Dreams of pickles produce barrels of temple mitzvot

"I have a dream," announced longtime Temple Isaiah of Contra Costa County religious school teacher Mark Sedley one Friday night from the bimah.

The dream Sedley was talking about on the synagogue platform involved neither tikkun olam — world healing — or world peace. It was about pickles.

Dill pickles.

Not an unreasonable dream for a guy from Cleveland.

But Sedley's dream wasn't just about bringing a slice of Midwestern Jewish cuisine to Lafayette. He envisioned the congregation growing fat cucumbers and selling the pickled product to raise scholarship money for confirmation trips to Israel.

Mitzvah pickles, you could say.

On October 1, Sedley's dream came true as over 600 members of Temple Isaiah gathered for Mitzvah Day. It was a day of doing for others, fixing up the temple and, of course, making pickles.

Congregants David Bressler and his wife Susan Adler-Bressler got the idea for Mitzvah Day at a social action convention in Washington, D.C. last spring. They proposed the event to enthusiastic co-congregants, who immediately launched into action by contacting volunteer organizations in Contra Costa and Alameda counties and designing 20 mitzvah projects.

They chose October 1 as Mitzvah Day because it fell in the Days of Awe — the 10 calendar days between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur aimed at reflection and self-improvement. At this time of year, David Bressler explained, "People are focused on Judaism and tikkun olam."

They sent invitations to temple members, asking each congregant to sign up for a project.

The morning of Mitzvah Day began with a blast from the shofar. Afterward an eager crowd gathered in the temple courtyard. In one corner, Susan Epstein and her son Daniel led a chorus through one last rehearsal before they set off to perform Jewish folk songs at Oakland's Home for Jewish Parents.

Vanloads of congregants armed with piles of secondhand books, games, toys and clothes headed for the nearby Books for Barrios warehouse, where they would pack the goods for shipment to schools in the Philippines.

Other members headed for local nursing homes bearing gift baskets for Jewish residents, while others assembled picnic lunches to share with mothers and kids at Mountain View House, a women's shelter in Martinez.

Some prepared meals for residents at the AIDS Project of Contra Costa, others for mentally disabled adults at the Las Trampas home in Lafayette. Yet others went to the Diablo Valley AIDS Center, where some cooked while some gave the center's interior a fresh coat of paint.

Congregants brought loads of canned goods to the Contra Costa Food Bank in Concord, where they spent the afternoon sorting and labeling.

Some opted for physical labor and fresh air. Dressed in old clothes and gardening gloves, they set off to clean the bed of the waterway for which Walnut Creek is named. Others planted seeds, weeded and cleared debris at the Shell Ridge Ranger Station, Lindsay Museum and the Contra Costa Jewish Community Center.

Mitzvahs abounded.

In a secluded area of the temple yard under a shady canopy of trees, a group of children and adults held a traditional geniza ceremony, digging a hole and burying old, no-longer-usable prayer books.

"You can't burn or throw [such books] away because that's not right. They have God's name in them," explained participant Hannah Greinetz, 9. "We're returning them to the earth where they came from."

Wrapped in a shroud, the prayer books were placed in the hole as the somber group read a special kaddish over them.

On the hillside flanking the temple, Daniel Smetana, 13, led another group that cleared away dead brush and spread jute netting to secure the soil for future planting.

Parents and children made the classroom building earthquake-safe, bolting bookcases to the walls and securing other furniture and equipment. Another group tore old sheets into strips to make impromptu bandages. They arranged these and other necessities to make classroom emergency packs.

"I'm just a paranoid mom," said project director Arlynn Bloom, who oversaw this particular mitzvah. An earthquake-preparedness veteran, Bloom has headed similar projects at two other schools and in her neighborhood.

Noting the congregants' high energy level, David Bressler said he hoped the volunteer spirit would continue throughout the year.

"Hopefully, people will get turned on by [this] one-day involvement and make an ongoing commitment to the project they were involved in, or to another one that sounds interesting," he said.

Some projects will definitely continue. Next month Daniel Smetana and his fellow Boy Scouts will plant the hillside with ground cover. Mark Sedley's pickles will go on sale at the temple and at Noah's Bagels in Lafayette.

Planning ahead for next year, Sedley is already experimenting with recipes for pickled green tomatoes.