Eighth Grade Capstone Project
The Capstone Project, Portland Jewish Academy’s culminating learning experience, provides an opportunity for all eighth grade students at PJA to participate in a multifaceted, interdisciplinary project which addresses the values of Tikkun Olam, integrates the curriculum of the Jewish Studies program with the Humanities department, and addresses the fundamental skills of the research process and academic writing.
Students begin the Capstone Project process by identifying areas of personal interest and relevant needs in the community. They then create, organize, and implement a project of their choice. Once students have become fully immersed in their projects, they choose a related topic, conduct research, and undertake the writing of a formal research paper. The Capstone Project concludes with the completion of a Drash in which students make connections between Jewish history, text, their personal Jewish identity or the PJA middot.
Here is a selection of projects from 8th graders at Congregation Neveh Shalom who attend PJA:
In the world of Judaism, there are many different rules and guidelines that our people are supposed to follow and abide by. These include studying Torah, observing Shabbat, praying, and keeping Kosher. One of the more important mitzvot to me is Tzedakah, a mitzvah that everyone is capable of doing, whether Jewish or non Jewish. All they need to do is drop a coin in a box as opposed to studying Torah or learning the prayers, which are harder to understand. Although giving monetary Tzedakah is very important, I enjoy a different way of giving Tzedakah: Tikkun Olam, which is repairing repairing the world. Tikkun Olam is important because it is what makes the world a better place. My goal is to repair the world in any way I can. For my Capstone Service Learning Project, I chose to volunteer at the Blanchet House, and I have been volunteering there about twice a month on Friday for dinner. I always look forward to helping out at the Blanchet House because I know that I am helping people. I have formed a very strong connection to the struggle of others’ hunger and those who are homeless through my Capstone research project. For my Bar-Mitzvah Project I donated to Mazon, a non-profit Jewish organization that advocates for food accessibility. It works to ensure that hungry people get good food every day.
Appreciation is something that is important in my life and is a very important part of Tzedakah, especially in feeding the hungry. Tzedakah isn’t just about giving, it is about appreciating what we are giving and wanting to give it. In my opinion, reluctantly giving Tzedakah is not a mitzvah. In order to perform the mitzvah of giving, we must want to give and appreciate what we’re giving, even if the amount is small. “Do not stand on your neighbor’s blood,” (Lev. 19:16), or in Hebrew, “Al ta’amod al dam reyecha.” This quote from Tanakh means that if someone is suffering from something, whether a wound or danger or hunger, then we should help them if we can. Everyone always needs a little help with something, even if they don’t admit they want it. Appreciation is also one of PJA’s special Middot, Hoda’ah. At PJA, appreciation is very important to everyone. We are appreciative during the Birkat Hamazon, during Tefillah, or when our wonderful teachers pass out papers and we respond with a simple thank you, etc. It is the little things that count. PJA would be a very different school without the much needed and supplied appreciation that we obtain. Appreciation at PJA is what puts the smiles on our faces, and helps us get through the day. Luckily, appreciation is a vibe that is easily felt here and that is one of the reasons that PJA is such a great school.
Being helpful is something that everyone appreciates because everyone needs help with something. No matter what condition people are in, or what they have done, they are still people. Appreciation goes both ways. We can appreciate what we are doing and the people we are helping, and the people that we help can appreciate us for what we are doing to help. Appreciation is a simple task. It is something that we need in our troubling world that’s filled with hungry and unlucky people who need to be helped. Without appreciation, no one would ever know if the recipient was thankful for what the provider gave them.
When I volunteer at the Blanchet House, I see a very wide variety of people in need, from people who are disabled in their teens to seniors carrying blankets over their backs. It is important to know that people can go hungry no matter their condition. It is our job to help them out by either feeding them, giving money, or doing anything else we can to get them off the streets. Making people happy is a huge part of Tzedakah. People are inspired by their own happiness, and it gives them courage to look on the bright side and keep their heads up. Serving just one meal to a hungry person makes us feel good, them satisfied, and it makes God proud because giving Tzedakah and appreciation is important, and everyone benefits from it.
Disabilities and Judaism
In the Tannaitic period, a prominent Rabbi, Rabbi Simeon ben Eleazar, once encountered a physically disabled person. This interaction between the disabled person and Rabbi Simeon is recorded in the Talmud. It is one of the few Talmudic stories that provides insight into coexisting with and respecting disabled people. The story goes like this:
He happened upon a man who was extremely ugly. The man said, “Shalom to you, Rabbi!” Rabbi Simeon did not reply. Instead he exclaimed, “Idiot! How ugly that man is! Could it be that all the people of your city are as ugly as you?”
The man said, “I do not know, why not go to the Artisan who made me, and tell Him, ‘How ugly that vessel is that You made!’”
When Rabbi Simeon realized that he had done wrong, he dismounted from his donkey and fell down at the man’s feet, saying, “I fully accept – please forgive me.” “I will not forgive you,” said the man, “until you go to that Artist who made me and tell him, ‘How ugly that vessel is that You made.’”
This has a direct connection to my capstone project. In my project, I volunteered with the Special Olympics. I engaged in physical activities with mentally disabled people. We played many sports in order for the mentally disabled people to have fun, express themselves, and to have social interactions with other people.
Rabbi Simeon was a very respected rabbi at the time, but he still looked down upon mentally and physically disabled people. Despite a physically disabled person’s efforts to greet him and be hospitable, Rabbi Simeon still couldn’t overlook his beliefs of disabled people being inferior to himself. The disabled person tried his best to appeal to Rabbi Simeon, yet Rabbi Simeon treated the disabled person inferior to himself. Rabbi Simeon overlooked his disability once he realized that the disabled person was also created by G-d, just like him. This examples how difficult it’s to realize when one’s beliefs are corrupt, only an outside opinion or new viewpoint affected the established beliefs by Rabbi Simeon.
In our contemporary society, disabled people are commonly considered to be inferior like Rabbi Simeon’s treatment of the disabled person, but they shouldn’t be. My project was intended to interact with disabled people and relate to them. I overlooked the fact that they may look different or act different, because like the disabled person in Rabbi Simeon’s encounter taught us, disabled people are also created by G-d and should be treated that way. In my project, I learned things from playing with them, and I think they learned some things from me. It wasn’t about difference; it was about similarities and having fun. They deserve the same respect, hospitality, and compassion that we deserve because we are all equally created by G-d. Society should accept this and fully integrate disabled people into society and religion. This concept of people being parallelly created by G-d can also apply to many other world issues. Racism, sexism, and various other ideologies all correlate to this teaching in the Talmud. Would you appreciate being treated differently because of a divide in appearance or intellect? Thank You!
For my service project, I have been volunteering at Providence Child Center for Medically Fragile Children (CMFC). I participate in planned activities with kids who have severe disabilities. I help them experience things that they can’t feel or do on their own. An example of this is whenever the activity is an art project, the volunteers use the hand-over-hand technique so the children can experience the feeling of drawing when they don’t have enough control over their hands to do it on their own. When we draw a picture, they hold the marker and the volunteer helps to direct the kid’s hand. It is the same way with completing mitzvot and following Jewish laws. If sick people need help to complete a mitzvah or can’t complete a mitzvah, it is acceptable to not participate in the mitzvah according to Jewish law because there is not a better, safer option.
It says in Mishna Sukkah: “The ill and their caretakers are exempt from the mitzvah of the sukkah.” This shows us that if someone is sick, they do not have to risk getting worse by going outside in order to complete the important mitzvah of dwelling in the sukkah. Many sages have taught that this exemption applies to both people who are in critical condition and people who are not in critical condition. It is stated in the mishna, that even with just a headache, you are still exempt from the mitzvah of the sukka. From this teacher we learn is that if someone is in a poor state, assistance is granted.
Another instance where safety is the first priority in Judaism is during fast days. In Mishna Yoma Chapter 8 Mishna 5, it says that a sick person is not expected to fast on Yom Kippur. Fasting when a person is sick could cause a decline in their well-being. This has a significant connection to my service project because at CMFC, the children are not forced to do anything that they are physically unable to do. If there is anything that puts the kids at the slightest bit of risk, the staff and volunteers will protect them from it. However, the children at CMFC are encouraged to meet new challenges such as learning how to communicate “yes” or “no” in a nonverbal way since most of the children cannot speak.
Fortunately, Jews are exempt from mitzvot that are too risky to complete; however, from working with these children I have learned that everyone should be given the opportunity to experience important things.
I would consider participating in major holidays to be very important experiences. I believe there should be a rule that makes it clear that what little parts of the mitzvah that are safe, the ill should still try to do. If the sick are unable to sit in the sukka, they should still shake the lulav, or learn about an aspect of the holiday.
The Jewish people are lucky to have the safety of God when they are unwell by not having to participate in activities such as Yom Kippur. The children at Providence are lucky to have the comfort and help of their nurses, doctors, and the loving volunteers to make their lives as happy as possible and still give them the protective care they need.
Maimonides’ Ladder and My Tzedakah
In the beginning of the Capstone process, months ago, when I was a clueless Capstone student, we learned about tzedakah. Giving could be defined by Maimonides’ ladder of tzedakah, which depicted the best ways to give to the poor. There are eight rungs on the ladder, and each rung is more righteous than the one before it. According to Maimonides’ ladder, the worst way one can perform tzedakah is to give unwillingly, and the best way to give is to help someone become self-supporting. This could be by helping a person to find a job or educating a person for their benefit.
There is a famous quote that relates to Maimonides’ ladder that categorizes one kind of charity as better than another. It says: “Give a man a fish, and you feed him for a day; teach a man to fish and you feed him for a lifetime.” This statement is true, and it would seem that it is better to teach a man to fish, or more generally, a skill that will benefit him in the long run, yet I thought differently. How can one be better than the other? During Service Learning class with Ms. C-R, we talked about which are the best ways to give. I thought, to give in the first place is morally good; it’s ethical, in any way shape or form, no matter the intention. Tzedakah, at the root, literally means justice, or righteousness. How can one form of righteousness be better than another? If because of you, somebody in the world will benefit for even a minute, it is good, it’s righteous. So by ranking these different kinds of tzedakah, we label some as better than others, but how can we say that one form of good, of one form of righteousness, is better than another. How can we categorize the moral ethicality that makes us do good in the first place. It’s just good. Because the truth of tzedakah is: that no matter how it’s given, it will benefit somebody, and that’s good.
I was interested in homelessness, and am fortunate enough to have a family connection to someone who works to help the homeless. Through him and through PJA, I was able to gather lots of socks and distribute them directly to homeless people. It was a nice thing to do, and I could see gratitude in peoples’ words and expressions. People took socks for themselves, for family members, for their children, and even for the people staying under the Hawthorne bridge. I’m glad that those people will be able to put on a clean pair of socks, and I’m thankful for all the donations from the PJA community.
Coming back to Maimonides’ ladder in relation to my project, it’s not important to me which kind of tzedakah I did, and which rung it would be categorized under. It doesn’t even matter to me who got the socks. I talked about it with my dad, that perhaps people who said their friend was waiting outside, so could they take another pair?- that maybe these people were lying. It doesn’t matter to me if they were, because to me, it’s not important what happened to the socks and who got them, but it’s important that people got them in the first place, and they did, so I’m happy. And as long as the socks I gave out made other people happy, then I don’t think it matters how righteous my tzedakah was.
What I’ve come to realize this year, the point I want to relay to all of you, is that to me, it doesn’t matter what kind of tzedakah you do. All good, all righteousness, all tzedakah, is good. It just is. For this reason, I think there’s no need to worry about where your tzedakah stands on the ladder. What’s really important is that you’ve done your tzedakah in the first place.