Singles developing camaraderie through projects that help needy

The basement of St. Paulus Church, on Gough and Eddy streets in San Francisco, might not be the first place you'd look for a Jewish singles group. But Congregation Sherith Israel is currently renovating its kitchen facilities, explains cooking captain Kathy Jean. This left Simcha, its singles group, without a place to carry out its weekly program of preparing meals for the homeless.

Looking around the large basement kitchen, where volunteers are busy chopping vegetables, squeezing lemons and unpacking groceries, Jean smiles. "The hospitality here has been great. The groundskeeper opens up for us, and Pastor [E. Lee] Gerdes comes around sometimes. It was Rabbi [Martin] Weiner who insisted on not letting the project die during the renovation. We're very grateful to him."

Simcha is one of the many Bay Area Jewish singles' groups involved in tzedakah, or good works. Clearly, the commitment is not one that these young people take lightly. Jean, who started as a volunteer three years ago, has been a cooking captain for the last two years, and Mitchell Benjamin, 34, has been stir-frying every third Sunday for around three years.

"I don't believe in giving money to homeless people on the street," says Benjamin. "This way it's more controlled, and we know they're getting good food." As he stirs a pan of chopped onions sizzling in oil, he goes on, "I don't really come here to meet new people — it tends to be the same regulars, but this is a good way of being with people you know."

Elizabeth Meyers, 31, an aspiring fiction writer, is quietly slicing cabbage behind Benjamin. "I've been helping out for about a year — I wanted to have some affiliation with the Jewish community," she says. "Sometimes I serve the food too, which is fun; you get to see the people you're affecting."

In addition to Simcha, YAD, the Young Adults' Division of the S.F.-based Jewish Community Federation, is involved in tzedakah, with "at least one social action opportunity per month," according to director Lisa Tabak. These vary from serving meals at Ronald McDonald House, which houses families of hospitalized children, to shmoozing and playing bingo at Bay Area senior centers.

Over in the East Bay, the Young Jewish Alliance's members, ages 25 to 38, take part in social action events such as a recent pizza and bowling party for emigre teens. "People enjoyed meeting the kids, and seeing them experience bowling for the first time," reports Debbie Blankfeld, president of YJA, which is affiliated with the Jewish Federation of the Greater East Bay. "It was a fun activity for both sides."

Says Tabak, "Young Jewish people grow up with a concept of tikkun olam [healing the world]. It may be a chicken-and-egg type situation, where you don't know which came first, the urge to socialize or wanting to do tzedakah. But when community involvement comes out of that, it's great."

Lisa Barnett, juicing lemons under Jean's supervision, is attending a Simcha meal preparation for the first time.

"After my grandfather died a year ago, I wanted to learn about Judaism, because it had been so important to him. I started taking classes and I learned about doing a mitzvah. The idea appealed to me — so here I am," Barnett says.

"Go ahead and use all of those lemons," Jean interjects, and Barnett nods.

"Kathy has it down — she is so cool," she says admiringly of Jean. "It was really great walking in here and having her tell me exactly what to do."

Jean, a Jew-by-choice, says Simcha initially offered a way for her to put Jewish philosophies such as tikkun olam into practice. But it was also fun. "It's a lot friendlier than the bar scene," she says. "You get to know people better, you spend quality time together."

Gesturing towards Benjamin, she says, "Look – men who come here can meet women and learn to cook!

"But seriously," she adds, laying down her wooden spoon, "this is a great way of sharing. I'd like to encourage more Jewish singles to develop a sense of camaraderie through tikkun olam."