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Jewish Journal

Big Sunday: One temple’s ‘Mitzvah Day’ goes city-wide and inclusive

Is it too big, too secular or just big enough?


by Jane Ulman

April 19, 2007 | 8:00 pm

This is Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa's dream:

On one weekend a year -- known as Big Sunday -- 50,000 volunteers of all colors and creeds from neighborhoods throughout the region, all donning T- shirts preprinted with the Big Sunday logo, will fan out throughout Los Angeles and as far as Ventura, Anaheim and even Fontana to paint murals on classroom walls, plant trees, refurbish recreation rooms, clean homeless shelters, give blood, teach literacy, make cards for the sick and engage in hundreds of other do-good projects.
It's a nondenominational, nonpolitical annual event that Villaraigosa envisions some day becoming as key to Los Angeles' identity as the Oscars or the L.A. Marathon.

This feel-good day (actually it's now two days, but who's counting?), had its start as a Jewish tikkun olam (heal the world) project in 1999, a classic Mitzvah Day that was the dream of Rabbi John Rosove and a few members of Temple Israel of Hollywood.

That first time around, 300 temple members volunteered a few hours each under the leadership of event organizer and writer, David Levinson. They took on 17 small cleanup and restoration projects, and when they were done, they gathered for pizza in Levinson's Hancock Park home, declared the day a success and agreed to make it an annual affair.


Click BIG ARROW for Big Sunday 2004 highlights. Video courtesy Fox11LA.com

By 2005, Levinson, who continues to oversee the project, was working with a team that seemed to be growing exponentially by the minute. There was a steering committee, hundreds of project captains, thousands of volunteers (some say as many as 8,000) and, along the way, a name change. Mitzvah Day had morphed into Big Sunday, with collaborators all over the city.

But the intent of Temple Israel and organizer Levinson had always been to involve other institutions, as well as the beneficiary nonprofits themselves.

"I've always been a little uncomfortable with the idea of marching in with the cavalry to save the day," Levinson said.

By its second Mitzvah Day in 2000, Temple Israel, a Reform synagogue, had already teamed up with 10 other community groups, including Hope Lutheran Church, St. Brendan Church, Congregation Kol Ami and even the Daughters of the American Revolution.

Then, in 2003, the name Mitzvah Day was changed, as Levinson and his collaborators discovered that many secular private schools with large Jewish populations would not participate under a Jewish-themed banner. They didn't want to appear exclusionary to non-Jews. As soon as Mitzvah Day became Big Sunday, they quickly signed on.

But the biggest change came last year, when Big Sunday officially and enthusiastically joined forces with Villaraigosa, who had sponsored his own citywide days of service, and the city of Los Angeles. The synergistic result, with its new kind of branding, became Big Sunday, "the largest day of community service ever in America" and, Villaraigosa and his Big Sunday partners hope, a permanent fixture on the L.A. civic scene.

The revamped Big Sunday premiered last year, on May 7, with 32,000 participants (exceeding the 10,000 anticipated) and 250 projects, and it's still growing. This year's Big Sunday, planned for Saturday, April 28, and Sunday, April 29, is expecting at least 50,000 people.

So is anything lost when Mitzvah Day becomes sleek, secular and supersized? Does it hurt the Jewish intent and become politicized when the above-the- title credit on the logo reads, "Mayor Antonio R. Villaraigosa Presents," and the event boasts major corporate sponsors, such as Disney; a professional Web site where volunteers can sign up (www.bigsunday.org) and a budget of $650,000, not including the city's considerable direct costs?

What happens when the press conference to launch this year's Big Sunday is scheduled on the first day of Passover -- for which Larry Frank, deputy mayor for neighborhood and community services, was very apologetic -- and half the activities take place on Shabbat? And what is missing when the day is no longer contextualized within the Judaic framework?

There's also the charge that Big Sunday -- and this is true for any mitzvah day -- with its attractively packaged and time-bound projects gives people the message that Los Angeles' problems can be weeded out, fenced out and painted over in one intricately choreographed day or weekend, with loads of food and music to ease the pain.

Some believe that a four- or eight-hour, once-a-year commitment lets people off the hook in terms of dealing with the city's serious core problems. And in a county with 120,000 gang members, a homeless population of 88,000 on any given night and 950,000 experiencing food insecurity, among other ills, these are not insignificant concerns.

For Temple Israel's Rosove, the transformation to Big Sunday is a nonissue. "Going 'secular' is in a way the fulfillment of our original idea of Mitzvah Day, of the prophetic mission to be an or l'goyim, or a light onto the nations," he said.

Idealistically, he applauds the addition of Saturday as a volunteer day for those who celebrate the Sabbath on Sunday, at the same time admitting we live in a society in which many Jews work on Shabbat. Regardless, he believes it's important for Jews to participate as Jews and is preparing a booklet of biblical and talmudic references to tikkun olam for Temple Israel's volunteers.

Levinson, now known as Big Sunday chair and founder, and Sherry Marks, Big Sunday vice chair/volunteer coordinator (she has been involved since Temple Israel's first Mitzvah Day), receive salaries from the Big Sunday budget for four months of full-time work (Levinson continues to work as a writer the rest of the year). Other staff, such as the webmaster, are also compensated for part-time work. Still, the salaries are modest (they won't reveal exact figures), and the work pretty much spills over into a year-round commitment. Call it professional quasi-volunteerism.

And, they say, and others seem to agree, the transformation to a citywide event, overall, has been positive. "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.The lack of more involved volunteers is not surprising. The number of national volunteers, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, fell in 2006 to 61.2 million, or 26.7 percent of the population. That's down from 65.4 million, or 28.8 percent of the population, the previous year. Still, the median number of hours dedicated to volunteering is holding steady at 52.

But, to be fair, Big Sunday is marketed to attract the participant who may have time to volunteer only that one day, and Big Sunday chair Levinson is realistic regarding what can be accomplished within that time frame.

"We're not clearing land mines in Cambodia," he said.

This year, however, the two-day span does allow for some larger projects to be undertaken, such as the huge restoration project planned for Casa de Rosa Sunshine Mission, a residence for homeless women in South Los Angeles that was originally built in the 1890s.

Under the direction of decorators and landscape architects who are donating their services, volunteers, along with the women of Casa, will clear and clean up the overgrown gardens and terraces, plant trees, flowers and vegetable gardens and even rebuild a patio, providing the shelter with a serene and inspirational outdoor living area.

And for many organizations, Big Sunday is an extension of an already established relationship, allowing the opportunity for supplemental projects.

That is the case at Pico Aliso Preschool in East Los Angeles, where Temple Israel has an ongoing reading program. Last year, groups from Temple Israel and B'nai David-Judea Congregation, as well as the preschool families, came together on Big Sunday to decorate concrete pavers that were used to construct a 30-foot walkway, ensuring that the preschoolers would no longer have to trudge in the sand or mud from the school to the playground.

"It wasn't a big architecturally designed thing," said team captain Berenice Katcher of Temple Israel, referring to the freehand lettering that spelled out "Big Sunday" on the pavers. "But there was lots of harmony and laughter."

And for some people, Big Sunday is the actual catalyst that propels them to make a larger commitment.

This happened to Temple Israel volunteer Armin Szatmary, who was asked many years ago to head the Bowling With Buddies project, benefiting those with intellectual disabilities. He so enjoyed the experience, that he contacted the nonprofit Best Buddies California and has been teamed up with Thomas, 53, for the past five years, spending time together every other week.

"I would never have done Bowling With Buddies. I knew nothing about mentally challenged people," he said.

There have been no formal studies to evaluate the impact of Mitzvah Day, and perhaps there is no way to adequately quantify the good works and good will that occur on Big Sunday.

For the Figueroa Street Elementary School in Watts, Big Sunday is "a gift of togetherness" to the 680 students and their families, according to principal Jan Titus.

Big Sunday provides the school with the refreshments; entertainment, such as magic and animal shows; and the people power to host an annual community carnival, allowing the families, many with parents working two and three jobs, the luxury to socialize, at no cost to them. Plus, additional Big Sunday projects, such as planting gardens, painting murals and stairwells and cleaning out storage areas, have helped transform the site aesthetically.

"Everything is first class and from the heart," Titus said. "Big Sunday is totally, totally about making the world a better place."


Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa with volunteers


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