Mitzvah Day volunteers across Bay Area act in spirit of MLK

Jenny Gurev probably still has the scent of oranges on her.

The 17-year-old Sacramento high school senior was one of 70 United Synagogue Youth volunteers who helped pack oranges — 30,000 pounds of them — at the San Francisco Food Bank on Jan. 17.


Joan Picken (left) and Jillian Muirhead of Congregation Shir Hadash build playhouses for Habitat for Humanity.

It was part of her USY chapter’s third annual Mini Mission Mitzvah Day, one of scores of similar events hosted by synagogues and Jewish organizations across the Bay Area to mark Martin Luther King Jr. Day.


The holiday has evolved into a day of service for many faith communities. Pulpit exchanges, synagogue and beach cleanups, visits to senior residences and food donations all figured into the many activities organized by Jewish groups.

For Gurev, who serves as USY Northern California regional social action vice president, the orange packing project was both fun and useful. Teens packed two buses for the ride to San Francisco.

“There were huge bins of oranges,” she said. “By the end of two hours, we had boxed 30,000 pounds going to distribution sites.”

At San Jose’s Temple Emanu-El, more than 200 volunteers turned out for Mitzvah Day, the synagogue’s annual MLK Day service event. Bob Levy, chair of the tikkun olam committee, said activities included assembling hygiene kits for the homeless, making blankets for dogs at the Humane Society, serving dinner at a women’s shelter and visiting seniors at Chai House in San Jose.

“We had 20 volunteers and residents all playing board games,” Levy said. “There were some real Scrabble experts there.”


Jared McGhee and Jessica Sternfeld (front left), both of Congregation Beth Ami in Santa Rosa, sort and box oranges with fellow USYers at the San Francisco-Marin Food Bank.

At the temple, a number of local nonprofits set up booths to share information about their work in the community. So many congregants showed up, Levy said new activities, such as temple cleanup projects, were created on the spot.


The Oshman Family JCC organized one of the community’s more ambitious Mitzvah Day schedules. The Jan. 18 itinerary included 32 volunteer opportunities, most held at the JCC and several off-site.

“Everyone was extremely enthusiastic,” noted JCC community engagement director Luba Palant, who said more than 900 people volunteered. “Every single room was taken over. In our theater we had four different projects at the same time.”

They tackled such projects as packing brown bag lunches for the homeless with HomeFirst, creating activity kits for patients at nearby Lucile Packard Children’s Hospital and visiting seniors at the Moldaw Residences’ memory care unit. Some of the younger volunteers made toys and pillows for shelter cats and dogs. Off-site, volunteers planted wildflower seeds on the ocean dunes and bluffs in Half Moon Bay, weeded nonnative species with Save the Bay in Oakland, and planted trees in East Palo Alto.

In the North Bay, Rabbi Lee Bycel of Congregation Beth Shalom of Napa Valley addressed an interfaith service at St. John the Baptist Catholic Church, reminding attendees that King himself was “about service to your community and making a difference.”

The service was followed by hundreds of volunteers from Beth Shalom and other houses of worship helping to restore oak woodlands, repair earthquake-damaged homes and plant vegetables at a local elementary school.

Back in the South Bay, volunteers with ENGAJ, a Jewish young adult organization sponsored by the Oshman Family JCC and Hillel at Stanford, painted the interior of the Edgewood Center for Children and Families in San Mateo, and assembled cabinets and shelves.

ENGAJ fellow Dolev Zaharony said it was an amazing experience for the volunteers. “We ended up staying a lot later because we were having fun,” he said.  “At the end of the day you feel better because you actually did something, and you can see the change.”

Dan Pine

Dan Pine is a contributing editor at J. He was a longtime staff writer at J. and retired as news editor in 2020.