By Anita Rubin-Meiller written for the Washtenaw Jewish News
“Mitzvah comes from the root word tzavta, which means connection. There are 613 mitzvot, and therefore, 613 ways to connect to G-d.”
– Rabbi Zushe Greenberg
I appreciate this definition of mitzvah, which goes beyond doing a good deed or following a commandment, and adds connection as an essential ingredient. When I became chair of the Ann Arbor Reconstructionist Congregation (AARC) Mitzvah Corps several years ago, I knew that what we could offer to the larger community would best be generated by what we offered each other to build connection, support, and a sense of being known. Towards that end, we began having quarterly meetings, which moved to Zoom during shutdown and have been in person since the availability of the vaccine. The meetings begin with a personal sharing of a blessing and a challenge since we last met. In this way we have supported each other through health challenges, losses, changes in career or living situations, family stresses. Through that feeling of being connected it is easy to feel moved to connect to others when they are in need. Connection is the heart and soul of our mission – “to mobilize support when needed” and our vision – “to create a non-judgmental community in which it is natural to ask for and receive help.”
Connection is the heart and soul of our mission – “to mobilize support when needed” and our vision – “to create a non-judgmental community in which it is natural to ask for and receive help.”
Early on the Pandemic showed us that support might have to arrive in ways that we were unaccustomed to. We were placed in lockdown in March, 2020 and a month later, a former beloved member of our congregation notified me that she had just lost her mother and was seeking support for one night of Shiva. She and her family had other resources for Shiva as well, but it was especially important to her during this time of “virtual only” contact to be with people who knew her, her family and may even have known her mother. She had been an active member of the congregation for many years and had celebrated the Bar and Bat Mitzvahs of her children with us. It was a certain joy to be able to connect her with Rabbi Ora Nitkin-Kaner and know that her needs in the midst of grief would be well tended to. The Mitzvah Corps notified the congregation of the chance to offer support, and our first Zoom Shiva was manifested. While a Zoom Shiva could never substitute for the in-person hugs, warm personal exchanges, and provision of food that happen in person, for this woman, seeing familiar faces, in a religious context that meant a lot to her, “felt like home”.
Another request prompted by the societal circumstances we found ourselves in was from a long time AARC member with chronic health issues that impacted her mobility and sense of safety. At the start of the pandemic, she was experiencing greater physical difficulty, and had had a couple of falls. It was also just barely a year since she had lost her beloved husband, and her loneliness and isolation was acutely felt. At the suggestion of a good friend, she contacted the Mitzvah Corps and explored what support could be offered. We created a chain of daily phone calls with a combination of AARC members and personal friends, that continues to this day. She says she is “so thankful” and that through these calls she has come to trust that “someone cares about me”.
Some needs met by the Mitzvah Corps, such as helping families host services for B’nei Mitzvah have been unnecessary during these past 2 years. Other needs have remained the same. We have organized meal chains for families bringing home a newborn and for individuals moving through significant illness or injury. We have provided rides to medical appointments and assisted with grocery shopping. We have been grateful that when a need is made known, many members of our congregation rise to the occasion to pitch in.
As it is designed now, the five Mitzvah Corps members carry the responsibility to mobilize support when and where it is called for. All requests come through the chair person and are either met by her, or assigned accordingly. We have been glad to be available during these difficult times, but at times have also felt the strain of higher demand, as when two of our members were significantly injured and another’s family was ill with Covid.
The pandemic also thwarted initial efforts from some Corps members to start new offerings, a support group for families caring for their elders and a support group for parents of teens. Hopefully these will happen in the future.
“You don’t always think of yourself as someone who will need something, but we are all vulnerable and there are times we will need help.”
At our most recent quarterly meeting we began to address the issues of increasing membership in the Mitzvah Corps and being better able to know, and meet, what the needs of the congregation’s members truly are. As we puzzled over what we’d want others to know about our efforts, one member, Caroline Richardson, observed: “You don’t always think of yourself as someone who will need something, but we are all vulnerable and there are times we will need help.” Our board liason, Debra Gombert, observed:” the act of bringing a meal to congregation members in need was about connection, not cooking; about being in community and creating community.”
It seems that the Covid pandemic and other factors in the past few years have highlighted great need in many areas for many people. It can be overwhelming to know where you can have an impact that matters, if that is your desire. But, as it says in the Mishnah, “Anyone who saves a life, it is as if they saved an entire world.” The AARC Mitzvah Corps offers an opportunity to lighten the burden of one individual, or family, and by doing so increase your own sense of well -being and joy.
If you would like to learn more about the Ann Arbor Reconstructionist Congregation please visit aarecon.org, or contact Gillian Jackson at firstname.lastname@example.org or Rabbi Ora Nitkin-Kaner at email@example.com.
To see this article in the December 2021 Washtenaw Jewish News, scroll to Page 19 here. https://washtenawjewishnews.org/PDFs/WJN-12-21-web.pdf