900 volunteers stitch teddies, wash cars to make a difference

From creating teddy bears for kids in Child Protective Services to cleaning up a beach, more than 900 members of Congregation Rodef Sholom spent the better part of a Sunday last month giving of themselves.

For many, the fifth annual Mitzvah Day, the San Rafael Reform synagogue's answer to National Make a Difference Day, was a family activity.

Ann Buscho brought her son David, 9, and daughter Sasha, 13, who gave up going to a party and sleepover in favor of Mitzvah Day.

In a room filled with kids and parents working happily with fabric, beads, ribbons and teddy bears at the Marin Jewish Community Center, Sasha kept busy decking out teddy bears in dresses and jewelry for kids who end up in Child Protective Services.

A Mitzvah Day participant for the past four years, Sasha also does charitable activities through Brandeis Hillel Day School, where she is in eighth grade. "It's nice to know you're helping out in the world," she said. "It's kids of all ages just doing what they can."

Twelve-year-old Allie Feder, also working with her mother and younger brother, explained why she wanted to decorate the teddy bears. "I just had this thought of these little kids that had nothing to be holding," she said. "The bear I did would be very meaningful. It would make a difference in a little kid's life."

Amid the exuberant flurry of creative activity in the room, event co-chair Joan Gosliner seemed to enjoy the atmosphere of enthusiasm. "The more that people are involved and giving, the more excited they are about what they are doing," she said. "The more we give, the more we get."

The massive event began with a bagel breakfast at the congregation's social hall. From there, teams of 10 to 15 volunteers fanned out across the county to do mitzvot.

Activities included making holiday cards and lap-robes for home- and nursing home-bound seniors, visiting seniors at local nursing homes, clearing trails on Angel Island and restoring natural habitats in Tennessee Valley and Rodeo Valley. Other volunteers helped seniors with household chores, and put in a new floor in the San Rafael Canal Ministry's kitchen.

The Mitzvah Day blood drive at the MJCC drew more than 80 donors. Self-described "card-carrying blood donor" Richard Jeweler contributed for his third year in a row. "There's really no substitute for giving blood," he said. "There is no alternative for people who need blood. It's very meaningful and personal."

Like many others, he, wife Rose, and sons Aaron, 13, and Jonathan, 10, came to the event together. On the drive over, he said, Aaron was discussing Maimonides' eight categories of tzedakah; the next-to-highest level requires both donor and recipient be anonymous. "He was commenting that what we were doing today fit into that," Jeweler said.

After spending a morning in the synagogue social hall creating holiday cards for seniors, Lily Housh, 7, a second-grader at Brookside School, said she found satisfaction in her work. "After you make the cards, you feel good about what you've done," said Lily, who has participated in Mitzvah Day since she was 3.

Volunteers joining team leader Leonard Weingarten and park rangers in clearing up McNear's Beach in Point Reyes National Seashore. There, they found hard work, satisfaction, and a rare blessing at the coast — sunshine. Weingarten, whose regular job is with the United Way, said, "I get a sense of satisfaction out of giving back."

He cited other benefits. "It's a great way to meet new temple members outside the temple environment."

Since Weingarten believes "it's good to do this with kids, he and his wife, Claudia Fromm, made sure her daughter Courtney Casabat, 13, was involved. Courtney spent the day doing a car wash to benefit the Marin AIDS Interfaith Network.

He also said his family's commitment extends throughout the year. For instance, two days a month, Fromm cooks meals at home to donate to the Mill Street Shelter in San Rafael.

"As Jews we're supposed to do mitzvahs," Weingarten said. "We're supposed to make this a better world."

The synagogue's Mitzvah Day was held in conjunction with National Make a Difference Day, with activities on Sunday instead of Saturday, to avoid violating Shabbat.

Last year the congregation received recognition from the National Make a Difference Day Committee for being one of the outstanding projects in the country.

"This is one of my favorite projects," said Moji Javid, the synagogue's program director. "People are really, really proud of this project. It's just an incredible day."