By Deb Silverthorn
Eli Berk is a superhero in action, honoring his own superheroes, the children of the men and women of the Israel Defense Forces, with his Brick Builders bar mitzvah project. Eli has built and sold more than 120 mezuzah cases, one toy brick at a time — thousands of plastic bricks in all — to raise more than $3,000 for the LEGACY program of Friends of the IDF (FIDF).
“I have loved building with blocks since I was a really little kid,” said Eli, brother to Drew and the son of Beth and Scott Berk. “My brother brought home a mezuzah that was built with blocks and I thought I could combine that idea with the LEGACY Bar/Bat Mitzvah program, something that is so important to my family. I designed my own, and it’s been bigger than I could have imagined.”
His colorful mezuzah cases, sporting superheroes, cartoon characters and other designs, are $35.
“From when my mom first posted the idea on Facebook, we sold out of everything I had in one night. We’ve been getting a lot of phone calls, and we’ve been shipping orders around the country.”
Change of pace
A seventh-grade student at Pioneer Heritage Middle School, he is a linebacker and tight end for the undefeated Pioneer Panthers, and a catcher, pitcher and second baseman for the Express club baseball team. Eli will celebrate his bar mitzvah at Congregation Anshai Torah on May 30.
“The FIDF is near and dear to the Berk family and this shows the respect that Eli has for his family’s Jewish values, and it shows the Jewish values he holds himself,” said Bruce Feldman, Eli’s bar mitzvah tutor. “When Eli told me about this project I thought it was crazy unique.
“I’ve worked with more than 1,000 kids over 20 years and this is something really special.”
Through the LEGACY program, FIDF supports thousands of individuals who have suffered the loss of a loved one fallen during military service. FIDF helps those in need to rebuild their futures, helping them mark coming-of-age ceremonies, holidays and other major celebrations throughout their lives. The money raised by Eli will sponsor at least three children to come to the United States with airfare, camp fees, accommodations and activities. This year, 150 campers will come to camps in the Los Angeles, Washington, D.C., New Jersey, and Chicago areas.
“Vision. Kindness. Heritage. Spirit. All of these words reflect what we hope to get from our children. For us as a Jewish People, to see someone care is incredible and Eli (has) hakarat hatov (gratitude), he really is a role model beyond our own community and it means a lot,” said Tamir Oppenheim, the FIDF Midwest executive director. “We love to see children of bar mitzvah age taking the responsibility to support others, others who he won’t know the face of, and that itself elevates the mitzvah.”
The LEGACY program is close to Eli’s heart, and that of his family as supporting the FIDF is a family legacy of its own. The grandson of Dr. Marcy Canel and Robert Canel and Marcia and Michael Berk, it is their shoulders of giving and tikun olam, healing the world, on which he stands. Marcia and Michael, who live in Chicago, have been supporters for many years, hosting children of this very program.
Teaching to give
“You learn to give by being taught to give. We learned from our parents and we’ve taught our children,” said Marcia, who has introduced her campers to her grandchildren over three summers. “That Eli came up with this idea and chose to support the F IDF on his own is amazing and we couldn’t be prouder.
“The LEGACY children have lost a parent and this is a chance to separate from the misery. They come, they share their stories, and they really are shocked that strangers would care about them and what they are going through.”
In 2011, the senior Berks took Eli’s parents on a mission trip to Israel, to learn more about their heartfelt association. The family became involved with the FIDF’s IMPACT program that allows IDF soldiers to attend university, at no cost.
“The programs of the FIDF change people’s lives — they change lives, and to be able to be a part of that is a gift to us,” said Beth, who with Scott brought his parents’ M&M The Special Events Company business to the Metroplex, 12 years ago. They couldn’t be more proud of Shlomi, “their” student who recently graduated from Ben-Gurion University as an architectural engineer, now building schools in Israel. The Frisco-based Berks are now sponsoring their second soldier, Uzi, who is just beginning his college education.
“Eli found the LEGACY bar/bat mitzvah program something he could relate to and to give, without knowing who the recipient is, is the greatest form of giving. We’re sure this is only the beginning of the lives that Eli will change.”
In return for their education, soldiers promise to give 100 hours of community service and to, when they are able, provide sponsorships themselves.
For 9-year-old Daniel Tolkov, Eli’s project was a very special purchase at Anshai Torah’s Mitzvah Day.
“I had some birthday money that my Oma Hilda (Fischer) gave me and I was waiting to do something special with it,” he said. “She just passed away and I think she’d like that I used her money to by a mezuzah. It’s something that will mean something to me every day and it’s another way I can always remember her.”
Daniel’s 11-year-old sister Amanda was inspired by Eli’s project and the crowd that formed at Mitzvah Day to hear the story and contribute.
“My bat mitzvah is coming up and I think it’s great that a kid can really help kids in Israel. I don’t know what I’m going to do yet, maybe I’ll make blankets or something else creative, but this is really cool.”
“We’re all just kids and we have a lot in common with the kids who will get to come to camp,” Eli said. “I can’t imagine what they are going through with the terrorism and how that has affected their lives, but they’re kids — we’re just kids, and we should help each other.”
To be a part of Eli’s hope to “help each other,” and to purchase a mezuzah made by Eli, or to make a donation, email firstname.lastname@example.org. For more information about the LEGACY programs of the FIDF, visit fidf.org.