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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.

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