Mitzvah days: No longer just a once-a-year thing

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Marilyn Hirsch thinks mitzvot should be performed more frequently than oil changes.

Since signing on nine years ago as a volunteer for Lafayette Temple Isaiah’s first Mitzvah Day, she’s been spending way more time organizing support programs for the homeless than fretting about the automotive needs of her Jeep Grand Cherokee.

“Mitzvah Day is not a once-a-year thing,” said Hirsch, echoing a sentiment that’s increasingly being shared — and acted on — by congregants throughout the Bay Area.

The 51-year-old Walnut Creek resident, who works as a tutor, started with a stint helping friends coordinate a Mitzvah Day lunch for a Concord homeless shelter.

That evolved into regular volunteer projects that included coordinating monthly bag lunches for the homeless, weekly snack deliveries for homeless teens and, most recently, an effort to collect gifts, toiletries and other items for the needy.

Hirsch, who insists “I’m not the super volunteer,” isn’t the only one to catch the mitzvah bug.

At Isaiah, as well as Congregations Rodef Sholom in San Rafael, Sherith Israel in San Francisco and at synagogues in the South Bay, popular Mitzvah Day activities are morphing into regular volunteer exercises for many congregants.

“That’s one of the objects of mitzvah days, that it’s not once a year,” says Moji Javid, program director at Rodef Sholom, which launched the Bay Area’s first mitzvah day a decade ago.

The synagogue’s most recent event drew more than 700 participants tackling 40 projects — and inspired some to sign on for regular volunteer activities throughout the year.

Alison Schlosser, a 41-year-old architect from San Rafael, delivered food to homebound people for Meals of Marin at the Oct. 26 Mitzvah Day. Now, she and husband Peter, along with 11-year-old son Alec, have decided to organize deliveries as a monthly family activity.

“I don’t know, it just clicked with me,” said Schlosser, who delivered food to the homes of seven or eight people in Novato. The coordinated effort enables people battling AIDS, cancer and other potentially life-threatening illnesses to stay in their homes — a cause that resonated with Schlosser.

“I thought it was really great that our community has something like that,” she said.

In the past, volunteer projects have “always been sporadic,” she said. “I’m at that point in my life where I think I want to do this on an ongoing basis. It’s something we have the time to do on those Sundays and we’ll make the time to do it.”

Noting that her son is preparing for a bar mitzvah in a little over a year, Schlosser said Alec would likely choose the meal program as his coming-of-age project.

At Javid’s suggestion, Sharry Schwarzbart, a 59-year-old San Rafael resident, brought her music chavurah to a nearby nursing home for last year’s Mitzvah Day. The singers returned for encore performances last February, July and then again for October’s Mitzvah Day.

The Rodef Sholom Singers vow to continue holding regular gigs at the Fifth Avenue Health Care Center.

“It was such a high for us because we could tell they were really enjoying what we did,” said Schwarzbart, whose group performed a variety of Jewish and show tunes.

“They liked the show tunes better.” she added.

“We are not a performing group, per se,” said Schwarzbart, a soprano. “We are a group of people who got together because we like to sing.”

But she said the reaction from her audience of 15 to 20 residents was inspiring. “I would say if you’re going to do something, it’s much better to continue to have a relationship with the people you’re involved with. You get a deeper relationship than if you just show up once a year.”

Fellow congregant Liz Wallerstein didn’t know what to expect five years ago when she first signed up to make dinner for a Marin shelter for abused women, some of whom are recovering substance abusers.

“I really didn’t know what I was getting into,” said the 62-year-old San Rafael resident. “I also didn’t know how emotional it would be,” said Wallerstein of the connections she’s made over the years.

After this year’s visit, Wallerstein and other volunteers began exploring the possibility of making more frequent visits to the center. “I think it helps them get connected with the outside world,” and to “feel good about themselves.”

And that’s reason enough for Wallerstein to want to become more active at the shelter. “It makes me feel I’m doing something very worthwhile.”

It’s a similar story for Denise Glicklin of Lafayette, who recently started celebrating Shabbat once a month with elderly residents at a Walnut Creek senior apartment complex.

Glicklin, a 47-year-old teacher’s aide and congregant at Temple Isaiah, said the project grew out of a discussion at a recent social action committee meeting about “extending Mitzvah Day out.”

The first month, about 20 residents of the Byron apartments gathered to light candles, eat challah and sip wine with Glicklin and her friend, Sheri Miller. In November, about 28 people showed up and pledged to bring their own chanukiot for December’s gathering.

“It feels like the right thing to do,” Glicklin said of the regular connections she’s making. “The Jewish thing to do.”