by Laine Mednick Rutherford
They thought it could work, but the diverse members of the 1st Annual Mitzvah Day VA organizing committee weren’t 100 percent sure that the community would show up to participate in five planned projects on Sunday, Sept. 21.
The committee was comprised of representatives from almost all area synagogues and Jewish agencies who were graduates of the ATID leadership course presented by the United Jewish Federation of Tidewater earlier in the year.
Enthused by what they learned in the course and inspired by one another, the group decided to put into practice their new skills. They planned a day when every member of the Jewish community could be involved and give what they could—be it time, materials or financial donations.
Led by chairs Karen and Matt Fine, Mitzvah Day projects included: making paracord bracelets for and writing letters to U.S. and Israeli soldiers through Operation Gratitude; cleaning up Beach Garden Park with Lynnhaven River Now Project; visiting residents of Beth Sholom Village; supporting juvenile diabetes research at the JDRF Walk at the Oceanfront; and handcrafting blankets and assembling lunches for the homeless with Blankets for the Homeless.
“We accomplished what we set out to do…Build Community by coming together as One!” the Fines wrote in an email the day after the event.
“Our collective efforts made a big difference to our larger community in so many significant ways. We truly enjoyed working with all of you and making good things happen.”
More than 300 people participated in the projects, and about 200 came to the Simon Family JCC afterward for a pool party and cookout.
Marcia Brodie, chair of the L’dor V’dor project at Beth Sholom Village, says that all of those who registered to participate came, and even more showed up. Activities included decorating cookies and creating fall cards, playing Bingo and visiting with residents.
There were immediate effects, Brodie says. “We had a great day at Beth Sholom Village Mitzvah Day! Many families commented on how nice our facility was and they had no idea that we did so many things with our residents. A family of four filled out applications to become regular volunteers with us, and the Bina High school students talked about what a great time they had.”
At Beach Garden Park, 12-year-old Ethan Richardson and his family were among those who scoured the park for trash, debris and anything that was harming wildlife and the environment.
The group found water bottles and cigarette butts, lots of litter, a random shoe and evidence that many homeless people were living in the less visible areas of the Park.
“This has been a better experience than I thought it could be,” says Ethan. “Doing this project gives you a feeling of making a difference. We helped animals and wildlife survive, and they can live another day. Something else, too, is that we’re able to help the homeless people. Even though I’ve been here before, I never noticed them. I’m glad we could help.”
Organizers had heard there were homeless living at the park near the Oceanfront and received a grant to provide lunches, healthy snacks, light clothing and blankets— provided by another Mitzvah Day organization, Blankets for the Homeless.
Pam Northam, the Pearl Faith & Business Program Coordinator for Lynnhaven River NOW, was at the Park to help provide information, keep participants safe and tally the results of the dozens of Mitzvah Day volunteers.
“Through the Pearl Faith Community, Lynnhaven River NOW reaches out to the faith community throughout Virginia Beach to help them become better stewards of their buildings and grounds by becoming more sustainable,” says Northam. “At Beach Garden Park, families became Citizen Scientists, as they also collected data for the International Coastal Cleanup (and Clean Virginia Waterways). The data, taken from sites all over the world, throughout September and October is used to combat sources of litter by identifying trends.
“Within the small park, they collected 363 cigarette butts, 100 drink cans, 69 glass bottles, 57 plastic bottles, 83 plastic bags, a grocery cart, a urinary catheter and The Hobbit (in Russian )!
“Not content with just helping wild animals and their habitats,” Northam says, “they were also concerned with improving the lives and safety of their fellow humans.
They generously brought food and blankets for the homeless population that often passes through the park. Now those are extraordinary deeds, indeed!”
Collection totals for the day were 11 bags of trash and 10 bags of recyclables equaling 133 pounds of cleared debris.
Later, at the Mitzvah Day Pool Party and Cookout, families, singles, young and old, who had all worked together during the afternoon, came to eat and continue to have fun.
As her son Jason played with his friends, Brooke Steward said being able to participate in the JRDF Walk was great for her son. One of Jason’s friends, and a Beth Chaverim member, Joshua Weiner, died from the disease last year.
“Seeing our children work hard to get donations to fight this disease, and then to see them run and be so proud of themselves as members of the Mitzvah Day Team and Joshua’s Maccabees, was great,” said Steward.
Karen Jaffe, chair of the 2015 UJFT Annual Campaign, thanked everyone at the party for their participation, not just that day, and not just the full week of activities that preceded it, but for their support of the Jewish community in Tidewater, and on college campuses, and in Ukraine, and in Israel, all year long.
“Your involvement in the community, and your gifts to the Annual Campaign, will keep our community strong, will let our kids know what’s important, and will provide incredibly important services to Jews all over the world. I thank you all,” said Jaffe.
The Week of Extraordinary Deeds began with a Campaign Kick Off event featuring actors portraying historic Zionist role models Theodor Herzl and Golda Meir on Monday, Sept. 15.
It continued with the community connecting virtually on the UJFT Facebook page (fb.com/UJFTidewater), where photo albums were posted and the community was invited to do small acts of kindness that could have significant impact on others. More than 3,000 people visited the page that week.
Additional good deeds took the form of personal conversations among dozens of community members. Common among these conversations was a commitment to a vibrant Jewish Tidewater, a strong Israel and vital Jewish life around the globe. They trusted each other, shared concerns, expressed solutions and spoke of their hopes and vision for the Jewish people.
They sat across from one another and asked each other to make a commitment to the 2015 Annual Campaign. They knew that their responsibility had just begun, and ultimately they hoped that all of Jewish Tidewater would be engaged in such conversations and taking such actions.
One person told Harry Graber, UJFT executive vice president during a conversation that, “in dreams begin responsibilities and acting upon our dreams with one another is a very Jewish thing to do.”
These face to face, personal conversations successfully created powerful moments of communal dedication and brought in an increased number of donations compared to last year’s Week of Extraordinary Deeds.
In restaurants, at homes and in other locales, the 61 discussions held over the five-day period raised $1.5 million, an 11 percent increase ($143,000 in real terms) to the 2015 Annual Campaign.
Overall, the Week of Extraordinary Deeds was just that, says Miles Leon, UJFT president.
There’s one word for it, and that’s extraordinary. Let’s remember why we have a Federation—to build a strong Jewish community here, to help the most vulnerable among us, and to support Israel and other Jews around the world.”
—To see more photos from the Week of Extraordinary Deeds, like the UJFT on Facebook, and search for the hashtag #extraordinaryva. To make a donation to the 2015 Annual Campaign, visit JewishVA.org, or call 965-6100 for more information.