OK, so I am not the most organized mom in the world. Five years ago when my kids were 8, 9, and 11 I had “Mitzvah Day” written in ink on my calendar–I knew that we would be attending–but I sort of missed all of the email reminders to sign up for an actual project. We arrived at Mitzvah Day on the beautiful May morning with plans to work on a volunteer project, but which one we were not sure. I walked around to all of the tables and Max ran up to me and said “Let’s sign up to sing with the residents at Sunrise! We can join the Gundersheims.” I responded “Great!” but then added… ” Oops…that activity is already full…” Next, Kate came up to me and said “The Purcells are signed up to make bags for Sterling Elementary School…can we do that, too?” Feeling relieved that we found a fun activity I said “Awesome!” But then…”Oops that activity is full, too.”
Not to be discouraged Charlie walked around and found an activity that still needed participants…cleaning up the Hebrew Cemetery…not exactly what I had in mind for Mitzvah Day but that is what I got for not signing up ahead of time…!
Little did I know the next few hours were going to be so much fun and also feel so meaningful. We drove to the Cemetery following our friend Jill Blumenthal and we got out and listened to directions from the project leader. Some of us were going to spread mulch, others were going to wash dirt off gravestones, and others would rake. It was a beautiful spring day and we quickly got to work washing gravestones.
Max, Kate, Charlie and I had so much fun. It was actually fulfilling thinking we were honoring our Jewish ancestors and friends while also making the Cemetery look prettier. Plus being outside on a gorgeous May afternoon and doing “manual labor” felt really good. My thoughts drifted back to an older Jewish Cemetery I visited years earlier in 1992 in Warsaw, Poland. Although the Nazis had demolished most of the buildings in Warsaw, the Cemetery had been left alone because Hitler wanted to leave some “proof” that ‘the Jewish race once existed’. When I looked at the names on the gravestones in the Old Jewish Cemetery in Warsaw I saw that many of the names were the same names that my friends had. Many were the same last names as the graves in the Hebrew Cemetery in Charlotte. When I was in Warsaw in 1992 I had looked for my grandfathers’ last names–Hankin and Sperman (thank you, Ellis Island wise guys). I never found Sperman but I found something close…Szerman…so I took a picture of it. When I got back to the United States I showed a picture of this gravestone to my grandfather and he told me that this was the headstone of his relative. I did not know that in Poland Szerman was pronounced “Schperman.”
The next year on Mitzvah Day I actually read my email to sign up early for a Mitzvah Project and I did. We signed up to clean the Hebrew Cemetery again. My children and I really enjoyed it. We have also been back there twice with Trees Charlotte so we could plant trees in the Hebrew Cemetery. Every time I am in the Cemetery I feel a certain peace and good energy. I feel like I am doing a Mitzvah–one for the community and one for myself because it truly feels good.
Laura Hankin Lewin grew up in Purchase, New York but she fell in love with the South while attending college at Emory and graduate school in Public Policy at Duke. Laura and her husband Marc have three teenagers-Max, age 17; Kate, age 15; and Charlie, age 13. Laura is a school counselor for Charlotte Mecklenburg Schools, and she is currently working at Olympic High School as a high school counselor.