It was supposed to have been a happy day. Strangely enough, it was. Last Sunday, more than 500 members of the South Bay Jewish community gathered to celebrate our fourth annual Mitzvah Day.
In this far-flung community, home to about 40,000 Jews, the event has become a time when we South Bay Jews assert our identity, not in synagogue or youth clubs or through holidays, but en masse.
The joy that such an in-gathering typically brings was overshadowed by the Columbia disaster. Rabbi Michael Beals of B'nai Tikvah Congregation acknowledged that we gathered not only in celebration, but also in mourning, as we remembered the lives of the astronauts and prayed for their families.
The somber mood then lifted as the participants, many of whom brought children, threw themselves into performing mitzvahs (good deeds) arranged for the occasion.
Instead of homework or housework, sports or school, my 10-year-old son, Sammy, and I joined in and turned our attention toward our community, our relationships with God and our obligation of tikkun olam (repairing the world).
Mitzvah Day is a Jewish Federation program organized by the South Bay Council in conjunction with the Jewish community. South Bay synagogues and Jewish organizations from Westchester to San Pedro are invited to participate in projects that benefit the local community and Israel.
For its Federation organizers, the idea is to create an enjoyable community event for South Bay families from all Jewish denominations. As participants, we could select from a wide variety of activities held at the Redondo Beach Crown Plaza Hotel and at other locations throughout the South Bay.
The program began in the grand ballroom of the hotel, where on stage there was a recreation of the Western Wall. Margy Feldman, director of The Jewish Federation/South Bay Council, built the wall that stood nearly 7 feet high.
As we entered the room, rabbis prayed at the Wall, as the cantors sang. Volunteers were inspired to write notes and place them in between the Styrofoam blocks. The notes will be sent to Israel and inserted in the Western Wall in Jerusalem.
When the mitzvah projects began, Sammy and I elected to stay in the hotel, where we could choose from 14 activities, ranging from creating flashcards to baking challah. We settled on the Binky Patrol, assembling blankets that are donated to hospitalized babies and children suffering from HIV, drug addiction, neglect or traumatic injuries.
We sat on the floor and trimmed the edges of Sammy's soon-to-be blanket. Then he and a helper named Marsha fashioned the pieces into an almost-perfect little quilt. Sammy held it up proudly.
It was a bit lopsided on one end, and perhaps, a little stuffing bunched in the corner, but the end result was a colorful, cozy security blanket that would provide a little boy or girl in need with warmth and comfort. As we handed our project to the Binky Patrol coordinator, she said, "There's no such thing as an ugly Binky, because they all come from the heart."
We relinquished our sewing machine to the long line of other volunteers waiting their turn at quilt-making. Then Sammy guided me to the Tel Aviv-Los Angeles Partnership Mosaic, where we could write a message on a tile that will be part of a mosaic to be created alongside the Yarkon River in Israel. We read the notes to the people of Israel, which were blessings and prayers for peace, love and security.
"We should do one about the astronauts," Sammy suggested.
I nodded in agreement, and we wrote on our tile a prayer for the families of all the astronauts on the space shuttle Columbia. Then Sammy wrote "shalom" in Hebrew.
I quickly wiped my sleeve over my eyes, as I watched Sammy carefully place the tile back in its spot. Â