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.
  • Print
  • Share Share

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.


The Jewish Daily Forward welcomes reader comments in order to promote thoughtful discussion on issues of importance to the Jewish community. In the interest of maintaining a civil forum, The Jewish Daily Forwardrequires that all commenters be appropriately respectful toward our writers, other commenters and the subjects of the articles. Vigorous debate and reasoned critique are welcome; name-calling and personal invective are not. While we generally do not seek to edit or actively moderate comments, our spam filter prevents most links and certain key words from being posted and The Jewish Daily Forward reserves the right to remove comments for any reason.





Find us on Facebook!
  • Half of this Hillel's members believe Jesus was the Messiah.
  • Vinyl isn't just for hipsters and hippies. Israeli photographer Eilan Paz documents the most astonishing record collections from around the world:http://jd.fo/g3IyM
  • Could Spider-Man be Jewish? Andrew Garfield thinks so.
  • Most tasteless video ever? A new video shows Jesus Christ dying at Auschwitz.
  • "It’s the smell that hits me first — musty, almost sweet, emanating from the green felt that cradles each piece of silver cutlery in its own place." Only one week left to submit! Tell us the story of your family's Jewish heirloom.
  • Mazel tov to Chelsea Clinton and Marc Mezvinsky!
  • If it's true, it's pretty terrifying news.
  • “My mom went to cook at the White House and all I got was this tiny piece of leftover raspberry ganache."
  • Planning on catching "Fading Gigolo" this weekend? Read our review.
  • A new initiative will spend $300 million a year towards strengthening Israel's relationship with the Diaspora. http://jd.fo/q3Iaj Is this money spent wisely?
  • Lusia Horowitz left pre-state Israel to fight fascism in Spain — and wound up being captured by the Nazis and sent to die at Auschwitz. Share her remarkable story — told in her letters.
  • Vered Guttman doesn't usually get nervous about cooking for 20 people, even for Passover. But last night was a bit different. She was cooking for the Obamas at the White House Seder.
  • A grumpy Jewish grandfather is wary of his granddaughter's celebrating Easter with the in-laws. But the Seesaw says it might just make her appreciate Judaism more. What do you think?
  • “Twist and Shout.” “Under the Boardwalk.” “Brown-Eyed Girl.” What do these great songs have in common? A forgotten Jewish songwriter. We tracked him down.
  • from-cache

Would you like to receive updates about new stories?




















We will not share your e-mail address or other personal information.

Already subscribed? Manage your subscription.