Mitzvah days require planning, but not reinventing the wheel

Planning a mitzvah day for your congregation? Here's a tip: Don't wait until the last minute to get organized.

So say veterans of mitzvah-day projects at synagogues throughout the Bay Area. Growing in popularity, the events typically give congregants a chance to work on a variety of community service projects, from feeding the homeless to picking up litter on a beach.

At Congregation Rodef Sholom in San Rafael, preparations for the annual October project start in April.

"It's a full seven months," said Rhonda Daniels, co-chair of last fall's sixth annual mitzvah day, which drew more than 800 participants to 50 activities.

Despite the big time commitment, Daniels and others say the preparations are well worth the effort.

"The major joy is the actual day itself," said Steve Weinzimmer, coordinator of the mitzvah day at Lafayette's Temple Isaiah. "There's just so much enthusiasm. You feel like you're actually making a difference."

There are other payoffs, as well: building a sense of community among congregants and giving them a taste of volunteer projects that can be undertaken year-round.

A mitzvah day is "a wonderful way for new members to get involved," Daniels said. "It's a nice way to meet people."

If your congregation wants to start a mitzvah day of its own, here are suggestions on pulling the event together:

*Start planning early and get people to help.

Daniels encourages those planning a mitzvah day to form a strong committee of six to 10 people. She recommends that organizers divvy up responsibilities such as contacting service agencies, handling publicity, developing a brochure and working with activity coordinators.

*Select projects carefully.

Organizers say you should choose a variety of activities that will be appropriate for everyone. Finding the right jobs for families with young children and for elderly congregants is especially tough.

One year at Rodef Sholom, one of the projects involved repairing the congregation's prayerbooks — an ideal job for older members. For youngsters and parents, a popular activity was designing greeting cards that were delivered to residents of nursing homes.

Look for a good mix of indoor and outdoor projects. Outdoor activities, such as working at Slide Ranch along the Marin coast, tend to be quite popular. Coordinators say it's important, though, to have backup plans in case of rain.

"You want to make sure the project is doable," cautions Jan Luxenberg, co-coordinator of mitzvah day at Rodef Sholom. "If [an agency is] saying, 'We want you to paint a school top to bottom,' that's not doable."

Make sure the scope of the project can be accomplished in the two- to three-hour time frame normally allotted for mitzvah-day activities.

On the flip side, Daniels warns against diluting projects by assigning too many people to one activity. "If all you do is chop an onion because there were three times as many people in the kitchen [as needed], then no one feels good about it," she said.

*Don't reinvent the wheel.

The Religious Action Center, part of the Union of American Hebrew Congregations, has a manual for putting together a mitzvah day. It's available for $2.50 by calling (202) 387-2800 or e-mailing [email protected]

Lori Hope, who coordinated the first mitzvah day at Alameda's Temple Israel last fall, got help from the Volunteer Action Center at the Jewish Federation of the Greater East Bay. The center keeps lists of agencies that need volunteers. It also has a networking group of social-action chairpeople from various congregations, some of which have already staged mitzvah days.

"It was really helpful because we didn't have to reinvent the wheel," Hope said. A highly popular activity — doing cleanup at the Oakland Zoo — came from a tip through the center, she said.

Coordinators also can get referrals to local service agencies from synagogue members or from community volunteer centers.

*Give congregants a choice of activities and enough time to select them.

Rodef Sholom puts together a brochure that describes each activity and asks participants to choose their top three. Congregants are given about five weeks to reply. If any programs are filled by then, organizers call volunteers directly to ask them to make a different choice.

*Consider kicking off the event with a breakfast and short prayer service.

The gathering helps build enthusiasm and community, organizers say.

"When you watch the power of community when you have 600 to 700 people in the sanctuary, it's almost awe-inspiring," Weinzimmer said.

Rodef Sholom one year tried to get participants to return after the event for a barbecue, but found that less successful, probably because people were tired or had other plans for the rest of the day.

*Be flexible.

"Don't kill yourself," Hope advises. "People are so busy. I think you just have to be accepting that things can take a little longer" or that original plans may need to be revised.