friends talked about how excited they were for their Bat Mitzvahs; however, what they were excited for was not the religious part of it, but the huge parties that they would have, and of course, the numerous gifts that they would receive. This is completely understandable. Who doesn’t love gifts and parties? I could say that I did not care about these things, but that would be a lie. However, from a young age I knew that when my day came to read from the Torah and assume my adult responsibilities, I wanted to have earned the title of becoming a B’nai mitzvah.
At the end of my volunteering, I left the foundation pleased with my work, because not only was I happy with the difference I was making in the Garden of Dreams community, but I realized that I had earned the title of becoming a B’nai mitzvah. I also realized that my participation in this mitzvah project created a lasting memory of helping others that will live on far longer than any gift I would have received. This confirmed that my decision to engage in a mitzvah project in lieu of gifts was the right one.
Ema Schumer, 13, is an 8th grader at The Dalton School in Manhattan. She raised $36,000 for the Garden of Dreams. For more information about the organization, go to www.gardenofdreamsfoundation.org, or call 212-465-4170.
This story is from the 2013 Mitzvah Market Magazine. If you would like to request a free copy, click here.