When Basic Hygiene Rituals Aren’t Merely Skin-Deep
In some ways, 13-year-old Elon Katz is a typical Cincinnati youth. As an eighth grader at The Seven Hills School, Elon is perfectly capable of enjoying an
after-school chill-out session with his video games. He also likes to draw. And, well, that’s about it for the ordinary stuff. Elon, you see, is anything but typical. He likes to code video games
for fun. He is a serious student of classical piano, and enjoys the weekly lessons his grandmother kindly offers him. He’s also an avid squash player. Unlike many of his peers, Elon doesn’t spend
time consuming the latest musical trends; instead, he throws himself into his favorite trio of subjects: science, math, and history. Another thing that distinguishes Elon from his peers is that
he no longer takes for granted the personal care items that make our everyday hygiene routines possible. At least, not since he completed his b’nai mitzvah project and learned that too many
people struggle to obtain these basic items.
Somewhere, Beyond the Sea, a Mitzvah Project for Me
Before Elon could learn life lessons from his project, he first needed to figure out what his project would be. He was sharp enough to realize that for his project
to have meaning, for his project to begin to accomplish tikkun olam (repairing the world)—it would need to fill a need. “I wanted to do something that was helping people with donations who need
them,” Elon explained, “and I found Jewish Family Service [JFS].” Elon was soon directed to JFS Heldman Family Food Pantry, located at JFS Barbash Family Vital Support Center, in Clifton. “I
emailed them, and I asked if I could do a project like that. They approved it and said they specifically needed personal care items.”
Butterflies on the Bema
Although Elon had no public speaking experience, Rockdale Temple allotted him time to present his mitzvah project to the congregation. Elon knew this was an offer
he could not refuse. But that didn’t mean his stomach wasn’t churning. “When I stood up, I was really nervous,” Elon said. “I went up where the rabbis were, and I just spoke into the microphone
and quickly explained that for my b’nai mitzvah project, I was collecting personal care items for Jewish Family Service.”
You Are So Invited to Elon’s B’nai Mitzvah Project
Elon told the congregation the underlying meaning for his mitzvah, and what he was hoping to achieve. “I said it would really, really help if they could donate
items,” Elon said. “I also explained how we’d placed a large collection basket near the temple entrances.” Elon noted that in the first few weeks following his announcement, the items trickled in
slowly. However, as his b’nai mitzvah drew closer, the donations increased dramatically.
Stand and Deliver
When the big day arrived, Elon’s B’nai Mitzvah at Rockdale Temple was a joyous success. Days later, it was time to deliver everything to the food pantry. “We were
able to load almost everything into the trunk of our car,” Elon recalled, “but we had to put some bags in the back seat because there were a lot of big packages—especially of toothpaste. We then
drove over to the pantry and unloaded everything into a big shopping cart and walked it inside. They showed us the shelving area they wanted us to stock, and we just got started. It felt good
“Once I started the project, I got really surprised with my everyday routine. It was just so crazy to me how some people can’t easily get all these things, like
toothbrushes, toothpaste, shampoo, soap, toilet paper, and deodorant."
Secret Sauce to a Great Mitzvah Project? A Great Mom!
Elon didn’t hesitate to share much of the credit for his successful mitzvah project with his mother, Helisa Katz. “My mom was also super passionate about my
project. She shared a really good understanding about why I want to help,” he said. “And she was helpful in letting people know about what I was doing, and why. And when we were loading the items
at the food pantry, she did a lot of work. She was always there when it counted.”
Words of Wisdom: Just Do It!
To those contemplating what their b’nai, bar, or bat mitzvah project should be—or if they’re unsure about pursuing one at all due to, say, fear of public speaking,
Elon is empathetic. But he also believes everyone can achieve more than they think they can. “If someone is feeling hesitant, I’d say that's totally understandable,” he said, “but I would also
say, ‘Just do it.’ For me, once I started telling people about this, and being super passionate about doing it, I didn’t get that nervous anymore. Once I broke the ice, and just started asking
people for help, it got easier, and I gained confidence.”
Reflections of a Mitzvah Project Veteran
Through his mitzvah, Elon came to evaluate his habits, as well as his good fortune. “Once I started the project, I got really surprised with my everyday routine,”
he said. “It was just so crazy to me how some people can’t easily get all these things, like toothbrushes, toothpaste, shampoo, soap, toilet paper, and deodorant,” Elon said. “When we got to the
pantry, there weren’t a lot of items on the shelves, so that showed that either the pantry didn't have that many of these items, or they were being used up pretty quickly.” Working at the pantry
also helped to teach Elon why these personal care items are hard to come by. “People who need these things can get food assistance, through the government, for food, but not always other things
that they need, like hygiene items.” Indeed, reflections like this only support the notion that Elon is anything but typical.