Like most children celebrating a bar or bat mitzvah, Jesse Kaufman of Monroeville undertook a mitzvah project: After his bar mitzvah last August at the Chabad Jewish Center, he donated every cent of the monetary gifts he received — all $5,000 of it — to help his friend, Jasmine Boden, with medical expenses incurred as a result of her cancer treatment.
No one could have predicted that the grand act of generosity would catapult him into the national spotlight.
First the local newspapers called. Then KDKA. Then Yahoo News got wind of the story. Then MSN.
And then Ellen DeGeneres called, leading to an appearance on her show, an unforgettable experience for a courageous girl and a benevolent boy.
At the age of 9, Jasmine was diagnosed with chordoma, an exceedingly rare, and devastating, cancer that occurs at the spine and the base of the skull. A form of bone cancer, the only treatment is a series of surgical procedures as well as a type of radiation therapy. One of the few hospitals in the United States that can manage these cases is Massachusetts General in Boston. While the tumors are slow growing, they have a high rate of recurrence; Jasmine must undergo MRIs every three to six months.
Jasmine’s mother, Lisa McClintock, is a single parent on disability, who has gone through all of her savings. “What wipes them clean are the trips to Boston: airfare, room and board. And they go for months,” said Liana Kaufman, Jesse’s mother.
Jesse, 13, first read about Jasmine in a local newspaper while still in fourth grade. He was inspired to send her $20.
“Her story stood out to me because she just seemed like this really, really nice girl going through a hard time, and I really wanted to help her. I thought she was really brave,” said Jesse.
He was surprised to find Jasmine in his fifth-grade class a few months later; he revealed to her that he had sent her money earlier that year, and the two developed an immediate friendship.
Jesse’s original intention was to focus his bar mitzvah project around volunteering with animals. But his friendship with Jasmine prompted a change of heart.
When Jesse told his parents that he wanted to donate all of his money to Jasmine, Kaufman said that she and her husband, Adam, supported his decision.
“How can either of us say no to wanting to do something for a friend who needs it?” she said.
Jesse refused to even consider parting with only a portion of the money, telling his parents, “I have to give her everything. I have everything I need right here.”
Jesse refers to his mitzvah project as a “bar mitzvah mitzvah.”
In his bar mitzvah speech, when Jesse announced to his guests about his intention to donate his bar mitzvah money to Jasmine, there wasn’t a dry eye in the room, reported Kaufman.
Jesse knew he didn’t want to stop there. His parents helped him to establish an account through GoFundMe, a personal fundraising website. Jesse’s bar mitzvah guests raised an additional $1,000 for the fund, but the money really began pouring in after the story went viral.
“He’s gotten donations from people all over the world,” said Kaufman. To date, Jesse has raised $17,000 for Jasmine’s medical fund, and he is determined to reach $25,000. “I am confident he will do it.”
Apart from the bar mitzvah money, which Jesse gave to Jasmine directly, all the money collected is being directly deposited into a medical trust fund managed by Kaufman and can only be accessed for expenses directly related to Jasmine’s treatment.
Ellen DeGeneres made a huge contribution, too.
When the producers from “Ellen” called, Kaufman thought that they were responding to an email she had sent through Ellen’s website in which she nominated Jasmine and her mother for a “Deserving Person in Need” honor. As it turned out, the producers hadn’t even seen the email; they had heard about Jesse and Jasmine’s story, and DeGeneres wanted to feature the kids on her show.
“I was floored,” said Kaufman. “It was the coolest phone call of my life.”
After a few back-and-forth phone calls, Jesse and Jasmine were officially invited to appear on the show.
“If we’re going all this way, we’re making a vacation out of this,” said Kaufman. “We’ve been wanting to take him on a special trip. This is it. It’s time. This is going to be the trip of a lifetime now.”
The two families stayed for a week, touring Los Angeles prior to the taping.
The episode aired on Jan. 9. DeGeneres gave Jasmine a $10,000 check and surprised everyone with a visit from Jim Parsons, who plays Sheldon on “The Big Bang Theory,” a favorite show of Jesse’s. Parsons, who Kaufman describes as “the nicest, most wonderful guy I have ever met,” invited the two families to watch a private rehearsal at the studio the next day.
For McClintock’s part, she is overwhelmed by all of the support, particularly as she is used to being on the giving end.
“It’s hard to be on the receiving end,” she said. “I was always the one doing for others. I just love helping people, and it came back in tenfold.”
As for the Kaufman family, McClintock said, “We are blessed to have them in our lives.”
In February, the Kaufmans will be traveling to Newtown, Conn., where Jesse will accept the Charlotte Bacon Act of Kindness Award, sponsored by the nonprofit Newtown Kindness. The award was named after a young victim of the Sandy Hook shootings and acknowledges children who make compassionate contributions to society; Jesse will be one of 26 children nationwide who will be honored as a Kindness Medalist. The awards committee will also donate money to a charity of the honoree’s choice.
Currently, both Jesse and Jasmine are seventh-graders at Gateway Middle School.
Jesse considers Jasmine his hero.
“I think that she has just been so great to me,” he said. “I know I’ve done nice things for her, but she has been an amazing friend.”
Although he never sought out the limelight, Jesse is hoping that his story, now that it has gone global, has a pay-it-forward effect.
“Inspiring people to give as well, that is my point,” he said. “I want people to see my story and do good things, whether they are Jewish or not.”
Hilary Daninhirsch can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.