Could good deeds help to bring the world back to a place of wholeness and healing? This is the philosophy behind the Jewish initiative of Mitzvah Day on November 19 when more than 40,000 volunteers from 21 countries will come together for the purpose of being a cause for good in the world.
At The Emanuel Synagogue in Sydney's eastern suburbs, congregants will spend their Sunday morning packing donated health care items including toothbrushes, soaps and singlets for three-to-five-year-old children for Gunawirra, an organisation aimed at improving the lives of young Indigenous families across NSW. The not-for-profit organisation believes that early intervention will help to establish better health care outcomes.
“This year, we wanted to do something for Indigenous communities and Gunawirra runs a wonderful program called Five Big Ideas - an education system which they take out into schools," Emanuel's Rabbi Jacqueline Ninio, tells SBS.
Five Big Ideas is an interactive learning tool that uses art, storytelling and puppetry to give preschoolers simple techniques and information about health, hygiene, culture and the environment in a culturally appropriate way. "They hope this will reduce long term health problems and the difference in life expectancy between Indigenous and non-Indigenous Australians," she says.
Ninio explains that in past years when the synagogue has participated in Mitzvah Day, the community has created care packs for women and children escaping domestic violence as well as providing school packs for underprivileged children.
A former lawyer from Adelaide, Ninio became a rabbi over 20 years ago when it was less accepted for women to take leading roles in religious organisations. In fact, she regards herself as a pioneer.
''Gender has been a major part of my rabbinate and something that's surprised me," she tells SBS. "At the beginning especially, people would ask not to have the female rabbi officiate at their life cycle events and it still is a place of difference between myself and many of my colleagues. I think that when people imagine a rabbi, they do not imagine me."
This is not strictly true because with her impassioned views from the pulpit, whether she's leading a Friday night service or on one of the High Holy Days in the packed-out synagogue, Ninio is every inch a rabbi. She has also encouraged women to take greater roles in the services, even to the point of donning tallits (prayer shawls) and kippahs (skull caps), which were once the preserve of men. Of course, this is very different to Orthodox synagogues where the men and women are separated during worship.
Rabbi Ninio tells SBS that she first thought of taking this role in life following her bat mitzvah (her ‘coming of age') when she was 13 years old. “I celebrated in Adelaide with a visiting rabbinical student from America who would become one of the first women ordained in the Reform Movement," explains Ninio, “but I was not aware of that at the time other than I regarded her as someone with whom I could connect.''
I think that when people imagine a rabbi, they do not imagine me
The rabbinical seed was planted in her mind as she finished school, studied for her law degree and went to work as a lawyer. While the work was satisfying, she actually started the lengthy process of being accepted for rabbinical school in the US. She was so thrilled to get in despite the long years of further study this would entail.
“It was five years postgraduate study, one year in Jerusalem and four in the States," Ninio says. ''But it was incredible and affirmed that I'd made the right decision in pursuing rabbinical studies."
When she returned to Australia, she was invited to join The Emanuel synagogue and she's been there ever since. Next year it will be her 20th anniversary at the synagogue. I feel so blessed and privileged to be a part of the Emanuel Synagogue community and the life of our congregation.”
In the meantime, she's turning her attention towards making this year's Mitzvah Day bigger than ever aware that despite all the negativity and pain going on in the world, this is one spark that could ignite something bigger.