Celebrating a big birthday doesn’t always mean lavish parties or going out for a fancy dinner.
For Radnor’s Julie Savitch, turning 50 presented a unique opportunity to give back to the community.
In the 50 weeks leading up to her birthday in November, she decided to do 50 mitzvot in honor of her milestone year.
“A lot of my friends were doing different things for their 50th,” she said. “Some were having parties, some were going away. So I was thinking of what would be meaningful to me. I loved doing mitzvot, and I thought that that would be a fun and challenging project for me to do.”
Such an endeavor didn’t come without its challenges, of course, including one glaring one: coming up with enough mitzvot without repeating. (Although, it might help that there are 613 mitzvot suggested in the Torah.)
“I decided to do 50 mitzvot, which is almost one a week, and try to come up with different things each time — that was the hard part,” she admitted.
To her, a mitzvah was “anything that was an intentional act. It was something I went and did on purpose,” she explained.
From donating and sorting clothes at Our Closet – Powered by JFCS, to food distribution with the Jewish Relief Agency, to giving out food at a church on Christmas, Savitch — sometimes with the help of her husband and three kids — completed projects that she had done before as well as many new ones.
She created a Thanksgiving food drive, which ended up being her last mitzvah for the project. She collected food that was put into 25 baskets donated to poor families who couldn’t afford food for the holiday.
Some mitzvot that she planned ended up going in a different direction.
She knit blankets for babies in the NICU, and her first one ended up being much smaller than the dimensions requested. But it worked out in a different way.
“I called them and I said, ‘I knit this blanket, but it’s really not the right size,’ and she said, ‘I’m so glad you called because we have a need for blankets for babies who don’t make it in the NICU,’ ” Savitch recalled. She was told the mothers like to wrap the babies in blankets and was asked if they could use the blanket for them.
“I was crying,” she remembered with a laugh, “like, ‘No you can have it, it’s all yours.’ So it was doing something I thought I screwed up and having it end up being something very meaningful for someone else.”
She began doing other mitzvot she’d never done before, like donating blood, which she now does on a regular basis.
Getting other people involved in the project also proved meaningful.
“All my friends knew I was doing this and all my friends’ friends knew I was doing this, so I started bringing people along,” she said, noting that some of them wouldn’t normally do acts like these. “And then I was having friends bring me the things I never knew about, so I was getting introduced to all these charities I never knew about.”
The project influenced other parts of her life as well. She even brought the project overseas.
Ahead of a trip to Poland with the Jewish Federation of Greater Philadelphia Women’s Philanthropy — for which she serves as campaign chair — she went early to visit Sobibor, the death camp where her great-great-grandparents were killed.
“No one in my family had ever visited Sobibor, so I felt like it would be a huge mitzvah for me to go there,” she said. “I went by myself, got a guide and trekked all the way to Sobibor, which is not near Warsaw or anywhere we were staying, and I spent the day there with a guide. So for me, that was really meaningful because I was able to honor my family in a way no one had ever done.”
On a trip to Israel with her daughter, she was able to do volunteer work with Leket Israel – The National Food Bank and pick fresh fruit that was given to families in need.
Other standout mitzvot she completed were making challah covers at the Abramson Center for Jewish Life and even teaching others how to bake challah, which she greatly enjoys and does for herself every month.
After sending a note to her friends asking if anyone wanted to learn, she taught 25 people in small groups how to make challah, which they now do for their own families.
“For me, that’s so meaningful because now there’s 25 families that didn’t normally make challah and now they do,” she said.
She then was asked to teach it to classes of younger students at her synagogue, Beth Am Israel in Penn Valley, which she did twice.
“It’s one of those things that spread,” she said. “Then we made so many challot that then I donated it to my synagogue to the mitzvah pantry, so that was another mitzvah.”
For Savitch, who works as a court-appointed special advocate for a family in West Chester, this project is something she would encourage others to do — even if she wouldn’t do it again herself.
“It has opened my eyes to new mitzvot that I do. Now I donate blood regularly and volunteer at other places I didn’t know about. I wouldn’t do the whole trying to do 50 because I did that for a whole year. That was good, but I would encourage other people to do it,” she said, adding that she’s spoken about the project at places like Women’s Philanthropy meetings. “It’s inspired others to do projects like that, and I would highly encourage it because it was really meaningful.”
She chronicled her mitzvah-doing journey on a blog and later published it as a Shutterfly book.
In looking back at her past entries, she realized how much of an impact this project had on her life.
“I was keeping this blog and almost every time I was writing on it, ‘Wow, that was great, that was meaningful, that was fun’ and when looking back on it,” she reflected, “I thought, ‘Wow, if every single week I can find something that’s meaningful and interesting and fun for me, why would I not do this every day?’ It did change my whole life and my whole outlook on things because it’s become so ingrained, and it’s something I really enjoy doing.”
So will she do a project like this for other big birthdays?
“I’m still 50,” she laughed, “so I’m not planning anything else, but who knows? You never know with me.”
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