Article By: Hannah O. Brown / The Gainesville Sun
Pictures By: Brad McClenny / The Gainesville Sun
Temple Shir Shalom, Congregation B’nai Israel, UF Hillel, the Lubavitch Chabad Jewish Center, the Jewish Council of North Central Florida and a handful of student organizations merged to organize a range of community service projects across the community, all taking place on a single day of giving.
“It’s the first time we have all been together in one place, so it’s a kind of a really cool, special event for that reason,” said Alexa Jacobson, UF student and social justice intern for UF Hillel.
After a hearty breakfast hosted by Chabad, 15 community service projects were set into motion.
At UF Hillel, a flurry of students smeared sandwiches with peanut butter for homeless Gainesville residents, while others stuffed plastic bags with socks and cosmetics for soldiers of the Israel Defense Forces.
Another fast-moving assembly line could be seen at Temple Shir Shalom, with volunteers scooping dog food into bags for the Francis House Pet Care Clinic, an organization that donates pet care supplies to low-income residents with pets.
Other projects included dog walking at the Alachua County Humane Society, baking cookies for the Ronald McDonald House and cleaning the trash from the streets and sidewalks of Northwest Eighth Avenue.
“I think what you see is really a cross section of projects that enable us to really aid an extraordinary amount of the community,” said Rabbi Adam Grossman from UF Hillel.
Grossman said between 300 and 500 people participated in the one-day event, but the real mission of the day was to hook volunteers into making community service a habit.
“This is a starting point,” Grossman said. “You have a Mitzvah Day to help inspire people to become active in the community well beyond the Mitzvah Day.”
The roots of Mitzvah Day become clearer when the history of the Jewish people is considered. Jewish people are motivated to give back to others because of their own suffering in years past, Grossman said.
“Embedded within our religious ideals as well as our texts is the idea: Remember that you were slaves in Egypt,” he said. “It reminds ourselves that whenever someone is oppressed, whether that is an oppression of more economic, emotional, mental, that we as Jews are obligated to really step out and help individuals.”
Selma Castilho, a researcher at UF who recently moved to Gainesville, said Mitzvah Day is not celebrated in her home of Brazil, but a culture of giving back is something she experienced with her synagogue, and in her own life, on a very regular basis.
Community service is emphasized as a priority at a young age, she said, so that children grow up learning the benefits of helping others.
“They have so many incentives to do that,” she said. “I guess that’s why it is something natural for Jewish [people].”
In an ever-changing world, Grossman said the Jewish people have always worked to “become upstanders not bystanders” in their local communities.
“In Judaism, we are obligated to act in our world,” he said. “It’s not okay to just stand idly by, to assume that things are going to happen.”