By Lee Chottiner
Two siblings are helping to run a Fresh Stop Market at New Roots, the regional network of food co-ops.
A young man visits residents of an assisted living community on Shabbat, bringing challah, grape juice and electric Shabbat candles.
Another young man just finished volunteering at the Jewish Family & Career Services (JFCS), getting its food pantry ready for the return of in-person clients.
They all have two things in common: They are about to become b’nai mitzvah, and they are volunteering their services through the Marjorie and Robert Kohn Pledge 13 Project, the JFCS effort to help b’nai mitzvah students perform acts of tikkun olam (repair the world) in ways they find personally meaningful.
After a yearlong hiatus due to the COVID pandemic, Pledge 13 is back, and b’nai mitzvah students are signing up.
“We started communicating with families and local synagogues at the beginning of the summer, and we are coming into full swing now,” said Avery Markel, JFCS volunteer and events manager.
Pledge 13 requires students to commit 13 hours of their time working on a project of their choice. The hours can be done all at once or spread out. One student is doing one hour per month over the course of a year.
Since Project 13’s return, Markel has placed five b’nai mitzvah students in volunteer settings of their choosing, and she is talking to 10 other families – students and parents.
Her job is something like Make-A-Wish, listening to what the students want to do, then making it happen.
“I meet with families and help brainstorm some possibilities based on the student’s interests,” Markel said. “Then I start to reach out to volunteer [programs] at other organizations.”
Those organizations need not be Jewish, she said, noting that one student is helping out at the Louisville Nature Center.
“The goal is to connect students to meaningful service,” she said. “There are plenty of places to do that within the Jewish community, but we’re not limited to that in any way.”
For this latest group of students, volunteering is a satisfying experience.
“It is important to me,” said David Bussell, who has completed his hours at the Sonny & Janet Meyer Food Pantry. “I know I am helping people in the community and making a change for the better.”
Ari and Kate Cohen, siblings volunteering at the Fresh Stop Markets, said it was their favorite place to help.
“There’s a lack of fresh food, and New Roots helps people get it,” Ari said. “I volunteer to help people who don’t have the time to volunteer.”
Added Kate, “I wanted to help people get good food because I have seen some people that did not have food…. Some people are struggling. When you see them struggling, it is a good time to volunteer.”
Though started in the 1990s, Pledge 13 was renamed for Robert and Marjorie Kohn in 2008, when the couple underwrote the undertaking. They have been contributors ever since.
“Being natives of Louisville, we wanted to see the children of the next generations be involved in charitable work,” Robert said. “We just thought by giving incentives to them, working through JFCS, this would allow them to initiate their work in the charitable organization area.”
At first, participants volunteered exclusively for Jewish entities. Now, they work throughout Louisville.
“As long as they’re doing some type of project, working with charities and nonprofit organizations, that would certainly be fine with us,” Robert said.
The Kohns have been heartened by the way teens respond to the chance to give back.
“Teenagers really do want help; they really do want to be part of something,” Marjorie said. “We find they’re very excited when they do that kind of thing. Hopefully, it’s a win-win for everybody.”
Tikkun olam projects, also known as mitzvah projects, are activities designed to teach young people the value of giving back to their community, a lesson not lost on Markel, who performed a tikkun olam project herself when she became a bat mitzvah in Detroit, collecting supplies for a school in Israel.
Normally, participants perform their volunteer work in the year leading up to their b’nai mitzvah, but students who missed the experience last year because of COVID may still participate.
And this year, there also will be group projects.
Markel said a kick-off event will be held on Sept. 26, during which students will help sort High Holy Day grocery donations to the food bank. And another group event, for students and their families, is being planned for Chanukah.
“The goal is to get them volunteering,” she said. “I will work with anybody who is excited.”
Want to go?
The Sept. 26 Pledge 13 kick-off event will run from 1 to 3 p.m. at the Jewish Family & Career Services. RSVP to firstname.lastname@example.org. Masking and social distancing will be maintained. Space is limited.