Local | Philanthropy & Family Finance

Mitzvah Magic gives financial, spiritual boost to local families

Deborah Kalar-Crowder, emergency financial assistance manager at Jewish Family & Children’s Services, receives packages for Mitzvah Magic.
Deborah Kalar-Crowder, emergency financial assistance manager at Jewish Family & Children’s Services, receives packages for Mitzvah Magic.

For a family struggling to make ends meet, the gifts and holiday items provided by Tucson’s Mitzvah Magic program are “a godsend,” one recipient recently told the AJP. We’ll call her “Rachel.”

Mitzvah Magic, a program of Jewish Federation of Southern Arizona Women’s Philanthropy and Jewish Family & Children’s Services that was started in 2009, brings together circles of women to create baskets of food and gifts for Jewish families in need several times a year. The anonymity of the families is closely guarded. The year, the program helped 23 families.

For Rachel and her husband, “Ben,” the Mitzvah Magic baskets have put shoes on their daughters’ feet and food on their Seder table. But the value of the program goes deeper, she says.

“For my girls, it’s given them an opportunity to see that there are entities and people out there who are willing to help, that they can reach out to, but in turn, can turn around and help as well. That it’s a community — that it’s a give-and-take community and that the Jewish community in Tucson really is there to help each other,” she says.

Ben had been out of work for a while and they’d been trying to get by on just her salary when they approached Jewish Family & Children’s Services for financial assistance a couple of years ago, Rachel told the AJP in a phone interview. “They were very gracious and were able to help us with rent for a particular month,” she says, as well as helping sort out car trouble.

Deborah Kalar-Crowder, the emergency financial assistance manager at JFCS, also told her about Mitzvah Magic and signed the family up.

Rachel explains that the Mitzvah Magic experience starts with a form to fill out, specifying clothing sizes, needs and special interests for each person in the family, household needs, and where they usually shop. It’s updated at least once during the year to take children’s growth into account.

Laura Henry, Mitzvah Magic co-chair 2013-14
Laura Henry, Mitzvah Magic co-chair 2013-14
Andra Karnofsky, Mitzvah Magic co-chair 2012-14
Andra Karnofsky, Mitzvah Magic co-chair 2012-14

The women who volunteer with Mitzvah Magic work very hard to purchase items that will fit and that will be appropriate, she says — not just clothes but also books for her daughters and occasionally items for her and her husband. “I’m always very impressed with what they’ve provided. These are things that these ladies obviously spend a great deal of time thinking about, and it shows.”

The fact that the packages are chosen with such care and come beautifully gift-wrapped, she says, also help “make you feel a little like a person. When you’ve been out of work for a while you stop feeling like you’re a viable entity in the community. And that makes a difference.”

The program provides four baskets per year, and the back-to-school one has been particularly helpful, with backpacks, school supplies and gift cards to get clothes for her two daughters, says Rachel, who is careful to shop in stores that offer coupons and deals that stretch her money even further. Baskets are also delivered for the High Holy Days, Chanukah and Passover, she says. “The funds coming in at that time to allow us to purchase a Passover meal have really made a great deal of difference for us,” she says soberly, but laughs as she adds, “Unfortunately, the foods needed for our kind of holidays they don’t generally have coupons for.”

Ben recently found work, in a situation that gives him the opportunity for “a career, not just a job,” says Rachel. But after surviving on only one income for two years, she adds, it’ll take them a year or so to get back on their feet and reduce the debt they’ve accrued.

Laura Henry, one of the Mitzvah Magic co-chairs for the past year, notes that the program fills “a very specific gap” by providing grocery or discount store gift cards that can be used to purchase toilet paper and other necessities such as laundry detergent, which are expensive and are not covered by other programs such as food stamps. “We as Jewish women had the opportunity to come together and touch the lives of other Jewish families in a very nuts-and-bolts way. It’s a very meaningful form of tzedakah (charity).”

Henry is a social worker who has primarily worked with people living in poverty. She’s volunteered with Mitzvah Magic for the past four years, two of them as a circle chair.

She notes that Mitzvah Magic includes not only families, but individuals in need. “I’m actually very appreciative that the program serves people who are not just families, but people living with disabilities,” she says.

Henry moved to Phoenix earlier this month and her biggest regret is leaving behind the friends she’s made through Mitzvah Magic and the Federation Young Women’s Cabinet.

“To come together in a really meaningful way is a great way to form friendships,” she says. “Tucson made it easy for a young woman like myself who doesn’t have kids to be involved.”

Henry’s Mitzvah Magic co-chair, Andra Karnofsky, learned about the program through an article in the AJP when she moved to Tucson six years ago, and joined the following year. “It seemed like a really wonderful entry into philanthropy,” says Karnofsky, “because it’s very manageable for a person who is working or is new to town. It’s a great way to get to know the community a little bit, and to participate, because the demands are very low but the rewards are very high.”

The circles may include anywhere from seven to 15 women. Some Mitzvah Magic groups accomplish much of their organizing via email. Karnofsky’s circle “is a very active group,” she says, with members who enjoy meeting to talk about the families they’ll be supporting and assign jobs. “Some of the members are very enthusiastic about shopping.”

Karnofsky likes that the program not only meets families’ needs but elevates their experience of the holidays. “I think that’s the best part, because focusing specifically on celebration of the holidays is a way of maintaining and promoting our traditions.”

Since the baskets are assembled in advance, then brought to JFCS for distribution, they can’t include fresh foods like challah, but over the years Karnofsky’s circle has included apples and honey for Rosh Hashanah, Shabbat and Chanukah candles, holiday cookbooks and more, such as latke mix, dreidels and holiday-themed tableware. There have also been mezuzot and Seder plates donated by a local glass artist.

Many of the families have sent thank you notes to the volunteers through JFCS. One, from a member of family # 22, says in part, “Just receiving these gifts made a hard day much happier.” An 11-year-old girl in family #1 included sketches of the gifts and wrote, in a precise rainbow of crayons, “I was really surprised when my parents came home with tons of stuff. We are very grateful for everything and it was all very useful.” A member of family #4 wrote, “Thank you so much, we have put your loving givings in our hearts.” Family #17’s card noted, “Someday we will return the favor.”

While 23 families were served this year, there were fewer circles, with several circles “adopting” more than one individual, couple or small family. In fact, one family was added just before Passover, with an ad hoc circle formed to support them, says Karnofsky, who adds that Mary Ellen Loebl, the JFSA staff coordinator for the program, and Karen Graham, an assistant in the JFSA Women’s Philanthropy department, “were so sensitive, flexible and creative” in helping make that happen.

Henry, the social worker, really appreciates JFCS’s commitment to the program, noting that it’s a lot of work for the JFCS case manager. “The partnership between the Federation and JFCS, I think, is really remarkable,” she says.

Although she’s left Tucson, Henry’s heart is still with the program. “The more women who participate in it, the better — the more families we can serve.”