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A Bar Mitzvah Project, with an Emphasis on the Mitzvah

Dec 21, 2015

Blog Post

Rachel Nusbaum, HIAS.org

Zachary Raney

(Photo courtesy of Amy Stern)

Zachary with the information table he created in the lobby of his synagogue in Durham, North Carolina.

(Photo courtesy of Amy Stern)

The flyer Zachary created to inform his community about the refugee crisis.


Zachary Raney came home from Rosh Hashanah services at Judea Reform Congregation in Durham, North Carolina with a light in his eyes. His rabbi, Larry Bach, had given a sermon about the refugee crisis in Syria and how thousands of children were being affected. As Jews, Rabbi Bach said, we have an obligation to help.

Zach’s bar mitzvah was fast approaching and the sermon inspired him. “So I did some research and tried to choose a project that would let me help,” he said. The goals for the project were ambitious. “I was hoping to get a lot of letters written, to the president and to representatives in Congress. I was also hoping to raise money and to raise awareness.”

He received permission to set up a table in the lobby of the synagogue with information about the crisis “that was up by Yom Kippur and its still up right now actually,” his mother, Ziva Raney, said. “Its a cause that people in our synagogue were very interested in.” He found his family and friends equally supportive, and even impressed a favorite teacher with his chosen topic.

Zachary created his own awareness-raising tools for the campaign, including a flyer with information about the crisis and a link to his fundraising site, which he built by himself. The flyer included a sample letter to the president, an advocacy tool which several of his friends and fellow congregants have already used. He asked his family to share the link to his donation page with their networks and connections, and he has already raised more than $1,500 through it.

The first donation came from Zachary himself, who contributed money he had received as bar mitzvah gifts.

If that sounds awfully selfless for a 13 year-old, its perhaps because Zachary’s understanding of the refugee crisis is so profound. He spoke about the crisis from the bima during his bar mitzvah service, on October 24, 2015. In his D’var torah he said, “almost 12 million people have been displaced from their homes in Syria. Can you imagine how devastating that would be?”

Nor was that his only opportunity to talk publicly about the issue. Zachary spoke to Congressman David Price, who represents North Carolina’s 4th district, about the refugee crisis in mid-October when Rep. Price came to the synagogue. By now a seasoned and well-informed advocate, Zachary got straight to the point.

“I asked him if he would support an additional 100,000 refugees coming to America, and what he would do to help make that happen,” Zachary recalled.

The congressman “said he thought that was a reasonable number,” Zachary’s mom reports.

The awareness campaign seems to be working as well. His friends, he says, “didn’t know too much about [the refugee crisis] when I first brought it up, but the ones who came to my service and heard my speech – we talked about it afterwards. They said it was a good problem to focus on.”

“The main point I was talking to them about was the sheer number of people who are affected by this. Its kind of crazy.”

Zachary says he feels good about all that he has been able to accomplish so far, but he has no plans to stop either. “I still want to get the message out as far as I can,” he said.

“I feel like this is something where, if I work hard enough, I can probably make a pretty big difference. Which would be awesome,” he said enthusiastically. 

“This crisis is a big deal, and the more people can do to help, the better.”

Zachary’s donation page is still up and running. To visit it, click here