There are many ways to teach our youth about tzedakah, but as with most lessons, the best way for it to stick is to show, not just tell. With its Bnei Mitzvah Seeds Program, Sunflower Bakery provides a hands-on program for bar and bat mitzvah students to get elbow deep into the workings of a bakery and café and learn about Sunflower’s very special mission.

Sunflower Bakery’s mission is to train adults with learning differences for employment in pastry arts, baking, barista and customer service. In doing so, Sunflower runs a kosher bakery as well as a café.

The goal of its Bnei Mitzvah Seeds Program is to “teach boys and girls about the role that Sunflower plays in the community…and how the Seeds participants can help expand awareness of Sunflower’s mission, provide assistance in the bakery and help create marketing media to ensure Sunflower Bakery continues to be successful in meeting the needs of the community.”

The seed imagery is both clever and apt. In addition to the obvious play on “sunflower seeds,” they are planting the seeds of tzedakah (charity), justice and tikkun olam (repairing the world) in these young people and hoping they will spread and germinate interest in Sunflower around their networks.

Daphna Raskas, the executive director of Sunflower Bakery, explained that each meeting of the program begins with a one-hour lesson, followed by one hour of volunteer work in the bakery or café. At the most recent session, which ended in December, the first week, Rabbi Nissan Antine from Beth Sholom Congregation in Potomac talked with the participants about the different types of tzedakah. He explained the highest level of tzedakah, helping people to become independent and learn skills to give them a path toward financial responsibility, and how it differs from other types of charity. They discussed how this relates to Sunflower’s approach, teaching marketable skills while simultaneously producing a desirable, kosher product.

In later weeks, the founders of Sunflower Bakery, Laurie Wexler and Sara Portman Milner, taught the youth about nonprofits and philanthropy and spoke about the challenges that Sunflower helps its adult students surmount. Milner did some experiential exercises designed to help the young people understand what it might be like to have a disability and discussed concepts of inclusivity and specific needs of young adults with learning differences.

Each of the Bnei Mitzvah seedlings created a project in the fourth week: a blog post, posters, flyers and one participant even created a podcast featuring an interview with Laurie Wexler. The posters are on display at Café Sunflower in The Jewish Federation of Greater Washington’s office building. Eventually, pictures, along with links to the podcast and blog post will also be available on the Sunflower website and Facebook page.

The most recent five-week session just ended, culminating in a final session in which the participants ran the café for an hour, sold Chanukah desserts and coffee to their families and guests and presented the projects they’d completed that depict the bakery and its mission.

In her project about Sunflower, one of the participants (pictured at right) created a blog post about her experience and described that experience, in part: “Every Sunday we go to the bakery or the cafe. We first talk about the Sunflower Bakery and what they do. We once spoke about our 5 senses and how important they are. We put gloves on with some of our fingers tied and we took a test!”

A seed is the source of development or growth of a plant or tree, that sends out roots and stalks, branches, leaves and flowers. Sunflower hopes this program does the same, providing growth in the participants as well as growing and strengthening its mission.

Registration is now open for the next session of Sunflower’s Bnei Mitzvah Seed Program. The next session will run Sunday afternoons from 2 pm to 4 pm beginning February 4 and ending March 11 (no session on February 18). The program is coed, and has a fee of $195 for five two-hour Sunday meetings. As space in the bakery is limited, only eight participants can be accommodated in each session. To register, go to, or contact Sarah Antine at [email protected] for more information.