Local Jewish Organizations Give Back to the Community Through MLK Day of Service Programs

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Volunteers at a Washington Hebrew MLK Day of Service event in 2023. Photo Courtesy.

Jan. 15 marked the 38th annual Martin Luther King Jr. Day, when Americans celebrate the legacy of the great Civil Rights Movement leader. It was also the 30th anniversary of the holiday being marked as a day of service by President Bill Clinton in 1994.
This year, several local Jewish organizations are making good on what they consider their responsibilities to the community by facilitating and hosting a variety of service events all around the DMV area.

“There’s this wonderful energy of exciting community that’s going on. It’s not just our synagogue … it is people from all parts of the city that makes it even more special than just our wonderful day of service would be, and then seeing people from all different backgrounds and all different ages working together,” said Ira Miller, the director of programming for Washington Hebrew Congregation in Washington, D.C.

Washington Hebrew has been holding MLK Days of Service events for around 20 years, but this year is special as they held an interfaith event. Multiple churches and mosques worked with the synagogue, as well as busloads of students from Catholic University, according to Miller.

“Whether they are making casseroles to be given to shelters or sorting donated clothes or making muffins or making sandwiches, there’s a bunch of different projects that they’ll be participating in,” Miller said.

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Washington Hebrew has a variety of programs that span the weekend, including kicking things off with a special Friday night Shabbat service on Jan. 12 that featured over a dozen clergy from various houses of worship in the area in attendance.

Miller said that these events create a wonderful sense of “comradery and community” and that preparations have been going on for over a year as the synagogue leaders have been working with community partners to make sure that their efforts are directed to the correct places and ensuring that the hundreds of people in attendance have a good experience.

Beyond Washington Hebrew, there’s a broad organizational effort in the area to promote and assist these events from various groups through the Jewish Federation of Greater Washington.

The Federation has a powerful role in the community through its resources and reach and uses both in order to help local MLK Days of Service be carried out and promoted in an effort to galvanize the community to give back.

“The Federation’s role throughout the Greater Washington area has three primary facets. One is to mobilize and consolidate everything going on around the community. We direct people to a website, collect and find out what every different community congregation is offering and is putting together so that we can help individuals throughout the community identify what might speak to them and what might work to engage their sense of service and purpose in this moment,” said Manny Menchel, the Federation’s chief impact officer. “Two, we’re able to promote the events that other organizations are doing to magnify their reach given our positionality in the community, and the third is really to participate.”

Menchel said that the Federation plays an active role in this process because MLK Days of Service align closely with the Federation’s values and provide a great way for the Jewish community to provide for the larger community as well.

He added that the Federation has been working with local partners over the past two to three years to help these events run smoothly and to increase participation, and that they see these organizations doing incredibly valuable work that drives societal change.
The Federation’s website has a calendar full of listings for MLK Day activities in the area, including an event from Makom, a local Jewish group that works with people with disabilities.

Makom spent the day at Walt Whitman High School in Bethesda where they made products to donate to local shelters and had people with intellectual and developmental disabilities leading workstations, providing instructions to volunteers and handling the responsibility of delivering the station’s products to the organizations they support.

According to Makom’s website, the day of service provides a unique opportunity for the community that they serve and showcases the abilities of people with disabilities.
It’s one great example of how various organizations and their days of service programs work to bring the larger DMV community together.

“There are a lot of organizations in this community who do incredible work, driving social impact and supporting the needs of the community around us, both within the Jewish community and beyond the Jewish community. And we [the Federation] will continue to empower those organizations. Sometimes that’s through partnership of resources. Sometimes it’s through connecting to other individuals and opportunities for participation,” Menchel said.

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