Mitzvah Day links Jews to community and each other

Motivated by concepts like mitzvah (commandment or good deed), tikkun olam (repairing the world) and tzedakah (charity), the congregation is first sponsoring its own community-renewal project on Sunday, May 5.

About 400 people — congregants and community members — are expected to turn out with paintbrushes, hammers and good intentions for the synagogue's first Mitzvah Day.

Volunteer writers and photographers will chronicle the pro-bono efforts benefiting more than 30 Jewish and secular organizations. Their photos and documentation will be sent to St. Petersburg via the BACJRR, in a project called "Record our Mitzvah Day."

"It seems a good idea for [the former Soviets] to see firsthand how volunteerism works and how to participate in a community," before trying to get them involved in their own good-deed efforts, said Rhoda Wolfe, a member of both Sherith Israel and BACJRR and co-coordinator of the project.

"Volunteerism is foreign in most cultures which don't have the kind of luxuries we have here — like the luxury not to work," Wolfe said. "Life in Russia was difficult. And volunteerism is [viewed as] a concept of a world more privileged."

Nonetheless, "I think it's a concept the Russians will understand and grasp. Sometimes people just need a nudge."

It's not just former Soviets who need encouragement, Wolfe said. The project's documentation will be exhibited at the congregation, and hopefully at Bay Area Sunday and day schools, in an effort to get more people involved in community service.

"Sometimes people don't see themselves in this kind of role. But if they see pictures of friends or people they know doing it, they start thinking of it not as something everyone else does but as something they might do," Wolfe said.

Plus, "When a program is done in the community that is special, it should be documented for the future."

Beginning at 8:30 a.m. at the synagogue — which will serve as the Mitzvah Day home-base, and the site for donating blood and items to charities — work teams will set out on their missions.

Jobs will be divided up according to age, type of work and organizational co-sponsor. For instance, all ages are welcome to participate in the Broom and Brush Brigade and join the San Francisco Public Works Department in cleaning streets and sidewalks. But only adults 18 and older may register voters through the American Jewish Congress and the S.F.-based Jewish Community Relations Council.

The 28 other projects include preparing and delivering food for one of four nonprofit organizations, cleaning up Golden Gate National Recreation Area, and painting and repairing schools and a woman's shelter.

Volunteers can also help elderly San Franciscans wash their windows, bury prayerbooks and ritual objects at Hills of Eternity Cemetery, remove graffiti, sort donated items for six charities, play with homeless animals and spend time with residents of Laurel Heights Convalescent Hospital.

Free Tay-Sachs screenings will be available at the synagogue. A picnic and havdallah service concludes the day.

"This is Sherith Israel's gift to San Francisco," said Janice Weinstein, Sherith Israel's Koret Initiative Program director and co-chair of Mitzvah Day. To participate, call her at (415) 346-1720.

A special effort was also made to address the needs of a number of non-Jewish agencies in the project.

"This is our opportunity to bring our congregants to the [Jewish and general] community and get them involved with one another," Weinstein said.

And in turn, provide inspiration to those in St. Petersburg.

"This is a concept, not for the Jews there, but for everyone," Wolfe said.