Irvine teen donates bar mitzvah money to nonprofit group

  1. Updates

Joel Abecassis presented $5,000 to Playworks-Southern California, a nonprofit that promotes learning through play in low-income schools.

SANTA ANA – Joel Abecassis wanted to make a difference with the money he got for his bar mitzvah.

So on Tuesday, he presented a check for $5,000 to Playworks-Southern California, part of the national Playworks organization that supports learning by providing safe, healthy and inclusive play and physical activity to low-income schools.

Joel, 13, of Irvine, handed over the check at Jefferson Elementary School in Santa Ana, one of three Orange County schools that Playworks serves.

“When we get our bar mitzvah, our parents encourage us to donate money to organizations that will help the world,” Joel said. “I felt this organization was appropriate for me.”

Joel, who enjoys basketball, soccer and math, said he liked the idea that he would be helping other children become involved in sports, and steering them away from bullying.

“I can give more kids an opportunity to not only play sports, but to be positive, and to make sure they’re nice in general,” said Joel, an eighth-grader at Tarbut V’Torah Community Day School in Irvine.

Darlene Kiyan, executive director of Playworks-Southern California, said the gift will enable 1,000 students to participate in interscholastic leagues, learning teamwork, fair play and having fun. The Southern California office, with an annual budget of about $2 million, serves about 14,000 children at 25 Los Angeles and Orange County schools. When Joel heard about Playworks from a news story, he researched the organization and what it does.

Joel’s mother, Alisa Abecassis, said she has encouraged Joel and his older sister and brother to make a difference with their bar and bat mitzvah money. Joel had his bar mitzvah in June.

Alisa said she wanted her children to understand the importance of a Hebrew phrase, “to heal the world.”

“At their bar mitzvah, they get a lot of attention,” she said. “I wanted to turn it around. It is a time for them to give back, and it js a time for them to find their place in the world and how they can effect change.”

Both her daughter Lilia, 16, and son Isaac, 14, made similar gifts – Lilia funding an elementary school library in Los Angeles, Isaac supporting Kiva, which makes small loans worldwide to alleviate poverty.

Playworks struck a chord with her son, Alisa said. He was learning about bullying at school, and was intrigued that the organized play that Playworks promotes helps children get along better and perform better in school.

“He felt the program was effective on a lot of different fronts in helping children,” said Alisa, a single mom and real estate investor.

She said her son is donating his $2,500 in bar mitzvah money, which she is matching.

It was coincidental that Joel went to Jefferson with his gift on the eve of Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement and holiest day of the year in Judaism.

“It’s a time when we reflect who we are and what we’ve done,” she said. “It’s a perfect way to start off the new year, to give back and do something for others. … Sometimes God has a hand in things. It just worked out that way.”

“I felt these kids can use the money in a better way than I can,” said Joel, who aspires to become an engineer. “They are less fortunate, and need the money more than I do.”

Contact the writer: 714-796-6999 or

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