Talk about a fall frenzy. At Jewish institutions, in individual homes and in public spaces, Jews across greater Philadelphia gave back like it was going out of style on Nov. 1, doing their best to put the mania in Mitzvah Mania.
How much mania are we talkin' about here? Well, there's the 4,000 pints of soup made for the hungry and the 500 flu shots dispensed. Add the 1,000 breakfast bags assembled for area seniors, along with 150 bags of emergency essentials and 50 bags of winter coats to be distributed to low-income households. Not to mention the 25 disadvantaged families "adopted" for Chanukah who, thanks to generous donations, will be equipped with holiday gift cards, supply bags and other holiday accouterments. And that's just scratching the surface.
However you add it up, that's a lot of giving. Close to 5,000 people participated in the third annual community day of service sponsored by the Jewish Federation of Greater Philadelphia, according to organizers.
Though it had rained the day before, the muddy ground and overcast skies didn't dampen spirits as roughly 200 volunteers worked in a wooded area in Morris Park, a portion of Fairmount Park located along City Avenue in the Overbrook section of Philadelphia.
They cleared brush, put down mulch, and planted tulips and daffodils in the green space that sits across Route 1 from the Raymond and Ruth Perelman Jewish Day School and the Kaiserman JCC.
"We want to try to do some beautification," said Joseph A. Caesar, a volunteer coordinator for the Fairmont Park system, adding that he's always looking for individuals and groups to help out.
Volunteers came from the Jack M. Barrack Hebrew Academy, Congregation Or Ami in Layfayette Hill, Adath Israel in Merion Station and Temple Beth Hillel/Beth El in Wynnewood, along with members of the National Honors Society at Harriton High School in Rosemont.
A group of about 50 volunteers did similar work on the grounds of the JCC itself.
Since laying down mulch isn't one of the specific mitzvot enumerated in the Torah, where, or what, is the Judaic lesson here?
"We're not going to change the entire world. But we are going to make this a more hospitable environment right here," said Rabbi Judd Kruger Levingston, who directs Jewish studies at Barrack. "We talk about the difference between tzedakah and gimilut chasidim. Tzedakah may have more to do with money and gimilut chasidim has more to do with lovingkindness," said the rabbi, adding: "This is absolutely a form of lovingkindness."
Clearing brush nearby, Barrack ninth grader Jeremy Goldfrad wasn't in the mood to philosophize, but said he was enjoying getting his hands — and on this day, his feet — dirty.
"It's a mitzvah. A mitzvah a day keeps the bad guys away," he quipped.
Harriton High School seniors Myles Dworkin, Devlin Barry and Ed Pavel decided to tackle the biggest obstacle they could find, so they removed a rotting log, one that took all their strength to haul out of the woods.
"It's all about the teamwork," said Dworkin, who attends Har Zion Temple in Penn Valley.
Nora Abel, an eighth-grader at Barrack, spent the morning cutting brush with clippers. Asked why she was there, she remained quiet for a few seconds until her mother, Seyna Abel, chimed in.
"She's doing it because her mother made her," she said, before qualifying the statement slightly. "It was not under duress. I suggested it, and she said, 'Okay.' She's got to know that she needs to take part in making a difference in the community."
In Northeast and South Philadelphia, much of the effort was focused on winterizing homes for the elderly. At the Northeast home of 96-year-old Doris Sacks, Jan Weiss of Bensalem was downstairs in thick gloves, scrubbing away dirt and grime from a window before spraying it with foam insulation to keep out the cold.
Weiss worked alongside a coterie of members from Congregation Tifereth Israel of Lower Bucks County, changing light bulbs, caulking and sealing windows, and more.
For Jackie Cohen, it was a family affair: Her daughter Julie Miller and her husband, Howard, also got in on the action.
"It wasn't initially expected to be a family thing; it was just meant to be a good deed," said Miller.
Cohen said that she wasn't sure where winterization fell on the list of the biblical mitzvot, but she was pretty sure that specifics weren't important in this situation.
"It's just giving help where it's needed — I'm sure that's a mitzvah somewhere," she said.
A Special Present
Sacks was delighted at the group's efforts. They even brought along something to help her get through the cold winter months: a new TV to replace her old one that wasn't equipped to handle new digital signals.
Not far away, another group of Tifereth Israel members joined in with families from Congregation Adath Jeshurun, located in Elkins Park, to help clean and organize a house that had fallen on even harder times. While the plan was originally to include this house in the winterization process, A.J. member Mitch Russell of Rydal said that once organizers saw the condition of the structure, winterization became a much lower priority.
"This is a house that social services, frankly, has missed," said Russell.
The volunteers at this site did everything from cleaning the kitchen to sorting through messes with the homeowner, caulking the bathtub and building a wooden frame to better support the sink. They even patched and repaired sections of the ceilings and walls.
Russell, whose 16-year-old son, Harry, came along to help, said that while many in the Jewish community are well off, it's sometimes easy to forget that, even around the corner, "there are people living like this."
In Northeast Philadelphia, members of A.J. helped winterize Beatrice Fedarko's home, putting in weather stripping and installing storm windows.
"If we can't afford it in dollars, we do it in sweat," said David Axelrod, noting that his father instilled those values in him as a youngster.
For Fedarko, who has volunteered at the JCC's Klein Branch, giving back is very much about a symbiotic relationship. If the community can "help me and I can help somebody in return, it's the greatest feeling in the world," attested Fedarko.
While the winterization and Morris Park cleanup were among Federation's signature projects, many synagogues and community centers organized their own projects to get in the spirit of the day.
The whole thing, said one of the Mitzvah Mania co-chairs, Jackie Needleman, shows that tikkun olam is "above affiliation" and pervades Jewish life regardless of one's age, denomination or affiliation.
Said Needleman: "We all know there are mitzvot and this is really just a basic one — you don't have to categorize it. It's giving your time and taking care of each other. It feels good and it feels right."