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Spotlight on Laura Marks and Mitzvah Day

Spotlight: A series of articles profiling Reform Movement members and their work in the wider Jewish community. Laura Marks is a newly elected member of the board of the Movement who set up Mitzvah Day UK in 2008; a day of social action driving the Jewish community to work together, to engage with charities and to reach out to their local communities.

Laura MarksMy Jewish life started regularly enough as a member of Stonegrove shul, now Edgware & District Reform Synagogue.

My brother had a bar mitzvah but we girls didn’t really do that then so we sang in the kids’ choir and hung out at Habonim. Camp, third seders, hadrachah and shows were de rigeur and at 16 I went on Israel Tour. I met my husband Dan Patterson there.

By 16 I was fed up with the boysie culture and the lack of sophistication(!) and I left. I did run the small JSoc at UCL but beyond that my Jewish life was limited to family Friday nights, Chanukah parties and of course, my friends.

Years later, Dan and I moved with our three children to Los Angeles. There we encountered the thriving Jewish world of American Reform Judaism. It was life changing. Confident, creative and proactive, we saw a whole different type of Jew and liked it.

Temple Israel of Hollywood ran a Mitzvah Day, a day of volunteering. Our job was to take a group of families to a downtown old people’s home. We set off, kids, friends, tambourines and guitars in tow and saw the power of engagement with the elderly residents, the staff and of course, on our small children.

On our return I set up Mitzvah Day, proudly Jewish, engaging and positive, initially with the new JCC and then as an independent charity.

Mitzvah Day is based on three key Jewish values. The first is tzedek, or righteousness, which leads us to projects concerned with poverty. These include donating spectacles to Africa, collecting food outside shops for local homeless shelters and, new to this year, giving away our lunch to people who have none, a symbolic way to connect with hunger.

Mitzvah Day UK: make your markSecond is tikkun olam, repairing the world. Most (Jewish) people in my experience do little to connect with their environment. We make it easy; planting trees, digging at farms and this year planting mint and herbs for our own use.

The third and probably the most important Jewish value for me is chessed or acts of kindness. Our projects involving care homes, hospitals, the mentally ill, tea parties for refugees and the AJEX parade all make us realise how just a little care and humanity can go a long way.

Of course, the aim is long term. Commitment to a new charity, enthusiasm for social action, local community engagement and building bridges with participants from other faiths (we are the largest Jewish Inter faith event in the UK) are our objective. But fundamentally, we work to bring Jewish values to life for anyone willing to take a little time to give.

As I join the Movement board, I am struck by the need to encourage Reform Jews not only to do good works, but to recognise that by so doing,  we can promote Jewish values both within our community and also to those around us on Mitzvah Day and, of course, every day.

Find out more about Mitzvah Day UK and how you can get involved.


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