The doors of the 107th Street Elementary School opened at noon; reggae music blared over the sound system and pizza was ready to be served. Soon, mothers pushing strollers, teachers, parents and children began pouring onto the school grounds to participate in Temple Israel of Hollywood's Mitzvah Day. But to see it just as Temple Israel's day would be wrong.
"It was a great L.A. Day!" says Paul Miller, organizer of the event held April 21. Miller, one of 250 volunteers who showed up that day to beautify and clean up the school, called working with the Watts community a "terrific experience." Volunteers created a garden out of a dirt patch, artists painted a mural next to the cafeteria and, spontaneously, enthusiastic parents got down on their hands and knees on the playground and painted mazes and games for their children to play.
And to the question on everyone's mind, as viewed in context of the 10th anniversary of the Los Angeles riots, yes, everyone did get along.
Mitzvah Day has evolved over the years to be more than just a standard "do good" time for the Jewish community. What started out as one day of voluntary tikkun olam for a specific temple community has evolved into ongoing "community building" throughout the year, between Jews and non-Jews alike, spanning the county from Compton and Watts to Beverly Hills and the Valley.
This year, Temple Israel's fourth Mitzvah Day program, brought together over 2,000 volunteers from 56 organizations, choosing from 80 different social activities.
"The real way Mitzvah Day changed from its first conception to now," said David Levinson, director of Temple Israel's social action community and organizer of the day, "is that last year, I called Covenant House [home for runaway teens in Hollywood] and asked what we could do for them.
"The caseworker said that they also wanted to help, so we arranged a car wash there, with the youth group from Temple Israel working side by side with fundamentalist Christians and teens from Covenant House, and the money that was raised went to an orphanage in Tijuana," he said.
One of the rules that Levinson has is that no one who volunteers pays anything. All he asks is for people to donate their time and talent. The rest is paid for by private, corporate and in-kind donations. (Temple Israel now allots a portion of its budget toward Mitzvah Day.) Every volunteer gets a T-shirt with "Mitzvah Day" on it.
One of the oldest Mitzvah Days in California was started in 1995 by the Jewish Federation/Valley Alliance, when Barbara Crame, then director of the Jewish Community Relations Committee, joined with Temple Adat Ari El to do a day of social action. Less than a dozen synagogues joined them that first year, but the Valley Alliance Mitzvah Day has grown over the last seven years to include over 30 temples and Jewish organizations. Stephen S. Wise Temple holds one of the largest Mitzvah Days annually in November, with 45 different projects and 1,500 of its members participating.
According to Crame, Mitzvah Day has evolved since its inception. Many of the Valley synagogues started working together, sharing resources and talent on Mitzvah Day.
Diane Kabat, former coordinator of Stephen S. Wise's Social Action Committee, was key figure in putting together a how-to primer for temple leaders and social action committees in the Valley, which helped others to organize their own Mitzvah Days.
This brought about a new sense of interaction between people, said Crame, which helped build community, one of the goals of the alliance. Mitzvah Day also helped create links with organizations like Tree People and Habitat for Humanity, encouraging them to open their doors on Sundays.
Although the Valley Alliance Mitzvah Day is Jewish-based, for the first time last year, the Valley Interfaith Council's Crop Walk, an event to end hunger, occurred on the same day as Mitzvah Day, which propelled the two groups to join together.
"It's important to have the diversity," said Temple Israel's Levinson. "I'm uncomfortable with the haves and have-nots, the rich white people going into neighborhoods helping poor black people; it's a two-way street for lots of reasons. When you're sweating next to someone, painting a building, planting a garden, you develop a different relationship than handing someone a meal. Not to say both aren't important."
As for 107th Street School, which was built for 300 students but houses 1,200, Temple Israel has adopted it through Los Angeles Unified School District's adopt-a-school program and continues its relationship throughout the year.