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Jewish Journal

Israeli-Americans make good on giving back

by Jonah Lowenfeld

May 9, 2012 | 11:34 am

At the Venice boardwalk and three other sites around the city, almost 200 volunteers, most of them Israeli-Americans, participated in the ILC’s first Good Deeds Day on May 6. Photo by Rani Sikolski

At the Venice boardwalk and three other sites around the city, almost 200 volunteers, most of them Israeli-Americans, participated in the ILC’s first Good Deeds Day on May 6. Photo by Rani Sikolski

On May 6, instead of sleeping late and spending the Sunday morning at home, Vered Nagar shlepped her son and daughter from Tarzana to the boardwalk at Venice Beach to help the homeless.

“They were reluctant about doing it at first,” Nagar said, watching her 9-year-old daughter, Tal, hand a toothbrush to a tanned, bearded man whose teeth looked like they could use a good cleaning. “They weren’t sure how it’s going to be with the homeless people.”

“As we talked about it,” Nagar continued, “they got excited about helping, and we’re here.”

The Nagars were among almost 200 people who participated in the Israeli Leadership Council’s (ILC) first Good Deeds Day.

“Our job is to find volunteer opportunities that people will be passionate about,” said Donna Kreisler, the director of the ILC-Care Program, an initiative aimed at encouraging members of Los Angeles’s sizable Israeli-American community to engage in volunteerism.

Since its launch at a concert last November, when more than 5,000 attendees pledged to give a total of 22,000 volunteer hours, ILC-Care has marshaled volunteers for projects, including to help rescue 100 stray dogs in December and to run a pre-Passover food drive that helped feed 150 needy Jewish families over the holiday.

The concertgoers, Kreisler said, have been among the most enthusiastic participants in ILC-Care programs.

“Every single time we come out with something, they’re the first ones to register,” she said.

On Sunday, in addition to the 50 volunteers stationed at two locations on the boardwalk in Venice, Israeli-Americans and others joined three other ILC-sponsored projects around the region.

Nearly 45 volunteers went to the Shalom Institute in Malibu to plant vegetables that will help feed hungry clients at SOVA. (Two weeks earlier, as part of the international project J-Serve, more than 140 Jewish teenagers had tended those same beds.)

Sixty others helped run a daylong party in Woodley Park in the San Fernando Valley for a group of cancer patients and their families identified by the Israeli-American organization StandWithUs.

And, in a project coordinated with the region-wide volunteer weekend of Big Sunday, 10 ILC-recruited volunteers joined 15 other Big Sunday volunteers and 45 clients of the Substance Abuse Foundation of Long Beach to tour the Museum of Tolerance.

A planned fifth project site, a cleanup effort at Compton Creek in partnership with Big Sunday and Heal The Bay, did not take place due to a lack of volunteers, Kreisler said.

The ILC is one of hundreds of organizations of all types — nonprofit, corporate, religious, educational — that has partnered with Big Sunday over its 13-year existence.

“I always feel like we’re bigger than the sum of our parts,” David Levinson, founder and executive director of Big Sunday, said.

What started out with “300 good-hearted Jewish people at Temple Israel of Hollywood,” Levinson said, has now turned into a three-day festival of volunteering that attracted more than 50,000 volunteers last year. (The exact number of volunteers who joined one of Big Sunday’s 400 different projects this year was not available as of press time.)

“Our target audience is everyone,” he said. “We have homeless people who volunteer and movie stars who volunteer.”

Having partnered with many synagogues over the years, Levinson said, Big Sunday has attracted Israeli-Americans in the past, but ILC-Care gives that community a specialized outlet for volunteering. Across all four Good Deeds Day sites, 70 percent of the volunteers who participated were Israeli-American, Kreisler said.

And Kreisler is hoping that, by planning more activities throughout the year, Good Deeds Day can build and grow.

“It’s very contagious,” she said, noting that people who had not taken part were calling the ILC offices to inquire about future activities. “Even when it starts with a few hundred, we believe that, if we are consistent, we’ll be able to get it into the thousands.”

In Venice, most of the conversation was in Hebrew among the 25 volunteers who took part in the first shift. None of them seemed to have been to the concert, and at least one of those present, who learned about the volunteer opportunity through an ad in this newspaper (which co-sponsored the Day of Good Deeds), hadn’t ever heard of the ILC.

As is typical for the ILC, the group in Venice was working in partnership with another organization, the Send Me a Penny Foundation. The group’s founder, Anthony Perez, has been distributing food on the Venice boardwalk for six years; every Friday, Saturday and Sunday, Perez and his volunteers provide close to 1,500 meals to homeless people on the boardwalk, serving food collected at the Heart of Compassion food bank in Montebello.

“Other organizations will see us on the boardwalk and want to participate,” Perez said, taking a break from managing the ILC-recruited volunteers.

And despite the cajoling it took for Nagar to get her daughter and son to the boardwalk, by midway through her shift, Tal Nagar seemed happy to be there.

“At school, we talk about doing good deeds,” the fourth-grader said, standing behind a table full of toothbrushes, toothpaste and plastic combs. “It was a good feeling to give to people that don’t have these things.”

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