This Bethesda teen did his bar mitzvah project halfway around the world

Building a library in Sebba became a family endeavor for the Greeleys, from left, Sali, Ethan and David.
Photo by Justin Katz

When Ethan Greeley started brainstorming ideas for his bar mitzvah project in 2013, he thought about Burkina Faso, a landlocked West African country similar in size to Colorado.

Ethan’s mother, Sali Greeley, grew up there, in a village called Sebba in the country’s northeast. It was a village that lacked many things that Ethan, growing up in Bethesda, takes for granted.

Like a library. Whenever Ethan balked at going to the neighborhood library, his mother reminded him, “If I had a library growing up, it would have been very different — so don’t take it for granted,” Sali says.

The family is sitting together in their living room. There is an atlas on the coffee table. The décor uses earthy browns and reds invoking African culture. Burkina Faso’s flag — its red and green bars punctuated by a yellow star in the center — hangs from the ceiling in another room.

It wasn’t until Ethan began thinking what bar mitzvah project he wanted to do — something out of the ordinary — that his mom’s nudging about libraries clicked. Suddenly he had an idea.

“I can build a library in her village,” he says, recalling that moment.

Initially, Sali and her husband, David, had reservations about the project. But in April 2016, three years after Ethan’s aha moment, the library opened.

The library is modest, with one central room holding shelves for books. There’s a desk for the sole librarian, some tables and rows of chairs.

The library has become a popular spot for the village’s children, according to Sali Greeley.
Photos courtesy of the Greeleys

So how does an American teenager build a library in West Africa? The project became “a family endeavor with Ethan taking the lead,” says David.

The first task was confirming that the village even wanted a library. Sali, who was familiar with the local politics and government, acted as the intermediary, meeting with the key officials who needed to sign off. Enthused with the idea, the local government offered an abandoned building that could be refurbished, says Sali.

Meanwhile, Ethan began volunteering at Bethesda’s Davis Library to learn understand how libraries operate. The boy who balked at going to the library was now trying to become an expert.

The Greeleys then contacted Friends of African Village Libraries, a nonprofit organization that manages libraries in rural Africa. The group told the family that turning the abandoned building into a library would cost $15,000.

To raise the funds, Ethan pitched his project to his synagogue, Temple Emanuel in Kensington, which made a contribution. He also gave a portion of his bar mitzvah money to the library, which the New Jersey-based Merck pharmaceuticals company matched. (David is retired from the company, which offers its retirees matches for money donated to nonprofits.)

Friends of African Village Libraries, based in Burkina Faso’s capital, Ouagadougou, was able to do what the Greeleys could not from Bethesda: hiring a librarian, buying furniture and stocking the shelves with books.

Ethan cites two Jewish values inherent to his project.

“Learning and helping other people,” he says. “I’m helping other people trying to learn. It’s kind of putting the two into one.”
Ethan and David have not been able to visit the library, due to a State Department warning against traveling to Burkina Faso after a kidnapping near the border with Niger and armed assailants attacking a hotel in the capital city.

Now a year after his bar mitzvah, Ethan continues to work on his project. He still corresponds, by email and phone, with the library’s staff and Friends of African Village Libraries. He hopes that one day the library will generate electricity using solar panels.

Ethan says Burkina Faso’s low literacy rate was another reason he wanted to build a library there. Only 35 percent of people older than 15 are literate, according to a 2015 UNESCO report, the 4th lowest literacy rate of the 115 countries listed.

“I hope people here realize everyone around the world deserves the same amount of education,” Ethan says.
Then, sounding like his mother, he adds, “In my mom’s country, people don’t have that opportunity.”

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  1. Thank you so much, Jewish Week, for printing this wonderful piece about Ethan Greeley’s Bar Mitzvah project. Hopefully, this story will inspire other students to reach and help beyond the world they can see with their own eyes. Ethan’s family connection to Burkina Faso is a clear contact to the outside world, but we are ALL part of the global community.


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