Are Mitzvah Days An Excuse To Stay Away?

Annual Events Can Encourage Faithful To Avoid Regular Commitment

By Linda K. Wertheimer

Published November 01, 2011, issue of November 11, 2011.
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As I raced through scales to warm up my piccolo, an old man with an oxygen tube in his nose smiled at me. “I love the piccolo,” he said.

The man, a retired congregational rabbi, sat front row center in the social hall of an assisted living home, as a handful of members from my shul’s klezmer band played. Over my music stand, I could see him, watching, grinning and, at times, singing during the “concert,” a Mitzvah Day activity sponsored by my shul.

The clarinetist next to me suggested we announce why we were there. “Good PR for the temple,” he said. I hedged, saying it was unnecessary. “We should do this on more than just Mitzvah Day,” I said. He nodded in agreement.

I did not want to broadcast that we were playing there for Mitzvah Day because I was chagrined. I had not visited this predominantly Jewish nursing home in Brighton, a Boston neighborhood, since the previous year. I fell in love with the audience the last time. Before getting married in 2006, before becoming a mother in 2008, I did more volunteering.

Has my life become too busy to commit to more than a once-a-year volunteering gig? Do Mitzvah Days, popular in shuls around the nation, give me and others an excuse to only help out on a designated day?

My congregation, Temple Isaiah of Lexington, Mass., started its annual Mitzvah Day in 2002, at the prompting of an interim rabbi. The first known Mitzvah Day began two decades ago, at the Washington Hebrew Congregation, according to the Union of Reform Judaism. That shul, like mine, spends months organizing dozens of projects for members of all ages. The Reform movement used the Washington shul’s idea to create a Mitzvah Day manual, and now hundreds of shuls run the same kind of event every year, said Naomi Abelson, URJ’s social action specialist.

Abelson understands my trepidation. “It is a challenge. It’s just one day. So is that meaningful? Does that make a difference? Do I get to check that off as something that I’ve done and wait till next year?” she said. “Of course, we don’t see it that way.”

Mitzvah Days, she said, can “really turn people on to doing social action in a Jewish way.”

But why not work instead to turn people on to regular ways they can volunteer? My shul makes sure that at least one portion of Mitzvah Day volunteers — religious school students and their families — do not treat the one-day event as their only community service commitment each year. For eight years, seventh graders and their families have partnered with other families to do ongoing mitzvah projects with many of the same agencies helped on Mitzvah Day. Six times a year, in addition to Mitzvah Day, they cook meals for a women’s shelter — though, a part of me wonders if performing a mitzvah should be required as part of religious school. I’m not a fan of high schools mandating community service as a graduation requirement, either.

The first year Temple Isaiah held a Mitzvah Day, 600 people participated. Now, about 350 do, said Marilyn Stern, Isaiah’s director of congregational learning. The temple had a corporate sponsor the first few years and, hence, support for heavy promotion, Stern said. All participants used to receive free T-shirts and stickers. When corporate sponsorship ended, Isaiah picked up the tab with money from its social action budget and from Mitzvah Day participants, who are asked to chip in $18 for the day. The one-day event costs about $3,000 to $4,000 a year, largely to cover the cost of project supplies.

Most likely, participation dropped because there is less hype, Stern said, and because some people feel that after several years, they have participated enough. The temple has considered abandoning Mitzvah Day, she said, but sticks with the idea because it’s a good community builder. Not to mention, some people might not volunteer at all, were it not for the day. “[In a] perfect world.… people would have year-long relationships with agencies,” Stern said, “and that would go across age groups.”

Jeff Goldberg, a Temple Isaiah board member, opposed Mitzvah Day as a concept from the moment it was proposed. “What I’m opposed to is 10 years of Mitzvah Day,” said Goldberg, a chemist and restaurant owner. “I believe a number of people do Mitzvah Day with their kids, feel good, then do nothing else.” Doing mitzvot should be a way of life, he said.

I agree, even as I struggle to make time for community service. This fall, I started to take my 3 year old to a monthly gathering at an assisted living complex. On a weekday morning, mothers and their children do a craft with the elderly residents. The unstated mitzvah is obvious. The residents appreciate seeing young, smiling faces across the table.

Last spring, no one needed the klezmer band to say we were there for a “mitzvah” day.

“You know, what you’re doing is a mitzvah, visiting old people,” the elderly rabbi said, after the concert. I shrugged, as I shook his hand. I could not shed my feeling of guilt that — even though I wanted to visit more — I probably would not return to this place, about 40 minutes from my home, until the spring of 2012.

Linda K. Wertheimer, a freelance writer from Lexington, Mass., is writing a memoir about how the loss of her brother led her closer to her Jewish faith.


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