Some b’nei mitzvah – Jewish young adults who are just coming of age – spend their gift money on comic books. Other forward-thinking youth might save it for college. Thirteen-year-old Shira Futornick of Palo Alto, California, decided to raise funds for the Arava International Center for Agriculture Training (AICAT) — $50,000, to be exact.
“Food insecurity is an issue that’s really important to me because it’s such a widespread issue,” Futornick told The Times of Israel last Tuesday, shortly after arriving in Ben-Gurion Airport ahead of a graduation ceremony she spoke at for agriculturists.
What may sound like a precocious statement for a 13-year-old is, in the Futornicks’ community, definitely not beyond the pale. When asked what they did differently to raise such socially conscious offspring, Shira’s father, Bill Futornick, had a simple answer.
“I think you just live in the Bay area,” he said, wryly.
Despite the tongue-in-cheek response, Futornick proudly points out that his daughter’s initiative is a part of a tzedaka project that all bar and bat mitzvah students take part in at Congregation Beth Jacob in nearby Redwood City, California.
Bill Futornick credits the congregation’s leader, Rabbi Nethaniel Ezray, with helping the budding Jewish adults prioritize acts of lovingkindness. Ezray, he said, provides a nonpartisan platform from which the congregation as a whole, regardless of political leanings, can support Israel – another important value to the Futornicks.
And, Futornick said, his congregation isn’t the only one in the San Francisco area that focuses on making a difference.
As to why Shira chose this particular project to be the recipient of her fundraising, Futornick said agricultural research and sustainable farming are causes that the Futornick family has been engaged with for some time. Additionally, the synagogue has a history of working with the Jewish National Fund (JNF), which has partnered with the Arava center since 2002, providing funds for scholarships and campus building, including dormitories, offices and a laboratory for a student body expected to double by 2018.
Futornick took Shira’s older sister on a Keshet program around the time of her bat mitzvah three years ago, and accompanied Shira to the Arava center for her 11th birthday while on a trip to Israel in 2015 to see the school in action.
“It was really cool to me because we went into a class of Ethiopian students who were working on empowering women in Ethiopia to stand up for their rights and make opportunities for themselves,” Shira Futornick said. “I felt like it was a really great organization because not only were they teaching people to feed themselves, but they were also teaching people to stand up for themselves and run businesses.”
The AICAT graduation, which took place on Thursday, saw students from developing nations across the globe complete their course studies, which will help them provide solutions to problems such as food safety and security in their home countries.
Each year, about 1,000 students from countries including Cambodia, Nepal, Ethiopia, Rwanda, and Thailand complete the 10-month course, which focuses on sustainability and economic development.
The Arava center was founded in 1994 in Sapir, southern Israel and has three different programs, all of them highlighting hands-on training on the center’s cutting edge farm and incorporating a sense of community for a well-rounded experience.
Shira’s contributions are going to go to increasing attendance and additional campus building as the program continues to grow.
“We really make the point of having a seventh grader, when it comes to bar and bat mitzvah, of really focusing on the mitzvah – especially tzedaka (charitable giving),” said Bill Futornick.
“You know, we’re frequently surprised looking at these seventh graders and saying ‘Oh my God, look at how amazing they are,’ but year after year we’re actually seeing this, and it’s just fantastic,” said Shira’s proud father. “They feel that they can change the world still, and we think that they can.”