Brandeis Hillel parents, kids rally around Sukkot in April

They called it Sukkot in April, but Sunday at San Francisco's Fellowship Academy felt a little like Madness in May. Nevertheless, amid all the activity, as Jewish parents and kids from Brandeis Hillel Day School mingled with the academy's predominately African-American students, a great deal of work was getting done.

Teenagers washed windows while their parents planted flowers and shrubs. Little brothers and sisters climbed on the jungle gym while boomboxes blared and the Channel 7 minicam rolled.

If you stood still for a moment, somebody with a wheelbarrow full of tanbark would bellow, "Comin' through." If you took off your sunglasses, a piece of the stuff would fly into your eye.

In one corner a 3-year-old hefted a shovel twice his height. Opposite, a game of pickup basketball was going on.

Sukkot in April, a co-project of Jewish Family and Children's Services and San Francisco Congregation Sherith Israel, with the participation and cooperation of numerous Bay Area agencies and synagogues, was an outgrowth of the annual Christmas in April volunteer effort, held the day before.

"I think this is the beginning of what could be a great partnership," said Christmas in April coordinator Sam Lawson, who stopped by the site to see how things were going.

"It's an opportunity to include the entire community — not only people who worship on Saturday but people who work on Saturday."

Tammy Nichols, principal of the private, not-for-profit Fellowship Academy, said: "It's exciting and affirming for our two communities to come together and work side-by-side, putting aside differences of color and religion to achieve a common goal. I feel that it is projects like this that transcend all those man-made barriers to understanding within a community."

Brandeis Hillel organizer Jane Kahn, who mustered a corps of some 100 parent and child volunteers for the daylong project, agreed.

"We wanted to build bridges," she said. "It's been very exciting to meet with the parents and administration of this school and prioritize the project. We really strengthen our own community this way."

Impressive as it was, the work at Fellowship Academy was only the tip of the iceberg. According to JCFS volunteer organizer Janice Weinstein, some 800 volunteers were working all over the Bay Area Sunday: painting, hammering, digging, pruning and serving food.

Parks, shelters, food banks, convalescent facilities and homes in need of repair were among the beneficiaries.

Some of the Sunday workers had been among the 3,5000 participating in Christmas in April the previous day.

Fellowship Academy fifth-grader Donovan Parkins pointed to a colorful mural stretching across one of the school's outside walls. "Last year they came and painted that over there," he said, referring to the Christmas in April volunteers. "And now we've got new people coming to our school."

Amir Sberlo was shooting hoops: just taking a break between window-washing and shoveling, the Brandeis Hillel 4th grader explained.

"This is really hard work, but it's fun too."

Also taking a break were Brandeis Hillel parents Jonathan Zier, a San Francisco home health nurse, and Eric Gray. They leaned on their shovels next to the holes they had dug into which new concrete would be poured the next day.

Gray, who works for the U.S. Dept. of Labor Job Corps, was amused to find himself on the other side of the workforce equation for a change. His wife, Lynn Rhodes, was also learning something new.

"I don't usually garden much," she said as she put another clump of flowers in the dirt. "Maybe I can go home now and make my own house look this good."

As with most of the Brandeis Hillel and Fellowship Academy volunteers, their effort was a family affair. Daughter Rachel was babysitting at the day-care department and son David was on the cleaning crew.

Lunchtime approached, and parents and children from both schools began to congregate at tables set up near a parking lot. But first, with the aid of large lettering on poster paper, a Jewish parent began teaching them all a song.

"Hineh ma tov…How good it is for friends to sit together…"