Mitzvah day aims to pick up slack from funding slashes

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In the wake of slashed United Way funding and poor fund-raising returns, East Bay agencies are now scrambling just to provide basic services. The agencies' overstressed budgets can no longer accommodate routine building maintenance and paint jobs.

But next month some 700 East Bay Jews are expected to help pick up the slack.

They'll seize hammers and paintbrushes for the first communitywide mitzvah-day effort.

Dubbed "Helping Hands," the Sept. 8-10 service project is a first-time joint venture of the East Bay Jewish Federation's Volunteer Action Center and Lafayette's Temple Isaiah.

Temple Isaiah's first-ever mitzvah day last year attracted 650 participants, who chose from a roster of sorely needed tasks.

Nearly 50 projects are available this year, ranging from painting walls and washing windows at Berkeley's Family Violence Law Center to making pickles: Pickle sales will help Temple Isaiah confirmation students travel to Israel.

The first-time partnership between the federation and a synagogue for a communitywide mitzvah day is noteworthy. Sandy Curtis, chair of the Volunteer Action Center, referred to the dual sponsorship and array of activities as "serving two masters, while enhancing people's concerns and involvement with what we think is fundamental to Jewish identity — social action."

David Bressler, who co-chairs the Temple Isaiah effort with his wife, Susan Adler-Bressler, added, "Joining together is a way to build community, expand our contacts and tap into unaffiliated Jews to give them more of a sense of what federation and our congregation does."

At first the plan did not aim to directly help agencies, Curtis said.

But, Curtis added, "funding for their programs has been dwindling and the agencies are the frontlines for people in need."

The goal — like that of synagogue-sponsored mitzvah days all around the country — was to stage fun activities that would raise awareness among Jews of all ages while aiding agency-sponsored projects and providing a Jewish presence in the mainstream community.

Usually Jewish agencies suggest projects for synagogue mitzvah days such as visiting the frail elderly and feeding the hungry and the homeless. But this year many agencies, like Jewish Community Services in Oakland and the San Ramon Senior Center, asked for more practical help — mostly maintenance of their own sites.

"That the agencies need people to do painting and repair work bespeaks the economic pressures. Agency budgets are going to direct services. Facilities maintenance isn't covered," said Ilana Schatz, director of the Volunteer Action Center.

"This said to me in very clear terms what hardships are occurring at the agencies."

Besides offering direct aid to agencies and uniting the federation and a synagogue into a single force, Helping Hands differs from most mitzvah days because it is spread out over three days. Most other service-corps projects last only one day.

"In trying to meet the needs of both agencies and volunteers, we've taken into consideration that some agencies don't need help on the weekend. And some people are available only during the week," Curtis said.

In addition, the Volunteer Action Center will follow up with letters and calls to each volunteer in hopes of forging long-term relationships.

"We're looking for a connection that hooks them up throughout the year, to increase their pool of volunteers as their needs increase," Curtis said.

"These frontline agencies are going to feel the biggest brunt of welfare cuts. They're servicing a greater need with much less money.

"If we can have people connected to the agencies, they'll be better prepared down the road."