Rewriting Lives

David Levinson, 44, has written for television, theater and feature films. He and his wife Ellen Herman, also a television writer, have crafted a good life from an unforgiving business, with a home in Hancock Park and three growing children, who, he informed me over lunch this week, are wonderful.

Levinson’s play, "The Great Wall," ran at the Coast Playhouse last year. It was about a Brentwood man who must decide whether to accept $5 million to kill a nameless Chinese peasant. "It was really about the moral and spiritual crisis of a rich guy in L.A.," he said.

Of course, compared to a Chinese peasant, compared to many people in this city, we are all rich guys in Los Angeles, and we all face the moral and spiritual question of what is our responsibility to those less fortunate.

I’ve always believed there are several layers of self-interest involved in this question. Helping those around us improves the quality of the city we call home. If you aren’t sure whether it’s better to live in a city where most people are well-educated and well-housed, get on the 405 and drive three hours south. Beyond that, helping others satisfies a part of us that no amount of spa treatment, shopping trips or dinners at Bastide (as if) can slake.

Levinson, 44, knows this well. He was already on the social action committee of Temple Israel of Hollywood when the synagogue, inspired by a similar program held by L.A. Works, decided to launch a Mitzvah Day in 1999. At first it was similar to the dozens of other similar events held by events and agencies, both Jewish and not, in town. Then Levinson received a call from a nun at Covenant House, a home for at-risk youth, near Hollywood. "She said, ‘Our kids really want to help, they really want to volunteer,’" Levinson recounted. "That changed everything."

Soon street-tough former drug addicts were working side by side with temple volunteers to raise money for a scholarship program in Tijuana. "Everybody started working together and it changed the tone of the whole group," Levinson said.

From then on, Levinson and the Mitzvah Day steering committee changed the model of the event to one of partnership. It wasn’t enough for a minister of a South L.A. church to invite volunteers in for a day of assistance. Levinson, who chairs the event, and his 12 steering committee members, made sure lay leaders at these churches and groups wanted to be involved as well. "I thought if we did it we should do it in cooperation with others," he said. "Going in and having the haves helping the have-nots felt uncomfortable. It was a question of dignity."

"David totally figured it out," said David Lehrer, director of Community Advocates, Inc., which works with groups throughout the city and has joined Levinson in his mission. "Charity has to be a two-way street so it doesn’t have that patronizing smell to it."

The first Mitzvah Day attracted 10 nonprofit groups and a few dozen volunteers. Last year 70 groups and some 2,500 volunteers served about 100 different nonprofits. This year the day is expected to attract 3,500 people. L.A. Works, which has been doing volunteer days for 10 years, attracts between 1,000-4,000 people. But Mitzvah Day’s numbers are even more impressive when you understand who Levinson has brought into the fold.

Through a combination of word of mouth and old-fashioned cold calling, word of the successful day spread throughout that network of nonprofits and schools that provide the woof to commerce’s warp here. Private schools — Windward, Oakwood, Curtis Malborough and others — came aboard. The Archdiocese brought in Catholic high schools from Long Beach to Oxnard. The Girl Scouts, the Red Cross, Jewish Family Service and the Los Angeles chapter of the Daughters of the American Revolution joined in, among others. "That a Jewish organization is doing that kind of outreach is very significant," L.A. Works Co-Chair Donna Bojarsky said.

Many Jewish organizations hold Mitzvah Days or similar events to encourage their members to volunteer their time in the greater Los Angeles community. Temple Israel’s has become the largest, in the process merging with those of other synagogues’, from Beth Chaim Chadashim (BCC), a largely gay and lesbian congregation, to Orthodox shuls and schools like Shalhevet, YULA, Beth Jacob and B’nai David Judea.

Thus, Levinson found himself in the position of watching volunteers from BCC, B’nai David and Mothers of East L.A. working together at the Soto Street Children’s Center in Boyle Heights. Only in L.A.

Levinson, urged on by some private schools who needed reassurance that the day is nondenominational and nonpolitical, changed Mitzvah Day’s name to Big Sunday last year.

Otherwise, the day’s fundamentals remain constant. Volunteers are asked to pay nothing. Even a $15 Big Sunday T-shirt may be more than a low-income volunteer could afford. Underwriters and sponsors, including Temple Israel, provide for the $50,000 annual budget.

Every skill is put to use. Make-up artists provide makeovers to homeless women hunting for jobs. Set designers and landscape artists remake children’s centers, actors read stories at literacy centers, knitters help a group called Stitches From the Heart crochet blankets and caps for premature and needy babies across the country. Levinson has noticed it is easy to find among the synagogues involved lawyers and doctors, but harder to find good carpenters. "If people have none of these talents, we throw parties so all they have to do is come and be friendly," he said. "If they can’t be friendly, they can give blood." Sign up is simple, too. You go to, pick a project off a menu and register.

This Friday, Feb. 6, Temple Israel of Hollywood is honoring Levinson at an unusual temple fundraiser. "David is a unique prophetic spirit in our community," Rabbi John Rosove of Temple Israel said. "He loves people and he loves Los Angeles." Admittance to the event is free. Monies will be raised through the sale of sponsorships and a tribute books.

The temple expects hundreds of church congregants and social service workers from across Los Angeles to attend.

Chun-Yen Chen will be there. She is executive director of the Asian Pacific Women’s Center (APWC), a transitional housing program for victims of domestic violence. Three years ago, Levinson called her and asked what Big Sunday could do to help. The knock on events like Big Sunday is that they are one-off experiences, providing a short spurt of feel-good but hardly changing anyone’s lives. Chen disagreed. Levinson and other Big Sunday volunteers have kept in touch with APWC all year, helping whenever they can. "Every time we have a need we call David," Chen said. "He has a lot of people we can share with. He has been a blessing."

As a writer in Hollywood, Levinson said, he has known from indignities: calls not returned, projects stalled, dreams fallen short. But instead of seeking refuge in whining and moaning, he has found an outlet that provides dignity, instant gratification, and helps other people’s dreams come true. "In the entertainment business peoples’ dignity is often compromised and their status is always changing," he said. "I knew standing at the pulpit at a gospel church in South Central addressing the congregation about Mitzvah Day my life had taken a turn I never expected. But we all live in L.A., and we want to make this city better." And, he might add, ourselves along with it.