When Linda Cohen’s father died in 2007, the mother of two was reeling. Grief-stricken, she decided to take time off from her active life and health consulting job in Oregon for a “spiritual sabbatical.”
“I just wanted to be quiet. I wanted the time to be with that loss,” recalls Cohen, a Boston native.
But within a month, she had a new sense of direction. Inspired by her father’s wishes to have friends and relatives make donations to charities in lieu of sending flowers after his death, she decided to honor his memory by performing 1,000 mitzvahs.
With her acts of kindness ranging from small gestures to more substantial volunteer work, Cohen began tracking her progress and thoughts on a blog (www.1000mitzvahs.org), partially at the urging of her husband. Five years later, the dialogue that grew out of that blog has taken the shape of a book: “1,000 Mitzvahs: How Small Acts of Kindness Can Heal, Inspire and Change Your Life,” which was published last month. Cohen will give three book talks in the Bay Area next week.
From sharing your umbrella with a stranger to rescuing a lost dog to letting go of an old grudge, the book serves as a compendium of ideas for making tikkun olam and tzedakah tangible, and as a call to action for those who are unsure where to start.
“When you look at the original 613 mitzvot [commandments in the Torah], a lot of them are things you can’t even really do anymore,” says Cohen, who holds a master’s degree from Brandeis University in Jewish communal service. (For example, there’s a set of rules regarding the treatment of slaves.) So she decided to focus on the gemilut chassidim, literally, “acts of loving kindness.” With this definition in mind, Cohen says, her eyes were immediately open to new ways of helping those around her.
“My very first mitzvah was giving a book to a friend before she left for a trip,” she says. “I think when you grow up Jewish, it’s always the bigger things you hear about — whether it’s volunteering somewhere, or doing a project for your bar or bat mitzvah.
“I did those things too, but I think the littler, simpler things that take five minutes can be just as meaningful. And when you’re looking for them, opportunities are all around you.”
Debate about what counted as a mitzvah — Replacing a roll of toilet paper? Smiling at a stranger? — became the stuff of Cohen family’s dinner-table discussion. (Cohen’s children were 6 and 9 when the project started, and grew to see the recurring topic as perfectly normal, she says.) These questions also served as conversation-starters on Cohen’s blog, which steadily gained followers over the course of the 21⁄2-year mission.
“I’d wind up having this dialogue with family, friends, with strangers on the blog, and that was a really important part of it,” she says, recalling times when, after throwing some loose change into a Meals On Wheels donation tin, or making her husband chicken soup when he was sick, she wondered aloud (and online) if such simple contributions could really be considered mitzvahs. The answer she and others always arrived at?
“There’s nothing really too small,” she says. “The idea is that bringing even a bit of kindness into the world is a holy connection.”
Others in her community and beyond are taking their cue from the first-time author. Cohen recently heard that her synagogue in Portland will be starting a course for bar and bat mitzvah students based on the project. And last Chanukah, a Jewish day school in Toronto conducted a school-wide mitzvah project inspired by her blog.
It’s moving to see others using her project as a jumping-off point, says Cohen, especially because it accomplished something so hugely personal for her.
“I learned so much throughout this process,” she says. “I moved out of a place of grief, into a place of feeling very inspired. If there’s something negative that happens, I feel like there’s a lesson I can glean from that. I really learned how to see the good in the world.” n
Linda Cohen will speak 7:30 p.m. Wednesday, Oct. 26 at the Oshman Family JCC in Palo Alto, www.paloaltojcc.org; 6:30 p.m. Thursday, Oct. 27 at Afikomen Judaica in Berkeley, www.afikomen.com; and 12:30 p.m. Oct. 28 at the JCC of the East Bay in Berkeley, www.jcceastbay.org.
“1,000 Mitzvahs” by Linda Cohen (245 pages, Seal Press, $16)