Friday, July 25, 2014

7th-Graders Skip Bar Mitzvah Parties to Build Playground in Chicago's South Side

It’s a simple idea, yet one with immense possibilities -- a playground. In the South Side of Chicago, where many kids have no safe place to frolic, two 7th-graders from a nicer part of town are skipping the lavish celebrations that would usually accompany their upcoming Bar and Bat Mitzvah ceremonies, and will instead use the money to build a park.


Best friends Marc Luban and Ariana Handelman partnered with the Anshe Emet Synagogue, where they attend services, and Bright Star Church in Bronzeville to raise money, design and eventually construct a playground for those in the South Side area. The park will reside on the Bright Star premises.

Both kids asked their parents to spend any money and energy they would have put toward their parties on the playground instead. All invited guests are now invited to build. They’ve also set up an IndieGoGo page with a minimum goal of $30,000, which they’re close to meeting, and are looking for additional donations and sponsorships to reach the $90,000 total needed for the project.

“I’ve always liked parks because they’re so much fun, and you can do a million different things,” Ariana tells Ellen’s Good News. “The neighborhood isn’t the safest so having a park there will give them a good place to play.”

While Ariana and Marc live on the North Side of the city, Ariana says she visited Bright Star Church earlier in the year, and was able to meet many of the kids who will benefit from construction of the playground. The 12-year-old acknowledges the dire circumstances many of these children face on a daily basis.

“When I went for Martin Luther King weekend, a lot of it was trying to acknowledge how violent it was and how we all need to stop the violence,” Ariana remarks. “The police officer who was talking said she had met with high-schoolers, and asked them to raise their hand if their brother had been killed -- a bunch raised their hands. Then she asked them to raise their hands if their father had been killed, and a bunch raised their hands. She asked if both their brother and father, and more than half raised their hands. So, that's a little of what I know about the area.”

Bright Star Church is located in the Bronzeville neighborhood of the city, which is 97 percent African-American and has a median household income that’s one third of citywide household incomes.
Ariana adds, “I think building a park will help, because the kids can have somewhere to play that’s not dangerous."

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Together with their synagogue leader, Rabbi Michael Siegel, and Pastor Chris Harris of Bright Star Church, Ariana and Marc have inspired a movement within their two communities to create a lasting effect on the city. They are currently at summer camp, but will meet with their South Side cohorts when they return to design the park.

“We are going to meet with the kids who are going to play there, and have them dream up their ideal park,” Ariana explains. “With the money and space, we will try and make as much happen as possible.”

The park combines two elements of Marc and Ariana’s Bar Mitzvah rituals: community service and celebration. It’s also an extension of a bond the two religious congregations developed years earlier, and a commitment they have to give a sanctuary to all kids in the city.

“This park is helping us get together,” Ariana points out. “People should learn if they want something to happen they should try. They should work on it.”

If you’re interested in learning more or contributing to Ariana and Marc’s fundraiser, visit their IndieGoGo page

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