Big Sunday began in 1999 with 300 Jewish volunteers devoted to a day of good works. That was impressive in a city notorious for lack of civic involvement -- but that was just the beginning.
What started as Mitzvah Day for congregants of Temple Israel of Hollywood gradually spread across the city and beyond the Jewish community, with 8,000 participants from all socio-economic and religious backgrounds working on 150 different projects last year. Now the event has taken another big leap -- suddenly, Big Sunday is the business of the city of Los Angeles.
This year, Los Angeles assumes the headline role in sponsoring the May 7 event. The planning began officially last week at Temple Israel. About 170 attended, including about 30 representatives of city government, among them Larry Frank, deputy mayor of neighborhood and community services.
Frank said that the mayor's office would "like to help the whole city do what you've been doing for the past seven years."
"We want this to be as big as the marathon, as big as the Grammys," he said. "We want everyone to be able to participate."
This year, as a result of the city partnership, event founder David Levinson expects as many as 25,000 volunteers.
"Do the math," he said at the planning meeting. "We had 8,000 last year. Mayor Villaraigosa's citywide day of service in October drew 7,500. That's already over 15,000."
The variety of projects last year was diverse, ranging from bathing rescued basset hounds to furnishing apartments for the homeless. Some volunteers painted murals and planted a garden at Grand View Elementary School in Mar Vista, while another crew in the kitchen made casseroles to freeze and distribute to AIDS victims.
"My honest belief is that everyone wants to help and everyone can help," said Levinson, a playwright and TV writer who still chairs the event.
"If someone says they can't make it because they have a 1-year-old, I tell them to bring [the baby] to a nursing home. All she has to do is breathe, and she'll make the residents happy," Levinson said. "We had a blind theater group washing cars. At a party we threw for low-income seniors, one of the activities was making silk flowers for shut-ins at a nursing home.
"It's not about the haves helping the have-nots," he explained. "It's about everyone working together."
Last year's participants hailed from more than 100 synagogues (all denominations from Reform to Orthodox to Reconstructionist), churches, schools, offices and clubs, as well as hundreds of individuals and families. They worked on almost 150 different projects from Acton to Anaheim.
As book captain, Racelle Schaefer, a Temple Israel member who has volunteered every year, spends months organizing book drives at schools.
"We also get donations of new children's books from Houghton Mifflin," she said. "Last year we distributed over 8,000 books throughout the city on Big Sunday."
Corporate, private and organizational donors underwrite the day, including Temple Israel. The budget this year is $450,000. The city's participation will include providing security, busing and street closures. Additional donors are both welcomed and needed, Levinson said.
"I have absolutely no idea how we'll pay for it this year," he added. "It's a cliff-hanger, but we always figure something out."
An improved Web site will make coordination easier. Volunteers can click on a listed project and get an automatic confirmation, map, contact person and any special instructions.
"I see Big Sunday as an appetizer platter for volunteers," said Sherry Marks, vice chair and volunteer coordinator. "There are hundreds of worthy nonprofits that need our people. If you wanted, you could start at 7 a.m. and work at four or five different sites during the day.
"You could make meals at a shelter, take senior citizens out to tea or provide makeovers for women who are re-entering the work force," she continued. "[The volunteering] often works as a catalyst, getting people to make an ongoing commitment to a particular organization."
For more information visit www.bigsunday.org