April 19, 2007
Big Sunday: One temple’s ‘Mitzvah Day’ goes city-wide and inclusive
Is it too big, too secular or just big enough?
(Page 2 - Previous Page)"Because of the coordination, with all the events happening at the same time, we get more people, better participation and better results," said Ammar Kahf, activities coordinator of the Islamic Center of Hawthorne, which sponsored a car wash and arts and crafts project last year.
Rabbi Harold Schulweis of Encino's Valley Beth Shalom, founder of Jewish World Watch, sees Big Sunday not as secular but as communal.
"I think it's a magnificent gesture," he said, stressing that as Jews, we are obligated to make a difference in the world to all people, not just to fellow Jews.
In that spirit, Big Sunday volunteers will be reaching out to a multitude of ethnic and religious groups in the Southland. But with many beneficiary groups participating themselves, Big Sunday is as much a community builder as community helper.
At the Hollywood-based Covenant Houseshelter for homeless youths, the 18- to 21-year-old residents, alongside a diverse group of volunteers, have been sponsoring a Big Sunday car wash for the past five years. They ask a $5 donation per car, sending the money to even less- fortunate youngsters in Tijuana.
"They're always grateful for what they get from other people, so they like to be able to give back," said Sister Margaret Farrell, Covenant House's spiritual ministry coordinator.
New Horizon School Westside, a progressive Muslim elementary school, had 117 students take part in Big Sunday for the first time last year. Ethnic and religious barriers broke down naturally at the interfaith potluck attended by the school's families, as well as participants from Notre Dame Academy, Temple Israel, local businesses and a Japanese contingent.
People ate, socialized and made papier-mache flowers in decorated pots, which were later distributed to senior citizens and shut-ins.
"We had a blast," said New Horizon principal Anis F. Ahmed, who is hosting the interfaith potluck again this year.
A few non-Jewish schools and nonprofits have even complained about the name change from Mitzvah Day.
"I was so disappointed," said Dottie Bessares, principal of Precious Blood Catholic School in the mid-Wilshire area, whose students and families have been Big Sunday participants for the last five years.
Bessares continues to insert the words "Mitzvah Day" in parentheses in all her Big Sunday signage, explaining, "I like [the name] Mitzvah Day, because it means good deed."
More problematic are the inevitable calendar conflicts. This year, it's the Los Angeles Times Festival of Books, occurring on the same two days, and the Israel Independence Day Festival, which is scheduled for Sunday.
Big Sunday will send volunteers to both events, according to Levinson. Still, Yoram Gutman, Israel Festival executive director, is worried about the impact Big Sunday will have on the festival's expected 40,000 attendees.
"A mitzvah is a mitzvah, but Israel Independence Day is a very, very serious holiday and celebration," he said.
Rabbi Sharon Brous of IKAR says that Mitzvah Day is a wonderful way to begin to mobilize the Jewish community, and IKAR will participate in two projects this year. She hopes that the volunteer work of Big Sunday will inspire people to do more every day.
"For real social change to happen, there has to be a broader effort to really address the root causes of poverty, injustice and inequality in our city and in our world," she said.
Brous likes to quote New York businessman and social activist Richard Ballinger, known for saying, "God did not put Jews in the world to make peanut butter and jelly sandwiches." "At the same time," Brous said, "the hungry need to eat. So let's feed them on Big Sunday, then join forces in the fight against hunger."
But Rabbi Marla Feldman, director of the Commission on Social Action of Reform Judaism, sees Mitzvah Day as a good starter program that fits into busy schedules and is family friendly: "But it doesn't take people off the hook from being engaged more deeply and at other times during the year."
The notion of a Mitzvah Day can be traced back to 1991, when Washington Hebrew Congregation in Washington, D.C., under Rabbi M. Bruce Lustig, hosted what it claims is the prototype. Now Mitzvah Day is a de rigueur part of many synagogue social action programs across the country and the denominational spectrum.
In Los Angeles, the Jewish Federation/Valley Alliance launched its first Mitzvah Day in November 1995, with less than a dozen synagogues participating. It is now in its 12th year, with 5,000 volunteers and 50 synagogues and organizations taking part last November.
Neither Big Sunday nor Valley Alliance Mitzvah Day organizers view the other as competition.
"We learn from each other," said Lana Sternberg, Valley Alliance Mitzvah Day chair.
Some synagogues are moving beyond the Mitzvah Day model. Congregation Beth Israel in San Diego hosted its first Mitzvah Day in 1995 and stopped after its 2001 event.
"We felt we were giving people the wrong message; that they could just go out once a year and do a mitzvah," said Bonnie Graff, program director.
Now the Reform synagogue sponsors year-round social action opportunities,
But what Big Sunday -- and any mitzvah day -- can't do is provide long-term volunteer staffing to those organizations that need more involved commitments, such as suicide hotlines, hospitals and advocacy projects.
MotherNet L.A., a mentoring program for children in Compton and South Central Los Angeles with one or both parents in prison, signed on to schedule a six-hour training session at last year's Big Sunday. At the end, they couldn't attract enough volunteers to make the one-year, five-hour-per-month commitment.
"We have 48 mentors and would like to add another 60 to 80," said Katrice Johnson, mentoring program coordinator, emphasizing the great need for male mentors.