As the day of his bar mitzvah approached, Zack Lubliner, of Owings Mills, decided on a mitzvah project that would help others and celebrate the coming Festival of Lights.
"Since my bar mitzvah was during Hanukkah, I thought I'd give people presents," said the seventh-grader who attends Beth Tfiloh Dahan Community School.
He and his family — parents, Jamie and Debbie Lubliner; brother, Adam, 15; and sister, Jenna, 8 — had participated in the Jewish Community Services' annual Toy Closet in previous years, buying toys to help out a family in need.
This year, Zack would take part on his own, choosing presents for children his own age and buying them with his own money.
Zack contacted the JCS, which informed him about 13-year-old twins, a boy and a girl. Armed with information about them, their interests and ages but not their names, he scoured Wal-Mart, Barnes & Noble, Five Below and Target during a day and a half of shopping for gifts the recipients might like. He selected four presents for each to reflect their interests in music, arts and the Baltimore Ravens.
"I felt good when I was shopping for them," Zack said. He'll talk about his project during his bar mitzvah at Beth El Synagogue on Saturday, Dec. 15.
"He put thought into the gifts he bought," said his mother, Debbie Lubliner. "I think the kids are really going to appreciate it."
Taking part in the toy drive — and helping kids his own age — drove home lessons about compassion and empathy.
"It's your responsibility to give back and help the community," Debbie Lubliner said she and her husband told their son.
Zack and his parents also discussed how anybody can face tough times, especially in today's sagging economy and high unemployment.
"You don't really know why this family needs help," his mother said. "It could be us. It could be someone we know."
"Using his money made him own it a little more and understand it a little more," Debbie Lubliner said.
The Toy Closet was started in 1995, in response to requests about how to donate toys for Hanukkah to Jewish Family Services, the predecessor of Jewish Community Services, according to Beth Hecht, spokeswoman for JCS.
"The project continues to grow," said Hecht.
Run by volunteers, it now operates all year long. Most of the donations — toys, games, books and school supplies — are used during Hanukkah.
But throughout the rest of the year, toys and school supplies are given to children in crisis, whether they are facing a death in the family, a house fire or perhaps settling in the area after emigrating from another country, she said.
"Over the years, we've served a lot of families," Hecht said.
In the last year, 250 children received items from the Toy Closet. Toys are given to children who are already receiving services from JCS, she said, explaining there simply aren't enough resources to help families beyond those already being served.
The Nov. 18 Toy Drive at the Owings Mills JCC, where Zack came with his presents, kicked off this year's annual collection: held, as always, several weeks before Hanukkah.
Families donate in two ways. They can sponsor a family and purchase toys according to the children's gender, ages and interests; or they can shop on their own and donate things JCS staff will bag up for families.
Family games are popular, and some toys never go out of style, including dolls, LEGOs, craft supplies and sporting goods.
"A lot of people like to give gift cards," Hecht said, noting that teenagers prefer these.
JCS accepts donations of new, unwrapped toys all year long. Before Hanukkah, parents receive toys and wrapping paper, so they can have gifts for the season. They can be dropped off at either Jewish community center: the Ben and Esther Rosenbloom JCC on the Weinberg Campus, 3506 Gwynnbrook Ave., in Owings Mills; or the Harry and Jeanette Weinberg JCC, 5700 Park Heights Ave., in Baltimore.
"We're so appreciative, and people are so generous," Hecht said.