Fortunately, a microcosm of the entire day's scope of activities could be found this year at Stephen S. Wise Temple. About 1,200 volunteers, mostly temple members, occupied nearly every square inch of the synagogue's vast grounds to participate in projects ranging from decorating gift bags for foster children to preparing lunches for the homeless.
In the huge Zeldin Hershenson hall, volunteers scrambled to sort through a mountain of clothing donated by the temple's elementary school parents. After being categorized by type and size, the clothing will go to city schools and shelters. In a corner of the room, havurah members collected books donated to six different inner-city organizations including the Boys & Girls Club of Hollywood and the Mar Vista Family Center.
Meanwhile, in the Plotkin Chapel, trainers from Koreh L.A., the Jewish Federation's recently established literacy project, gave two four-hour seminars to new participants.
"We'll be training 150 people today who will then be matched up one-to-one with children in L.A. city schools," said Diane Kabat, chair of Mitzvah Day. Kabat spent six months organizing the 17 activities taking place on-site, in addition to encouraging members through the "Mitzvah Wise" newsletter to get involved in other city-wide events.
One particularly colorful activity drew its support from children in the temple's elementary school. The Umbrella Project, founded 10 years ago by Arizona artist Hilda Brown, involves children around the world in creating hand-painted umbrellas, which are then sold, with the proceeds going to charities like Habitat for Humanity. Children from as far away as Israel and Tibet have lent their imagination to the project; at Stephen S. Wise, over 250 children participated in creating the designs for the panels using the theme "Making Peace in the New Millennium," according to Marge Chirchick, the organization's Los Angeles director.
"Today we're doing things a little differently," Chirchick said. "Instead of selling or auctioning off the kids' work, we're donating the 50 umbrellas to children in East Los Angeles schools."
Also for the creatively inclined, the entire Early Child Education area was turned over to arts and crafts projects like "Happy Hats," which provides wild and crazily-designed chapeaux to hospitals in six different states.
Temple member Ellen Michel knows about the project first-hand: her son, Adam, then 12, was hospitalized for a month in the summer of 1998 at Children's Hospital in Los Angeles when the "Happy Hats" people came calling.
"We saw the magic [this project] works," Michel said. "The nurses really got into it and then his doctor, who was visiting Adam at the time, put on a hat too. It brought the whole hospital to a new, spiritual level. If you're a child and someone comes in to draw your blood wearing a silly hat, it makes quite a difference."
That is why, Michel said, she and her extended family -- including Adam's grandparents -- have spent the past two Mitzvah Days giving back to theproject with their own creations.
"It's a lot of fun making hats but even more so knowing the joy these will bring," she said.
Part of the spirit of Mitzvah Day is to keep volunteers involved through out the year. One ongoing project at Stephen S. Wise is the Peah Community Garden, planted in memory of five former students all tragically killed within a short period in 1996.
"The word peah means corners. The name [for the garden] comes from the Jewish tradition of leaving the corners of our fields unharvested for the poor to gather food," explained Rabbi Leah Kroll, who oversees the temple's social action activities.
For Mitzvah Day, temple members installed new aboveground planters where children planted rows of onions, artichokes, spinach and parsley. All of the food produced goes to the Valley Shelter, Kroll said.
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