Whether working with Habitat for Humanity or stuffing food packages at the town’s emergency food pantry, dozens of congregants of Hoboken’s United Synagogue will spend Sept. 10 engaged in acts of community outreach. But, noted shul member Monica Rodriguez, such activities are not unusual for the congregation.
"We do a lot of social action in our synagogue," said Rodriguez, who is helping to coordinate the shul’s second annual Mitzvah Day, expected to draw some 100 participants, as it did last year. "We take tikkun olam very seriously."
Rabbi Robert Scheinberg, religious leader of the congregation, pointed out that since the synagogue is in an urban environment, "We are especially conscious of the problems associated with poverty."
"Our synagogue has taken a leading role in social action in Hoboken for many years," he said, pointing out that the shul was one of the founding organizations of the Hoboken Shelter almost 30 years ago. "Members of our congregation serve on the shelter’s board of trustees, we provide volunteers to staff the shelter each month, and we raise the funds from our synagogue community to operate the shelter for the week of Sukkot each year," he said.
Jake Stuiver, the synagogue’s Tikkun Olam Committee chair and coordinator of the Mitzvah Day project, said this year’s event, like the one held last year, will include a memorial service for those who were killed in the Sept. 11 attack on the World Trade Center.
Calling Sept. 11 both "a day of horror" and "a day of awe [demonstrating] how selfless and generous human beings can be," Scheinberg pointed out that "it has long been a Jewish tradition to give charity and perform acts of kindness in memory of the deceased."-The synagogue lost 36-year-old member Jeffrey Gardner in the World Trade Center attack. Gardner was especially active with Habitat for Humanity, one of the groups involved in this year’s Mitzvah Day.
According to Stuiver, who said he conceived of the project as a way to "give back to the community, the longer-term idea is not to just bring out a large number of people one day a year but to use that one day as an opportunity to engage people in social-action activities on an ongoing basis and perhaps help develop new leaders to maintain [these activities] year-round."
The activities scheduled for Sept. 10 will take place in various locations and some like home construction for low-income families through the Habitat for Humanity’s Newark branch will last all day. Others, such as sorting food and clothing for the Hoboken Emergency Food Pantry will take several hours.
According to Rodriguez, participants will have an opportunity to help paint the main hall of Hoboken’s Jubilee Center, which serves families living in Hoboken public housing, join a park cleanup effort for the Jersey City Parks Department, or deliver food packages to senior citizens throughout Hudson County. Others may choose to visit nursing homes, work at an animal shelter, or engage in ESL tutoring.
The day will also include family activities such as "Color-a-Smile," where parents and children will create artwork for hospital patients; "Dolls for Darfur," where participants will assemble jewelry to promote awareness of genocide; and the writing of greeting cards to U.S. soldiers.
Rodriguez, who serves as the synagogue’s publicity chair, noted that the United Synagogue is a "young congregation," where thirtysomething is the average age. Most congregants live in Hoboken, Jersey City, or Weehawken. In addition, said Rodriguez, the congregation embraces many people who have not been active in a synagogue before and are looking to forge their own Jewish identity.
Urban congregations face "both challenges and opportunities," she said. Describing Hoboken as a community that is not only younger demographically but also "in transition a step on the way," Rodriguez said the synagogue wants to "create an environment where people want to stay." Furthering members’ involvement in community and outreach activities is one way to do this, she suggested.
"Ideally, Mitzvah Day is not just one day in isolation," said Scheinberg. He would like to see it as "an opportunity for people in our community to taste a variety of chesed opportunities and choose an opportunity to which they will make an ongoing commitment throughout the year."