There are many reasons that people join a synagogue: to teach Torah to future generations, to find spiritual sustenance, to connect with community, and to find an anchor in Jewish tradition and peoplehood. So many Jews and Jewish families today, seeing themselves as inheritors of Prophetic Judaism’s call to justice, also join to collectively act with others to transform our world.
Congregation Or Ami, like many other synagogues, understands that for Jews particularly, the driving need within toward justice and compassion begs for an outlet. Yet sometimes we are so overwhelmed by the brokenness we see in our society. Then we fall into compassion fatigue, when it feels too difficult to sustain the urge to repair the world because there is just too much to do.
Hosting 3 Mitzvah Days a Year
So Or Ami organizes and facilitates a series of Mitzvah Days, so that Jews and Jewish families can easily overcome compassion fatigue. Our Mitzvah Days – currently we run three per year (and dream of creating a total of six):
Mitzvah Day November: Comfort Bags for Foster Kids, packing comfort bags for 400+ kids who will be brought to emergency foster care
Mitzvah Day December: Childspree, taking at risk youth on a holiday shopping spree at Kohl’s department store, and
Mitzvah Day April, creating a Social Action Carnival for at risk youth and our Or Ami youth.
We gather together congregants and community guests, allowing them to rise up out of their sloth to engage in significant social justice work. Inspired and informed by various organizations, including New Directions for Youth, the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism, Jewish World Watch, Union for Reform Judaism’s Just Congregations, and Jewish Federation/Valley Alliance, we invite people to regularly act upon the justice imperative.
Becoming a Beit Tikkun Olam
What happens when 385 people gather for one holy purpose, for a Mitzvah Day? The synagogue becomes a Beit Tikkun Olam (a house/community dedicated to repairing the world), and participants bear witness to Jewish values made real. We reengage people on the margins of Jewish life and deepen the commitment of those who come regularly.
So many people are transformed by the Mitzvah Day:
The chairpeople who organized the Mitzvah Day project – Laurie Tragen-Boykoff and Cathy Spencer – and those who volunteered to set up and work the project. People who donated over 10,000 items and those who gave tzedakah to sponsor the day. People assembled the comfort bags and the social workers from three agencies who have the joy of giving the comfort bags to children in need. And especially those innocent children, who in the midst of darkness, experience the love and compassion of people who they do not even know.
Inspiring Reflections on Mitzvah Day
When people reflect upon their experience at Mitzvah Day, they are inspired and inspire. Read these excerpts, and then follow the links to their complete reflections:
Shelly Hiskey (mother of two):
In today’s world of rushing from one activity to the next, it was a true joy to work as a family for a project that would help kids in dire situations. And as is the case with so many of these projects the true gift came back to all of us. We all left at the end of the day exhausted but happy knowing that we spent some constructive Jewish time together doing something that would help others. (Read Shelly’s Mitzvah Day reflection)
Jonathan Levy (father of two):
Mitzvah Day also helps my wife and me to teach our children about compassion and action. It is one thing to hear about others who have to suffer through turmoil but it is quite a different thing to lift your hands and do something about it. (Read Jonathan’s Mitzvah Day reflection)
Abby Gore (LoMPTY teen):
When my family participated in the Mishpacha learning program, we learned about Rabbi Moses Maimonides’ Ladder of Tzedakah (charitable giving), which states the levels of giving, from least to most holy. We learned that one of the holiest ways to give is to do so anonymously, so that neither the giver nor receiver knows the identity of the other. (Read Abby’s Mitzvah Day reflection)
Ken Meyer (empty nester):
When it came time to artistically personalize a pillowcase to put in the comfort bag, I opted to write words of encouragement instead. I left that Mitzvah Day with a deep sense of community and proud to be part of Or Ami’s caring community. (Read Ken’s Mitzvah Day reflection)
Marsha Austin (a non-Jewish guest who heard about Mitzvah Day, and wants to replicate it in schools):
Dear Laurie, Thank you SOOOO much for letting us visit Mitzvah Day yesterday. What you do there truly is a mitzvah, and an inspiration. I’ve organized a lot of school and service events over the past several years, and I’ve never seen anything like this: Truly every single detail shines out with the thought, energy and love you and your community put into it. (Read Marsha Austin’s Mitzvah Day letter)
That’s why we run Mitzvah Days to transform transform the world. Along the way, we engage Jewish individuals and families and we transform each other as well.
4 Essential Elements of a Successful Mitzvah Day
A single social action project will not cure compassion fatigue, but by anchoring Mitzvah Days within our Beit Tikkun Olam, like Or Ami’s Center for Tikkun Olam strives to do, we have the best chance of being effective. Thus each Mitzvah Day guides people to involve themselves in an annual Tikkun Olam calendar that also includes feeding the hungry, clothing the naked, supporting those recovering from addictions, standing up against genocide, mentoring at risk youth, fighting prejudice, supporting Israel, fighting anti-semitism, embracing people with disabilities and more.
Along the way, we have discovered four essential elements of the synagogue as an effective Beit Tikkun Olam:
- Visioning: Articulate a passionate vision of a world that is compassionate and just
- Teaching: Illuminate Jewish tradition’s social justice imperative and connect this imperative to the active social justice work
- Organizing: Organize regular, imaginative projects to transform the world
- Connecting: Help individuals connect with others while they work to create a more perfect world.
Remember, as we learn in Pirkei Avot (the Sayings of our Ancestors), “The work is hard, the days are long…” and while “we don’t have to finish the work, neither are we free to desist from it.” And, to quote one of the social workers who will distribute the bags, “My heart just keeps overfilling with feelings that your congregation triggers. There is so much love flowing from your hearts. The God of Israel is showing God’s presence through all of your actions.”
Amen and Amen.
What was your experience at Mitzvah Day?
Share your reflections in the comment section below.