Sunday at the zoo becomes a mitzvah for Isaiah volunteers

Lions, tigers and bears — you wouldn't want to meet any of them in a back alley, but Temple Isaiah in Lafayette wants to remind its congregants that it's a mitzvah to help them.

As part of the temple's fourth annual Mitzvah Day, on Sunday, Sept. 27, volunteers will transform themselves into groundskeepers at the Oakland Knowland Park Zoo. There, they will help with habitat restoration and with cleaning the zoomobiles that transport animals.

In all, Temple Isaiah participants will take part in 22 Mitzvah Day projects.

Though mitzvot usually focus on problems confronting people, part of the purpose of such events is to expand the community's scope of concerns, said Robin Jaye-Elfont, project coordinator for the zoo work.

"There is a symbiotic relation between the environment and us," she said. "It is important to see that animals are part of our environment."

Though one day of work at the zoo will not transform the world, there is an important lesson to be learned through close contact with animals, according to Jaye-Elfont.

By helping animals, "We learn that taking care of animals and the environment will, in the end, help us out and better our world."

Rabbi Judy Shanks of Temple Isaiah reminds that there are many mitzvot that describe how Jews must respect and care for animals.

She hopes that lesson will be particularly effective for the kids who take part in the zoo cleanup.

"Sometimes the childhood instinct is to be kinder to pets than to friends," Shanks said. "Kids need to see how this relates to all God's creatures. Helping at the zoo will teach them to make that leap."

Jaye-Elfont anticipates that young people attending will enjoy the project as much as those who participated last year. Since "kids can see the fruit of what they are doing, they can directly relate, so it's very reinforcing" to the importance of mitzvot, she said.

Habitat restoration is particularly instructive since it involves making the habitat more naturalistic and closer to the animal's regular environment, Jaye-Elfont said.

The group also will collect pine needles on the zoo grounds and put them in bear cages so the animals can rub against the needles and scratch itches.

Last year, more than 700 congregants attended the community service day, and the temple expects more this year.

"I think the word has spread that it's extremely important to make a statement that we, as a community, are committed to helping others in our community," said Julie Candau, a member of the temple's social action committee.

To accommodate the large cadre of volunteers, the temple selected diverse projects. Projects include hammering away at a Habitat for Humanity site, visiting the Home for Jewish Parents in Oakland, tending the Temple Isaiah oak grove on Mt. Diablo and sharing outdoor activities at a park with families in transitional housing at the Battered Women's Alternatives.

Another project will bring a group to the temple's cemetery plot in Lafayette at the Garden of Tranquillity in Oakmont Memorial Park.

Volunteers will polish grave markers and make sure the grounds are in good care.

"We need to have respect for and take care of our departed," said Frank Winer, co-coordinator of the cemetery cleanup. "It's our cemetery, and we feel we need to take care of it."