Abraham Joshua Heschel said that his “legs were praying,” as he marched arm-in-arm with Martin Luther King, Jr. across the Pettus Bridge from Selma to Montgomery, Ala. They made history; the photo of the bearded rabbi and the dapper minister has become iconic, just as Heschel’s words celebrate the idea that Judaism and action are intertwined.
It was an idea that appealed to many young Jews in the early 1960s, energized by the winds of change. They found their Jewish calling in helping the social justice movement of the era.
The legacy of this sort of Jewish engagement with the wider community continues, and you hear it today in the language JCCs have adopted regarding tikkun olam, or repairing the world.
In 2009, Martin Luther King Day was dedicated as a day of service nationwide. Here are ways that some of our JCCs continue the pursuit of social justice as they commemorate the legacy of Martin Luther King on Jan. 19.
A community partnership
For the past four years, the Jewish Community Center of Northern Virginia has partnered with Volunteer Fairfax on their Give Together program — a family volunteer day. The program, which takes place on MLK Day of Service, is designed to bring together families with elementary school aged children to work on service projects that support neighborhood charitable efforts. Additionally, it serves as an effective model for our JCC to partner with an outside organization as a way to build community and connection.
In addition to the benefits to the greater community, Give Together provides parents the opportunity to teach their children the values of volunteering and tikkun olam, by giving back to the community. The day, which typically draws more than 300 to 500 participants, beautifully aligns with several of our J’s core values: inclusion, partnership, tikkun olam, respect and empathy, and being inviting and embracing.
The logistics for the event are multi-tiered. Volunteer Fairfax coordinates and funds the program. The JCC of Northern Virginia hosts the event at our center. In addition to the J and Volunteer Fairfax, there are typically three additional Northern Virginia organizations that also provide service projects and on-site staff to give directions and information on the project beneficiary.
The excitement of the day begins as soon as families arrive at our J. They have the opportunity to participate in one, two or all three community service experiences (each taking about 20 minutes). Project ideas include making “busy craft bags” for children in area hospitals and shelters; making dog toys for animal shelters; and creating “bouquets of love” for seniors and women living in shelters. The event is held on one side of our gymnasium so that we can maintain that sense of community where participants are working side-by-side and engaging in conversation about what they are doing.
The day brings together people from diverse backgrounds and cultures, and helps us to be a visible and integral part of the larger community.
Laurie Albert is director of community engagement at the Jewish Community Center of Northern Virginia.
Seeing how others live
The Oshman Family Jewish Community Center in Palo Alto, CA is getting ready for its 8th annual Mitzvah Day on Jan. 19 as part of the national day of community service in honor of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.
Volunteers of all faiths and ages are welcome to participate in more than 30 projects addressing issues of poverty, hunger, housing and homelessness, aging, the environment and more. Our first Mitzvah Day attracted 150 participants in 2007. Last year, we had almost 1,000 volunteers from all over the Bay Area.
This day brings meaning to a lot of our other programs. We are here as a community; we work together; we learn together; we serve together. We especially encourage children to take part in Mitzvah Day, because so many of the children in Silicon Valley are very privileged, and grow up not knowing the world around them. Mitzvah Day exposes them to a different side of life while teaching the values of volunteerism and philanthropy — the Jewish concept of tikkun olam.
Luba Palant is the Director of Community Engagement at the Oshman Family JCC in Palo Alto.
A serious commitment to service
For Martin Luther King, Jr. Day this year, the DCJCC’s Behrend Builders program will organize more than 100 volunteers to paint and repair Adam’s Place, a shelter that provides a hot meal, a shower and place to sleep to adult men in need of getting off the street. Throughout the year, DCJCC staff Randy Bacon, director of Behrend Builders, and Mil Dranoff, this year’s Avodah Corps member, scout the city for home, school, or shelter repair projects and work in partnership with organizations throughout the city to connect volunteers with sites in need.
The DCJCC has a robust year-round community service program highlighted by four days committed to dedicating time to others. Two of these are on nationally and internationally recognized days of service: Martin Luther King Jr. Day and Good Deeds Day, a project locally managed in partnership with the Jewish Federation of Greater Washington. The other two programs are Everything But the Turkey on the days leading up to Thanksgiving, and D25, which takes place on Christmas Day.
All year, the Jewish values of tikkun olam and g’milut chasidim, or acts of loving kindness, are animated by the thousands of volunteers the DCJCC organizes to help those in need. Not only do our volunteers have an impact on the lives of others, they often find themselves changed by the experience.
The DCJCC is a community center in every sense of the word, and it is certainly in service to the community that surrounds it. It is on us to support those who need it, be it through the thousands of servings of food we provide annually, the hundreds of handmade winter-wear we provide every Christmas Day, or the shelter we will brighten up this MLK Day.
Erica Steen is director of community engagement at the Washington DCJCC.