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Mitzvah Day brings together members of the Jewish community

by Amy Kingsley

Rabbi Andy Koren watched from the rear of a wire fenced garden as a teenage volunteer pushed a roto tiller over a raised garden bed, churning the clumpy soil.

Koren and his squad of volunteers undertook this upheaval in Temple Emanuel’s Mitzvah Garden in the spirit of Tikkun Olam ‘— a Jewish concept that roughly translates into ‘“repairing the world.’” The garden, which occupies a corner of the synagogue’s sizable lot, grows a variety of vegetables during the summer months that are harvested and given to Greensboro’s Urban Ministry.

The project was just one of 45 undertaken by more than 500 participants on April 2 for the 10th annual Mitzvah Day. Volunteers from Temple Emanuel, Beth David Synagogue, the American Hebrew Academy, Greensboro Jewish Federation, Hadassah, Hillel and Jewish Family Services worked together on projects championed by different members of the community.

‘“Mitzvah means a commandment,’” said Rabbi Fred Guttman, ‘“but it also means a loving engagement with God. The concept is: do I wait for the spirit of God to move me to do these things, or do I do the thing in the hope that I will feel divine inspiration?’”

Temple Emanuel hosted the first Mitzvah Day 10 years ago as a project designed both to improve the community and the temple members’ spiritual connection. Repairing the world through social activism leads to Tikkun Nefesh, another Jewish concept that means ‘“repairing the soul.’”

In that spirit, Annette Davis and Grace Sheldon checked on pans of lasagna they were assembling for Triad Health Project. The women arrived at 8 a.m. to start cooking, with the goal of delivering 15 pans of the layered pasta to the organization by early afternoon. A five-person assembly line worked on the project.

‘“Everybody gives of their heart and soul for this,’” Sheldon said.

Upstairs about a dozen volunteers ranging from elementary to retirement age assembled fanciful hats to be taken to a nearby assisted-living facility. Feather, sparkles and fabric strips littered the tables as volunteers put the finishing touches on their sparkling creations. Susan Sassman and Karen Best operate the company that takes hat projects into the community as therapy for cancer patients, nursing home residents and others. Residents of Abbottswood Assisted Living were slated to receive the batch of hats.

Chris Spaulding, the vice-chair of the planning committee, said the turnout this year beat previous records. He was part of the committee that connected project champions with local agencies.

‘“We call up local agencies to find out what they need,’” Spaulding said.

Then letters go out to community members asking for volunteers. Once the connections have been made, temple members often volunteer throughout the year, not just on Mitzvah Day.The response on Sunday was so large that Rabbi Guttman couldn’t collect the entire crowd for a group photo staged out on a lawn facing the American Hebrew Academy across the street. Many volunteers also worked the Friday before Mitzvah Day to prepare projects for volunteers set to arrive the following Sunday.

The weather cooperated fully with the outdoor projects planned for the day. Some volunteers fanned out to fill bird feeders at the Bicentennial Gardens, others did odd jobs at animal rescue agencies while the Mitzvah Gardeners prepared raised beds in the summery heat.

‘“If you have a field, you are supposed to leave the corners of the field for those that are poor,’” Rabbi Koren said. ‘“Everything we grow here, all that we plant goes to feed the hungry.’”

In a couple of months, tomatoes, peppers, pole beans, corn and other vegetables from this garden will be ready for delivery to the shelter.

‘“We have at least 100 more people than last year,’” Rabbi Guttman said. ‘“It’s very possible we have at least 600 people here. This concept is really taking root and I’m very proud of our community.’”

To comment on this story, e-mail Amy Kingsley at amy@yesweekly.com

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