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The Book Collector: Bar Mitzvah Tales

Two years ago, Tech and I found ourselves parked in a part of Rochester that we don’t usually frequent. A voracious reader, there was a particular title he wanted to read and only one library actually had it in all of Rochester. And that library was downtown. He was hell-bent on getting it, and he knew that I would not rush to pay for a copy at the local bookstore.

So we went on a wee road-trip.

After he checked out the book with his library card, I suggested he check out their YA section.

After two minutes, Tech returned with a frown.

“This is the worst library ever,” he declared. “There are no books.”

He dragged me over to the YA area, and it was true; the selection was dismal.

“Where are all the kids’ books?” he asked the librarian sitting nearby.

She looked at Tech and told him honestly that sometimes people checked out books from the library and didn’t return them.

“You mean people steal them?” Tech was outraged.

“Some kids don’t have books at home, so they take them from here.” The librarian explained. “Once our books are gone, we don’t have the resources to replace them. And of course, some books just get lost.”

Tech Support tilted his head, trying to wrap his brain around the concept that not all children have shelves filled with books in their homes, the way he does.

In the car, Tech Support made an announcement.

“I want to collect books and give them to kids so they can have books at home,” he said. “Can I do that for my bar mitzvah?”

“Sure,” I said as I screwed around with the CD player.

“Will you help me?” he demanded. “Seriously?”

I looked at my son’s eyes in the rear view mirror.

Tech has always been a collector. When he was younger, it was coins and LEGOs and Webkinz frogs. Later, he fell in love with mechanical pencils and magnets and rubber bands. He has a green bowl filled with origami stars and shelves filled with all kinds of weird stuff.

When my son gets an idea in his head, there is no stopping him.

He decided his goal would be to collect 1,300 books as a mitzvah project.

He picked 1,300 because the bar mitzvah usually occurs on or near a Jewish boy’s 13th birthday.

For him, the number 13 wasn’t unlucky.

It was super-symbolic.

I knew the collecting part wasn’t going to be hard for him.

I just didn’t know what we were going to do with them.

I figured we’d let them pile up and figure out that part later.

He started collecting just before Thanksgiving and by mid-April and, with the help of wonderful neighbors, friends and the folks at The Rochester Fencing Club, Tech exceeded his goal.

This picture was taken as an after-thought. After I realized we had boxed up nearly all the books.

One afternoon, we stood in the basement.

There were books in bins and boxes and bags.


“Mom,” Tech said. “Can you find a place where I can give kids the books?” he asked. “So they can keep them?”

“I don’t know,” I told him.

Because I didn’t think I could.

I really didn’t.

I knew we would be able to drop them off somewhere where adults would sort through them and distribute them to other adults for use in classrooms.

But then I stumbled onto The Mercier Literacy Program for Children.

I called the contact person.  We did a little back and forth, and then it happened: a miracle disguised as an email.

It read:

I’m not sure if you’ve heard of the RocRead program taking place in the Rochester City School District. Children read a book, write an essay on it, and once they hand it in, they get an incentive/prize.

So far, students have read 14,000 books through this program.

The details are being worked out right now – but the preliminary plan for Monday, April 30th is to have an event in the library of one of the schools to announce that every child present will receive a book as part of RocRead – with your son present to distribute books.

How does this sound? 

How did it sound?

It sounded like someone took a cup of totally cool and mixed it with three pounds of awesome.

The following Monday, Tech sat in the front seat of my Honda and I drove to school #41 in a car stuffed from floor to ceiling with books which we had sorted by grade level. When we found school #41, Tech borrowed a cart, loaded it up with boxes, and zigzagged his way back into the school.

The principal appeared. She greeted my son with a hug, and we all headed downstairs to the library. The custodian materialized with the cart and told us she would bring everything to the library on the service elevator. While Tech chatted it up with the librarian, the custodian appeared and I scattered books across two long tables until both surfaces were covered.

And then they came. Wearing uniform red shirts and khaki pants, the children sat crisscross-applesauce. The school librarian introduced Tech and asked him to speak to the students. I was certain he was going to freeze up. We had not prepared for that kind of thing. He did not know how to speak in front of…

…but there he was.

Doing it.

Explaining why he had started the book collection.

And when the librarian announced that each student was going to get to take home two books from Tech’s collection, the kids bounced up and down and cheered.

Tech smiled.

As the kindergarteners walked around the tables, Tech encouraged them to shift the books around and not to only look at the top layer. Once the children made their selections, they returned to their designated areas on the floor and another group came up.

I have to tell you, it was a beautiful sight.

They were all reading!

Or trying to.

Some silently. Some aloud. Some to each other.

The local television crews were there. Tech was interviewed three times, and even though he really wanted to downplay his role, he went along with whatever the people asked him to do.

I always knew that there would come a day that I would look at my son — the person who carries 50% of my DNA — and see him as the person he might become.

On that day, I saw my son as a person who doesn’t just have the potential to do good things, but as a person who is already doing them.

And I was amazed.

Because up until then, I just thought he was the boy who forgot his coat in his locker.

The kid who left his water bottle at fencing practice.

The dude who still needed to be reminded to brush his teeth.

But on that day, I saw my son as other people see him.

I realized that he likes to help other people.

And not because I told him to help people.

But because he really likes to.

On that day, I thought about the way he used to put together his elaborate LEGO sets, and I realized his tenaciousness was all about creating a person who would sets his sights on a goal and then surpass that goal.

My son is not finished.

Just today he asked, “What should I do next?”

I shrugged, confident he will figure it out.

Because that’s what he does.

This year, my son reminded me that individuals can repair the world.

I almost forgot.

How do your children inspire you? Have you ever done a community service project with your family? If so, what kinds of things have you found the most rewarding?

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70 thoughts on “The Book Collector: Bar Mitzvah Tales

      1. It wouldn`t be a major family happening or holiday if someone didn`t F/O. It`s like a wedding isn`t it? No control over the relatives` behavior, lots of details, expensive.It`s such a beautiful and special celebration- I always boo hoo, Which makes my kids crazy- “We`re Catholics- you can`t even understand what`s going on” Have a wonderful time. I`ll be reading along…

        1. You aren’t just whistlin’ Dixie. Someone will spontaneously combust. No doubt. Hopefully not me. I’m trying to remind myself that this is 96 hours about my son and our faith. And no matter what anyone says, I’m not going to let it bother me.


          That might not be realistic.

          So I have invisible bubble armor. And I plan to just flit about the room. After all, as the hostess, I have to make sure everyone is happy, right? 😉

  1. Rene, your words, Tech’s words bring tears to my eyes this morning. I told a friend yesterday that retirement has given me way tooooooo much time to read…and most of what I read is not uplifting–Diane Ravitch’s blog about the destruction of American public education, the wholesale destruction of the economic well-being around the world, the gobbling up of wealth and resources, the ruthlessness with which lives and livelihoods are being cast aside as if people are simply pawns to be used by the world’s “1%,” the bigotry that is being legislated into law books… What Tech Support saw in those city library shelves is such a metaphor for the life that most people on this planet lead, if there is even a library… I need to hear those words, that individuals can heal the world. I am sure that Tech will find a project, many projects worthy of his tenacity and passion. And if you ever need a second car to help deliver the goods, just give a holler!!

    1. D! I have read those dark, gloom and doom books and much prefer trying to repair the world to reading about its brokenness. And by the way, I’m not kidding, iDVD we do this again, you are screwed! I’m taking you up on that offer. We were packed in there! 😉

  2. Way to go, Tech!!! I love how he saw a very unfortunate situation and turned it around for the better. It’s kids like Tech that start out young making a positive difference. I wonder how many of those students that received books will remember that kindness of his and decide to “pay it forward”, in their own way?!?!?!? Kids ROCK; there’s no doubt about it!!

    1. I wonder that, too. The kids sent him these beautiful thank you notes. Heart wrenching letters that, for some, intimated this was their first book and they would never forget him for giving it to him. He remembers things from kindergarten, so hopefully the love of reading will continue. That would be the best thing, truly. Tech wasn’t so interested in leaving a legacy as he was just giving kids books and making them happy. I thought was great. I would have been a total PR whore. LOL. 😉

  3. Oh my gosh, I’m tearing up over here. What nachas! How impressive that he saw a lack and moved to fill it! That’s some testimony to your parenting, for real. You must be so proud, and this is an experience that is going to stay with him forever.

    1. Rivki! Honestly, this has been the best moment so far. Forget the party planning, the cutting up paper into tiny rectangles, the ordering invitations. This was the moment. And you ain’t kidding. I was so proud. Beyond. Kvelling. 😉 I know you know what I mean.

  4. Wow. Just wow. This is so cool. What an excellent project, and he’s an amazing kid. With an amazing mom! I have a friend who teaches English in a middle school in the Bronx- a school that has no library, so she made one in her classroom. It makes all the difference in the world.

    1. JM! This was such an amazingly rewarding project – for all of us! It was not hard to get people to bring us book. Storing them and sorting them was another thing, but soooo worth it! If you and your family are ever up for doing something wonderful for that school in the Bronx, consider collecting books!

  5. What a wonderful boy you have there! Congratulations to him for the good he just spread, not only in books, but by example. And congratulations to you, for bringing that kid into this world and raising him well.

  6. I might have a tear in my eye. Or a few. Kids helping kids. I love that we’ll be handing over this world to a new generation with people like Tech in it. It gives me hope.

    1. You know exactly what I’m talking about. So much talk about bullying, but there are a lot of kids who actually do care about making the world a better place — not just my kid. And this was not hard to do. The next time Viv & Will are clearing out their their books, instead of having a garage sale, consider taking the kids to a school you know is in need. School #41 has a literacy rate of 24% based on their 3rd grade State exams. Hopefully, by beefing up their library, they will be more inspired to read and improve those numbers!

  7. You both are awesomesauce. I am so proud of tech support, and of his fantastic mama. Thank you for uplifting me, for making this Monday magnificent.

    Hmm. Community Service as a family: we all walked the paths in our neighborhood and collected trash with my husband’s Cub Scout troop. I felt proud of my man and of my children.

  8. oh my gosh. Tech is a cool kid. Doing beautiful things for the world. You never know HOW much he changed the world, either! This could change everything for one of those kids!

  9. Wow, Renee! I had no idea this was going on! Tech Support is amazing. This really got me all choked up. What a special kid. And sign me up for whatever his next project is! 🙂

    1. I like the idea of being book angels. When kids are born, I always give books. People have called me the “book auntie” and I love that. Thanks, August. It was nice to share a common interest with my boy. I mean man. Oy.

  10. I’m crying–seriously crying–from this post. Beautiful and inspiring and everything we hope for from the next generation. Give that boy a hug from me.

    1. His Torah portion is on leadership/rebellion. It really is the perfect complement to this whole journey. It’s amazing how that works out. I think he’s a pretty good egg. And I believe we will keep him. It would hurt to try to put him back at this point. Plus I’ve finally lost all the pregnancy weight…

  11. Like virtually every commenter … wow :). I can’t wait to see what other good he’s going to introduce into the world! I’m partial to books, so you had me from hello, but I know there are other ways to do good too!

  12. OK, that made me cry too. A voracious reader who could hardly read or write until about fourth grade, I don’t know what I’d do without books. For your son to go from, “This is the worst library ever” to, “How can I fix this?” shows he has the mindset of someone who is going to grow up and do great things. You must be proud to the tip of your toes and you should be. Your son is a kind, wise soul. What could be better?

    1. Really? Is everyone getting weepy? Must be that having a zillion books in my basement took the weep out of me…but, I am amazed by his growth this year. Seventh grade really has been that growth year where he has gone from passive observer to activist. Of course, now that he is “looking out”, he sees there are girls, so I may lose him completely for the next 10 years. LOL!

    1. Galit! Thank you for stopping by. I’m sorry I’ve been so preoccupied lately. I haven’t been the best commenter. I’ll be back in the swing soon. Thank you for your kind words. I am so thrilled to see the man my son is becoming. Because he is a good one. Really. 😉

  13. You are doing a wonderful job raising a caring and sensitive son. Way to go “Tech,” and way to go Mom and Dad!!

  14. I am so moved by this story, Rennee. What a great kid. Seriously. In this day and age when kids are made to feel like rock starts for doing basically nothing, I love how Tech Support can feel proud because he really accomplished something that he dreamed up and completed. Good for him!

  15. How sweet and inspiring and wonderful and…whatever other great adjective you can think of!

    I believe that happiness is a byproduct of how we live our lives, not a goal to shoot for, in and of itself. Which is why my (and many parents) fondest wish and fervent prayer for my children is that they be kind and honorable people. You got a bingo here!

  16. My daughter and I collected over 5000 teddy bears for needy children. It was a awesome blessed event in our lives. I proud of your son. Sounds like he is a keeper.

  17. This was a wonderful, touching story, Renee–your son is mature beyond his years. He understands at a young age that by helping others, we are enriched beyond measure. As a retired city school teacher (kindergarten), please thank him–the ripples from a kind act go on forever!

  18. Hurray! I love the service. Last winter a scout from our troop did a project similar to Tech’s for his Eagle project. The number of books he collected was amazing, just as Tech’s. I am grateful I can surround myself with books and the printed word, it makes me sad to realize that there are far too many kids growing up without books or opportunities to read and explore the world! May we never forget how important it is to read and explore through books, but more importantly – may we never forget how important it is to serve others.

  19. I super-duper love Tech’s project! I know he must make you beam with pride! 🙂 It makes me so sad to think of children without stacks and shelves of delightful things to read. I’ve never organized a community service project with my own family, but as a teacher, I often organized food, paper product, and toiletry drives for the women’s shelter in my area (I used to work there). I also did a supply drive for the animal shelter during the winter holiday season.

  20. I almost cried. How wonderful. This has got to make the terrible twos worth it, right?
    I have been in Big Brothers Big Sisters for almost ten years now. My little is a grown up woman, but we still stay in touch.

    1. You probably won’t believe me, but he didn’t really “do” the terrible twos! He was a hideous infant, but once he learned to walk and talk, he’s been a pleasure ever since.

      That said, he’s about to become a teenager so I’m pretty much screwed. 😉

  21. Renee, this is truly inspiring. Mazal Tov on the upcoming Bar Mitzvah (this weekend, right?). My daughter’s is next May. Haven’t even begun to think about a mitzvah project yet. See you at the camp buses on August 1st? Awesome piece of writing.

    1. Holly, I wouldn’t have EVER thought of a project, were it not for Tech pushing me along. And yes, this is the weekend. Thank you for the mazel tovs. The boy is going to CSL in July this year, but I’ll likely stop by. You know I can’t resist seeing everyone!

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