While some families make their child's bat or bar mitzvah memorable with grand meals and large gifts of money, a 13-year-old from Pikesville will remember his transition to adulthood for another reason: bringing joy to others.
Evan Reisberg used money from his bar mitzvah to help purchase and donate 40 Build-a-Bear teddy bears to children with cerebral palsy at the Delrey School in Catonsville.
The idea started months before Evan's bar mitzvah, the Jewish religious ceremony that marks a boy's 13th birthday and his passage into religious maturity.
Evan and his family are members of Chevrei Tzedek Congregation in Baltimore. As part of their bar and bat mitzvahs, all children must perform an act of community service in keeping with the Jewish principle of tikkun olam, which means, "repair the world."
"Each child sends a letter through e-mail to the congregation telling them about their community service project and asking for support," said Rabbi Gila Ruskin. "The project must be something that appeals to the child and is near and dear to his heart."
Evan's mother, June Dennen, came up with the idea to make bears at the Build-a-Bear store in Towson Town Center, and Evan decided who would receive them.
"It made us feel really good because it struck people as a way to give back to the community and have fun at the same time," says Alan Reisberg, Evan's father. "A lot of people responded positively because of Evan's condition, too."
Evan has a mild muscle condition similar to cerebral palsy that has not been fully diagnosed by physicians. He said he chose the Delrey School because it feels good to help children who have cerebral palsy, a disorder of the central nervous system characterized by defective motor ability or spastic paralysis.
"They have a worse condition than I do, so I just wanted to give something to them to help make them happy," Evan says.
With some financial backing from the congregation, and help from a few friends, Evan made the bears the Sunday after his bar mitzvah, then contacted school officials.
"Evan contacted us last November," says Mimi Wang, principal of the Delrey School. "We thought that it was such a gesture of friendship. But because Christmas was getting closer, we decided to present the bears to the children on Valentine's Day."
Jenny S. Jones, manager of public relations and development at United Cerebral Palsy of Central Maryland, says that Evan's age and the scale of his donation set him apart from other donors.
"The unique thing about a donation like this is Evan's age," Jones says. "We hear so many negative stories about today's youth, but he appreciates what he has at such a young age.
Evan's donation stands out at a time when some say grandeur and monetary gifts have become the focus of bar and bat mitzvahs.
"Money should be spent more wisely" says Rabbi Herman Neuberger, president of the Ner Israel Rabbinical School in Baltimore. "As a general rule, it is not proper to have large ceremonies with a lot of money. It has no purpose or religious significance, and it makes others who cannot afford to have such celebrations feel very bad."
Rabbi Ruskin agrees, but says that bar and bat mitzvahs are still a time of celebration.
"There should be a party where people can share a meal and entertainment. But they certainly could be more modest. That is why we have these projects, for the children to give back to the community."
Evan hopes to continue giving back. "It feels real good," he says.
Adds Jones: "It's nice for these children to have someone they don't even know do something for them. It's even nicer when there is a teddy bear attached to it."