Mitzvah Day builds ties between kids, Berkeley shelter

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Some 20 families participated in the event, which Hurvich organized with the assistance of the Volunteer Action Center of the Jewish Federation of the Greater East Bay. The turnout far exceeded Hurvich's expectations: Approximately 60 volunteers of all ages spent a Sunday at one of the three sites. The majority either helped clean up Damon Marsh in Oakland or packed supplies at Books for the Barrios' warehouse in Concord.

A small group — two boys and two girls, each with a parent — spent the afternoon at the Berkeley Emergency Food and Housing Shelter, preparing and serving lunch to its residents. The experience resonated for everyone involved, so much so that they're continuing their involvement.

"They were so jazzed," said Hurvich, who was greatly enthused herself about the school's first Mitzvah Day under her wing. "It brought tears to my eyes to hear them say: 'When can we do this again?'

"In our community, one of the cornerstones is social action," Hurvich continued.

Now in her second year with the school, Hurvich sought to build that solid component into the foundation of the religious school program, even beyond the tikkun olam project required of bar and bat mitzvah students. Wanting to know, "How can we get our values into the program?" Hurvich may have found her answer.

"I really liked it," said Rebekah Swain-Sugarman of her experience at the shelter. "I enjoyed it, doing a good deed. And it was fun at the same time. That just makes it better…"

The shelter is for homeless women and children, though the first day the Kehilla group volunteered was a beautiful one, so most of the children were outside playing. The eight Kehilla volunteers quickly got to work; the adults cooked "at an old-fashioned stove," according to Rebekah, while the kids made fruit salad and a green salad. They all helped to serve.

But before they rolled up their sleeves to work, the volunteers were escorted on a tour of the three-story facility. "I thought it was pretty nice," said Rebekah, an Oakland resident. "I wouldn't like to live there…but I'd live there for a while."

It is, in fact, "a beautiful site," said her father, Michael Sugarman. And that "old-fashioned stove" his daughter described was actually a very good, large commercial oven, he explained with a laugh.

Sugarman, a social worker, was familiar with the shelter and knew some of its staff well before Kehilla's Mitzvah Day visit. Shelter residents must be clean and sober for three months prior to moving in, he said, and can stay for varying lengths of time. Various services, such as job training, are provided on the premises. Staff are always appreciative of volunteers, he said.

As for the impact on his daughter, who has done volunteer work on previous occasions, "it's always good to be out in the community," Sugarman said, "to see how people are actually surviving and living."

The energy was positive, he added, because the four students — Rebekah, Anna Cohen Price, Gabriel Damast and Matthew Bedrick, are all friends and are in the same class at Kehilla. And their parents all know one another as well.

Like his classmates, Matthew of Berkeley is also no stranger to volunteering, having participated in various community-service projects. But this time, according to his mother, Kathryn Seligman, "what was nice was the kids got to interact with residents of the shelter, in a very natural way. And they got thank-yous.

"I think it was a perfect mitzvah project."

When given the opportunity to keep the relationship going, they jumped at it. "We thought that it worked so well as an experience, that we agreed to do it every two months," said Seligman, an attorney who has provided legal services to the poor. "We went back in March, and we're planning to go back again." Each visit is a little different, depending on the needs of the shelter. For the kids, however, preparing the food and serving it are their favorite activities.

Their next visit is in May.

Liz Harris

Liz Harris is a J. contributor. She was J.'s culture editor from 2012-2018.