Jewish Journal


November 3, 2010

Valleys unite for mitzvah day charity


It’s hard to heal the whole world in a day, but it never hurts to try.

That’s why hundreds of volunteers from about 30 synagogues and organizations are expected to participate Nov. 7 in a communitywide Mitzvah Day. They’ll be cleaning beaches, donating blood, making sandwiches for the homeless, assembling care packages for American soldiers overseas, all to promote the Jewish value of tikkun olam, repairing the world.

“This year, because of the continuing economic situation, the focus is very much around working with local food pantries by providing food, personal hygiene items, and [helping] to sort donations and stock shelves,” explained Florence Andrews, director of planning and community outreach for the Jewish Federation Valley Alliance, who is coordinating this Mitzvah Day.

The 15-year-old event draws volunteers from Simi Valley, as well as organizations throughout the San Fernando, Conejo, Antelope and Santa Clarita valleys. The idea is to bring neighbors together for a common purpose. “It would be wonderful if every day was Mitzvah Day. It would be even more wonderful if we lived in a world where everything was good and we didn’t need Mitzvah Day,” said Carol Koransky, executive vice president of the Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles. “But you have to do the kind of things that you can do. ... This is about bringing the whole community together in recognition of what we can do as a community.”

At places like Stephen S. Wise Temple, it’s easy to imagine how much that can be. The Bel Air Reform congregation has been known to round up 1,000 helpers in the past for its multitude of events.

This year’s activities include various projects at Dolores Mission Church in Boyle Heights, plus Fashion With Compassion, a fashion show put on by students from Milken Community High School to support Save a Child’s Heart.

To understand the impact of such efforts, consider the letter on the desk of Jennifer Smith, the temple’s b’nai mitzvah and social justice coordinator. It’s from a Jewish soldier serving abroad who received a chanukiah as part of one project.

“He said that without the gift that we sent and the chanukiah, he wouldn’t have been able to celebrate while being away from home,” Smith said. “That’s a really deep and touching kind of moment that shows one person can make a difference for somebody else, even if you aren’t there to see it.”

Mitzvah Day also serves to unite groups within synagogues and organizations. At Temple Kol Tikvah in Woodland Hills, young and old will gather to make dog treats for a rescue center and prepare food for a youth home. Others will write letters for soldiers through Operation Gratitude. Some even will paint pet rocks for seniors at the Los Angeles Jewish Home.

“We really try to gear everything for all ages, from preschool all the way up to 120,” said Jackie Louk, coordinator of the Reform temple’s youth group, which planned the activities.

Valley Beth Shalom in Encino, a Conservative congregation, also has a long list of ways that people can get involved. In the past, hundreds of people have taken part, said Susan Feldman, a Mitzvah Day co-chair.

In Calabasas, Mitzvah Day at Congregation Or Ami will mean preparing 300 to 400 duffel bags filled with items for children entering emergency foster placement. The project creates a personal connection with someone in need, said Laurie Tragen-Boykoff, social action coordinator at the Reform temple.

“Most of these kids in our congregation feel like they’re giving the bag to someone they know,” she said. “It’s remarkable.”

It’s forming that kind of connection that is so important to Heath Watenmaker, rabbinic intern at Temple Judea, a Reform congregation with campuses in Tarzana and West Hills. Among the temple’s activities, which include a Mitzvah Fair at its West Campus, will be working with Hope of the Valley Rescue Mission in North Hollywood. Last year’s participants offered some 200 meals to needy families. More important, they sat down and got to know the recipients.

“It’s not just serving a meal, but then sitting down and eating together,” Watenmaker said. “It’s important to be a part of your community.”

Many of these people need help more than ever. SOVA Community Food and Resource Program, a program of Jewish Family Service of Los Angeles operating three area food pantries and resource centers, serves 10,000 people a month. It will receive volunteers from three groups on Nov. 7.

The helpers get something out of the experience, too. Jeff Bernhardt, Community of Caring director at the Conservative Temple Aliyah in Woodland Hills, has seen it firsthand through an interfaith effort making sandwiches for the hungry.

“There’s a feeling of community and camaraderie and a feeling — while we don’t do it for the reward — of the reward that we were going to be making a difference,” he said.

Many synagogues pursue social justice and community service projects throughout the year, but putting a laserlike focus on tikkun olam through Mitzvah Day can serve an important, age-old purpose. It gets people keyed back in on the issue, said Rabbi Ted Riter of Temple Adat Elohim, a Reform congregation in Thousand Oaks.

“Our prophets would go out into the cities and the countryside reminding people of their obligations, and so I think, in a very public way, this reminds all of our congregants of the sacred obligation that we hold to bring healing to the world,” Riter said. “And though we’re always doing it, it’s just a nice public reminder to say, ‘Yeah, this year too.’”

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