Children and adults sitting around a large table baking
Volunteers making dog biscuits at Mitzvah Day (Photo/Jessica Nemire)

Mitzvah Day brings 1,000 volunteers to community service projects

From making blankets for the homeless to planting trees at a school, more than 1,000 people participated in the Oshman Family JCC’s annual Mitzvah Day that celebrates community service on Martin Luther King Jr. Day.

This year’s Mitzvah Day included more than 30 projects, with about half on the JCC’s Palo Alto campus and off-site projects including wildlife restoration in Half Moon Bay and planting canopy trees at a school in East Palo Alto.

“There’s just an incredible energy this year. You can tell that people are excited about the opportunity to give back to the community,” said Zack Bodner, CEO of the OJFCC. “Tikkun olam is such a central part of the Jewish identity and the recognition that we want to give back, and that’s really what the JCC is making its central purpose these days.”

The on-campus portion kicked off with a keynote speech from Paul Thiebaut III, the founder of 10 Books A Home, a nonprofit in East Palo Alto that has been working since 2009 with families in high-poverty areas to start their children reading at an early age.

The projects began in midmorning and many lasted until the afternoon, giving participants a chance to work on multiple projects that were aimed at specific age groups — such as elementary-school age children, or families with preteens.

Children of all ages and their parents made blankets — the most popular activity, according to Bodner — and put together sandwiches for homeless shelters. Some of the projects were run by teens, such as making dog toys and dog biscuits for local animal shelters.

“We have a lot of youth working on these projects. I think this is the most important for me, personally, to teach our kids to volunteer from an early age,” said Luba Palant, the OFJCC’s community engagement director. “It kind of becomes second nature.”

Palant said that when her son was 8, he went to a homeless shelter to deliver a project he had made as part of Mitzvah Day and was so affected that he has been volunteering at the annual event ever since.

“That’s why I think it’s very meaningful not only to do a project here, but to learn about where the outcome goes, and possibly deliver it, and see for themselves because they don’t get it, especially living in this area, they don’t get how bad it can get,” Palant said.

Mitzvah Day has inspired a community service project, Mitzvah Corps, which gathers groups of volunteers to engage in philanthropic projects once a month.

“People said, ‘I don’t want to only do this one time a year, I want to do this regularly, and teach my kids the value of helping others,’ and that’s the benefit of being part of a place like the JCC, so it can be a hub for community service projects,” Bodner said.

“I think what we’re finding is that in Silicon Valley in particular, among our community where we are blessed to have so much, people are really looking to give to the less fortunate.”

Jessica Nemire

Jessica Nemire is a freelance writer.