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Op-Ed: Toward creating a national mitzvah day

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BERGENFIELD, N.J. (JTA) — On Sept. 9, the Jewish community will joyously welcome in the year 5771. 

Although Rosh Hashanah is a time of celebration, the holiday also marks the beginning of the serious introspection and reflection undertaken throughout the Days of Awe.

Individuals will look at their actions over the past year to reflect on their achievements and shortcomings. Yet limiting the introspective nature of the High Holidays to individuals alone would be a serious error. The new year also presents an opportunity for group reflection and evaluation.

At this time, when we all engage with our own personal struggles toward improvement, the American Jewish community can also make group efforts toward a better future.

So, where are our communal shortcomings? The answer points to considering ourselves not only as Jewish individuals but also as part of a larger Jewish community. 
On Rosh Hashanah and other holidays, many Jews across America unite in collective celebration. This unity positively affects both the relationship among Jews and the relationship between Jews and their non-Jewish neighbors.

As a whole, the American Jewish community encompasses a broad range of geographic locations and religious interpretations. At times, these differences facilitate meaningful dialogue and discussion, but all too often they serve as barriers to mutual respect and collaboration. 

Events that unite the national Jewish population, however, have the potential to provide temporary alleviation from internal conflict and contention.

On Rosh Hashanah, for example, American Jews celebrate in a variety of forms, but we really engage in a joint celebration. By recognizing that our individual actions are part of a larger celebration, we can recognize the commonalities of our behavior instead of the differences. Because the Jewish community is particularly visible during nationally recognized events, these occasions helps us view ourselves as members of a broad and diverse Jewish family. Thus, Jewish events ease tension and facilitate ahavat Yisrael — loving our fellow Jew.

These days of unity also lead to an increased Jewish profile throughout America. On Rosh Hashanah, major news stations will mention the holiday, newspapers will feature articles about the day’s significance and non-Jewish friends will be likely to wish you a happy new year. Even the White House typically sends out Rosh Hashanah greetings.

This heightened national Jewish profile is beneficial because it is an opportunity for the American Jewish community to be recognized and respected. It’s also an opportunity to appear as a united group. 

Given that nationally recognized Jewish events strengthen relationships and foster community, we can improve the American Jewish future by finding additional opportunities for group recognition of an event. The challenge to doing so, however, is to find common ground upon which we, as American Jews, can put aside our differences and disagreements to demonstrate who we are and what we can accomplish. 

I believe this common ground takes form in the universal Jewish values of chesed (kindness), tzedakah (charity) and tikkun olam (social justice). The American Jewish community — noted for a commitment to community service, volunteerism and philanthropic giving — already boasts an enormous number of Mitzvah Days that honor these values.

But the existing events are isolated in nature and thus do not foster a broad sense of cooperative strength and communal power. These benefits could be obtained easily through coordinating an annual event in which the American Jewish community demonstrates its continued commitment to mitzvot and gemilut chasadim — good deeds and loving kindness. Call it a national Mitzvah Day, if you will.  

Let Britain’s nationwide Mitzvah Day serve as an example. The annual event, called UK Mitzvah Day, is “a day where Jews lead the way, one day a year enjoying giving back, making a difference, all together.”  

The concept behind UK Mitzvah Day illustrates that the event transforms individual doers of good deeds into national leaders, representative of the Jewish community’s dedication and commitment to service and world improvement. In America, some efforts to establish a Mitzvah Day with national scope already have been initiated. J-Serve: Jewish Teens Serving the World is an annual national service event intended to engage Jewish youth in service.  Big Sunday, an annual service event that attracts volunteers from throughout Southern California, grew out of Temple Israel of Hollywood’s Mitzvah Day. 

Yet, for a national Mitzvah Day to achieve its highest potential, there must be an event that can incorporate everyone, regardless of age, location or ideology.

The logistics of when to schedule the event, how to keep track of participants and how to incorporate Jewish values into service projects all present challenges, but these challenges are not insurmountable. 

With 15 years of experience in the field of Jewish education, I had precisely these obstacles in mind in 2002, when I founded Areyvut, a nonprofit organization dedicated to helping youth enrich their lives with Jewish values. Since then, the Areyvut staff has worked with passion and determination to develop programs that can successfully overcome these challenges.

As we celebrate and reflect at the start of this new year, I suggest we save a spot among our goals and resolutions for national Mitzvah Day development and participation.  Doing so will provide the opportunity to overcome geographic and ideological differences and to celebrate the power derived from honoring the values of chesed, tzedakah, and tikkun olam. Certainly, that would be the start of a sweet new year.

(Daniel Rothner is Areyvut’s founder and director. Mollie Feldman a senior at Carleton College who served as an Areyvut intern and developed materials for Make a Difference Day 2011, also contributed to this piece.)

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