Sukkot in April draws workers who give time to myriad causes

Proving the old saw that busy people make the best volunteers, this year's Sukkot in April is drawing on a number of people who give their talents to multiple causes.

The program, now in its fourth year, is affiliated with Christmas in April, a nationwide volunteer effort. On Sunday, April 30, Jewish volunteers in both San Francisco and the East Bay will spend the day continuing the work of Christmas in April, renovating, repairing and painting homes and nonprofit facilities that serve those in need.

The San Francisco volunteer effort is being coordinated by the S.F.-based Jewish Family and Children's Services, with more than 15 synagogues and Jewish agencies pitching in.

Laura Lowe, a San Francisco attorney for a title insurance company, has been volunteering for Sukkot in April since its inception in 1997. As volunteer coordinator at Congregation Sha'ar Zahav, she has pulled together 50 workers from the San Francisco Reform synagogue.

"I study each project with our construction expert," she said. "For example, this year one of our recipients is…about 60 years old and lives in Bayview Hunter's Point. We'll be painting, doing yard work, repairing light fixtures and bathroom tile, and repairing siding on the back of the house. I had to meet with the contractor and explain the level of skills in our volunteers."

In addition, Lowe has spent an intensive month lobbying for food donations for the volunteers as they spend a long day at each work site.

"Whatever I can't get donated," she said, "I get members of the congregation to cook. I also pick up our commemorative T-shirts. On the day of the great event, I get everyone motivated, bring them beverages and keep them happy."

Lowe, who also chairs her synagogue's social action committee, says the Sukkot in April program is different from her other volunteer projects.

"It's so hands-on," she said. "You walk in and see the place when it's really in need and by the end of the day, just one day, it looks so astonishingly better. In the past we've done large facilities, but this year we are doing a house. It's so much more personal; it's sweeter."

Jane Kahn, a San Francisco prisoners' rights attorney, has also volunteered with Sukkot in April from its inception. She has worked with other volunteers from Brandeis Hillel Day School.

"Back in 1997 we took on the Fellowship Academy, a private Christian school in the Excelsior District, which was in a working- and middle-class African-American neighborhood. We had over 120 volunteers, including 30 to 40 people from the school itself," Kahn said.

The following year, she worked at Grattan playground in the Upper Haight. "A wonderful San Francisco muralist named Peter Collins painted the playground walls like old caves, with children creating stencils," she said.

"Last year we fixed up the Daniel Webster school on Potrero Hill, with Peter Collins painting an incredible underwater scene. Working with people from Beth Israel-Judea and people from the school, we landscaped and cleaned up the whole area."

This year's project is at Brooks Park, located near Junipero Serra and 19th Avenue.

"It's a gem of a park looking down on Daly City from a hill," Kahn said. "But it's been overrun in the past with drug dealers and gangs. We're working with five people from the neighborhood who have been faithfully painting over graffiti. We're working together to create a multi-language brochure to see if we can get a larger group committed to taking back the park. This reaching-out goes beyond our volunteer work in the past. We're trying to spearhead a movement."

Liz Brown, a San Francisco attorney, will be working on Sukkot in April for the second year. She'll be organizing volunteers from her synagogue, Conservative Beth Sholom, to work on the home of an elderly woman and her two sons in South San Francisco. Thirty volunteers will install new cabinets, paint and fix a shower that's been broken since 1971.

Last year, Brown was fairly new to San Francisco and served as social action chair for the young adults group at her synagogue. Working on Sukkot in April helped her build connections in the community. She has also been a participant in the New Leaders Project, a program of the S.F.-based Jewish Community Relations Council that trains young adults to take leadership roles.

This year, she said, "the whole Sukkot in April effort is better organized" and more of a team effort. "We're just motivated greatly by the success of last year's project…Last year it was very new to me, and frustrating to me because it's a lot of work, [but] in the end, it's a really amazing experience."

Eric Altman participates in the New Leaders Project as well as the S.F.-based Jewish Community Federation's Young Adults Division.

This year he will be working with young adults from the New Leadership Project and San Francisco's Congregation Sherith Israel. The group will work on a home in the Outer Sunset.

Altman, who does surety bonding, has volunteered with Sukkot in April since 1997, two years after he moved to San Francisco. Last year, he served as a construction captain with the YAD group.

"The spirit of all the volunteers, getting into it and just doing what they are asked to do, finishing it and asking, 'What can we do next?' is a wonderful thing to see and be a part of," he said.