Ben and Jason Schon's Mitzvah Project
Growing up in an upper middle class neighborhood in Baltimore, surrounded by spacious private homes, it would be easy for our kids to become spoiled and take their comfortable lives for granted.
However, our twins, Ben and Jason, know they are very
fortunate. We have raised them, along with our other three sons, to always appreciate what they have, and to be sensitive to the different circumstances of other people in our community and around the world.
Ben and Jason built on this idea when they decided to “twin” with Ethiopian-Israeli boys their age through the NACOEJ Bar/Bat Mitzvah Twinning Program, and to donate their bar mitzvah money to Ethiopian-Israeli children.
Three-quarters of Ethiopian-Israelis live below the poverty line. In order to help, Jason and Ben chose to support the North American Conference on Ethiopian Jewry (NACOEJ) as one of their bar mitzvah projects.
In accordance with our sons’ wishes, an enclosure in their invitation asked guests to please consider a gift to NACOEJ in lieu of a gift to them.
The response to this request was overwhelming. Letter after letter came to Ben and Jason applauding them for their selfless gesture, and thanking them for identifying a charity whose work is so vital to supporting communities at risk both in Ethiopia and Israel.
NACOEJ is the organization that funds the feeding and education programs for the Jews remaining in Ethiopia. In Israel, they operate intensive education programs for 3,000 Ethiopian-Israeli students at the elementary, high school and college levels in Israel.
Ben and Jason identified a special NACOEJ program, Limudiah (roughly translated as “Learning”), that would be the recipient of the funds collected in honor of their bar mitzvah.
The Limudiah program provides after-school intensive education and enrichment for Ethiopian children in twenty schools in seven cities to help them overcome the challenges faced by immigrant populations everywhere: poverty, overcrowded classrooms, and high drop-out and failure rates.
Across Israel, only about 35% of Ethiopian-Israeli children get passing grades in elementary school, due to major cultural and language differences. In the Limudiah program, this rate increases to 85%.
The culmination of Ben and Jason’s service project was a trip to Israel this past October, when they had an opportunity to meet and interact with their Ethiopian “twins”, Haim and Avi. They visited the boys’ school in the city of Lod, where their dollars were helping to support the Limudiah program there. Here are their comments:
Ben: “When we arrived in Lod, we were immediately struck by the poverty and run down condition of the neighborhoods…Although we had been to Israel many times before, we had never been to any neighborhoods like this one. I know I want to continue to help this group of students.”
Jason: “In truth, the Ethiopian kids we met were very similar to us, except for the obvious fact that they were much better at soccer!...The kids we met all spoke three languages, Amharic (their native Ethiopian language), Hebrew, and a little bit of English.
But we managed to communicate, especially on the ball field. I remember when one of the kids said to me “Your brother is good at football.” I responded “My brother?!” Then he answered, “No him,” and pointed to my “Ethiopian brother”. I guess I now have five