JCI&R volunteer savors chance to do another mitzvah

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Mark Hardie checks his watch. His volunteer shift for Jewish Community Information & Referral has ended, and he's anxious to return to his dorm at Hastings College of the Law in time to prepare for Shabbat.

But that doesn't stop the young black graduate student and recent convert to Judaism from reaching for the phone when it suddenly starts ringing.

"Shalom, Jewish Community Information & Referral," answers Hardie, the newest and youngest member on JCI&R's team of 14 volunteers.

After guiding the caller through a series of questions on how to connect with the Bay Area's Jewish singles scene, Hardie, a slender and stylishly dressed 24-year-old, exclaims, "That felt great. I got to do another mitzvah."

According to Hardie, callers contact JCI&R, a free, confidential telephone service sponsored by the S.F.-based Jewish Community Federation, in search of information on a variety of Jewish subjects.

Although Hardie is trained to handle inquiries on everything from how to keep kosher to where to go for career or family counseling, he says calls like the one he just answered are typical of the type he most often receives.

Volunteer work is nothing new to Hardie, who, in addition to taking calls, is helping JCI&R update its fast-growing data base. He is an active member of both the National Black Students Association and Jewish Law Students Association, and he has volunteered as a writing facilitator for elderly residents at the Jewish Home for the Aged in San Francisco– which he says helped deepen his understanding of the Jewish experience.

"They [the residents] had this wonderful knowledge of Jewish history, especially that of San Francisco," he says. "Being new to the community and in the process of converting, that was something I really appreciated."

Hardie, who moved to the city from Long Beach last August, is also thankful that residents urged him to get out and "go… go to the community." Heeding their advice, he plunged ahead.

Hardie joined two San Francisco synagogues and a Jewish singles group. He practices Orthodox Judaism, but was formally converted through Conservative Congregation Beth Israel-Judea. His brit milah (ritual circumcision) was held at Berkeley Chabad. He also belongs to Orthodox Congregation Keneseth Israel and is part of Reform Congregation Sherith Israel's singles group, Simcha.

Hardie completed his conversion process in December and began volunteering for JCI&R about a month later.

He decided to convert following a trip to Israel last summer. Hardie had set out alone "on a five-week journey of discovery" but never expected to experience such a strong pull toward Judaism or such intense feelings of solidarity with the Jewish people.

"I was in Israel during two disasters…The first was at the Arad Music Festival, when three young people were stampeded to death. The second was the terrorist bus bombing in Tel Aviv. Even then, I can remember feeling increasingly affected by these terrible tragedies."

Having personally experienced racial intolerance, Hardie calls both racism and anti-Semitism "the sons of hatred" and maintains that the key to improving relationships between African Americans and Jews lies in uniting for a common cause.

After law school he plans to either earn a master's degree in Jewish communal service from Brandeis University or find work in a private law firm. Ideally, he would like to follow in the footsteps of his role model, Anti-Defamation League national director Abraham Foxman. (Other role models include Anne Frank and Martin Luther King Jr.)

Of more immediate concern, though, is Hardie's pending travel to Israel. He was accepted into a summer program studying Jewish law at the Benjamin Cardozo International Institute in Jerusalem. Hardie, who attended a Jerusalem yeshiva last summer, can't wait to return to Israel in July.

"It will be like old times," he said.

Except this time around, when Hardie re-visits the country and people he fell in love with last year, it will be as a Jew.