Mitzvah Day, or why a slice of time is unrepresentative

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Every year, our congregation organizes something called Mitzvah Day. (Mitzvah is often taken colloquially to mean good deed but it actually means commandment.) Temple members sign up to staff various volunteer projects in the community, such as cooking at a soup kitchen, visiting nursing home residents, planting a garden at a homeless shelter, etc.

I’ve always had mixed feelings about Mitzvah Day. I think it’s a nice way to get congregants involved in community service. It’s often easier to get started at something like this if you go with a group of people you already know, and if someone else has done the legwork. On the other hand, I think a single day is scandalously inadequate to the task of making a meaningful difference. It’s all fine and good to plant the garden but if you don’t water it, so what? I personally prefer volunteer projects that are ongoing, peppered with the one-offs as needed. I feel like that’s what works best for our family for transmitting the values that matter to me.

Still, we signed up for Mitzvah Day because it’s better to do something than nothing. With a group of fellow congregants, their children, and their dogs, we went to a local nursing home and visited with any resident who was interested in having a chat, or just in petting the dogs. By and large, the residents were eager for the interaction, and they lapped up the attention. Everyone thought my children were gorgeous, and who’s to argue?

Although I must admit this one was cheerier than most, I’m generally spooked out by nursing homes. The residents always seem to me generic, hollow-eyed, defeated. It’s easy to think that all they ever were is represented in the ragged face and worn out body, the wheelchair with a seatbelt and the laundry basket labeled “incontinent.” There’s so much physicality in a nursing home — and almost all of it decrepit — that it’s hard to hold in mind that the each of the residents has a story.

One of the people we met today taught me this lesson most vividly. His room was highly decorated, with paintings, plaques, an “intensive training” sign (stolen from Harvard, he revealed), books, toys, maps. He mentioned modestly that he’d been a composer, and although we failed to draw him out further, I was intrigued enough to look him up online after returning home.

Here’s what I found:

In 1952, at the age of 26, Charlie Kletzsch moved into Dunster House as librarian and composer in residence. He stayed fifty years.

Read more here and here.

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2 thoughts on “Mitzvah Day, or why a slice of time is unrepresentative

  1. wisekaren

    I’m with you on the nursing home, and I applaud you for getting over your discomfort and going anyhow — I always choose some other project for Mitzvah Day, like packing up bag lunches for the homeless.

    Some of the Mitzvah Day projects at our shul are one-offs, like getting a nursing home garden ready for spring, stuffing envelopes for a Ronald McDonald House fund-raising drive, etc. And you never know: Someone’s participation that one day might be the “tipping point” for them to start becoming active in mitzvot year-round.

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