April 2, 2020

Jew-by-choice Mandie Davis also chooses homeless children

Mary “Mandie” Davis is passionate about a number of things: her husband, Ari Kadin, helping homeless children feel special and loved, and her Jewish identity.

It’s estimated that nationwide, 2.5 million children are homeless. But thanks to considerable effort from Davis and Kadin and their organization, Worthy of Love, the homeless children of Los Angeles can experience a party that makes them feel normal, special and loved. 

Each month, Worthy of Love throws a birthday party for homeless children, complete with DJ, dancing, cake and presents. Davis organizes and emcees the parties, calling on children with birthdays and presenting them with their gifts, and boogies with them on the dance floor. Her energy is infectious and elevates the downtrodden, both spiritually and, since the parties are on a rooftop, literally, as well. 

In an interview with the Jewish Journal, Davis recalled one child who started crying at her party. The girl explained she was happy: This was her first birthday party ever. The girl’s mother later revealed that she had terminal cancer; her medicine had bankrupted them to the point that they had to seek out a shelter. But for this one night, the daughter had a reason to celebrate, and at the photo booth, mother and daughter took their first photos together, as an emotional keepsake.

Davis grew up as a Southern Baptist in Georgia, and, by her own accounts, never knew a Jew. Living in Los Angeles, she was volunteering with a Skid Row theater group called Los Angeles Poverty Department when she met Kadin, and they fell in love. Davis became pregnant but miscarried three months later.

Through their devastation, they found a way to channel their loss and love into a positive space: If they couldn’t plan a birthday party for their own child, they would create birthday parties for the homeless children who desperately yearned for them.

They started volunteering at the Union Rescue Mission, which allows kids, holding birthday parties for the youngsters. They bought a cat mascot suit, creating a character called Skiddy Kat (named for Skid Row). The cat “gets called names because of where she lives and what she looks like but has to learn how to be the great lioness she was born to be. And ‘Ari’ also means ‘lion,’ ” Davis explained. They held their first party in January 2013.

When Kadin proposed in 2014, Davis had already decided she wanted to take the introduction to Judaism courses at American Jewish University’s Miller Program; Ari decided to join her for classes. The more she learned about Judaism, the more Davis realized that she wanted to become a Jew. 

“It had nothing to do with Ari – it was about how I felt. I was born with a Jewish soul. None of it made sense until I found Judaism, and now it all makes sense.” 

That Judaism encouraged questions was a bit of a culture shock. “In Christianity, you take the Bible so literally — the word is the truth, and there’s no other way.” With Judaism, she was finally “able to express how I feel and see a whole gray area that I love. It doesn’t have to be so literal. I have a million questions.” 

She says Shabbat has been one of her most meaningful practices. “Lighting the candles was this moment of unspeakable peace for me. Having that as a couple together, where we first started connecting as a couple and to God. As a Christian, you couldn’t connect with [both] God and husband. A ritual we could do together attracted me so much. It was powerful as a woman, lighting the candles in my home” — Davis made a motion of bringing in light in with her hands — “was addicting. I can’t wait to raise Jewish children.” 

In 2015, a month after her conversion and their wedding, Davis and Kadin took their first trip to Israel with Honeymoon Israel. Davis had always expected an emotional response to seeing the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, but when she got there, “something I’d known my whole life felt foreign,” she said. “Something in my spirit was different now.” But at the Western Wall, she “felt so connected because I’d been saying the Shema and to do it in Jerusalem … tears were shed. I’m more religious than [Ari] is, and he’s been a Jew his whole life.”

She knows that Judaism isn’t all celebration. For instance, learning about the Holocaust is “more intense than when I was learning about it ‘happened to them’ —  now ‘it’s happened to us’ — I’m emotional about it in the worst way. Knowing that anti-Semitism is real, I’m taking a risk on my own life to become Jewish because people might hate me now.”

Davis noted that “conversion stories make me light up all over again. My friends from Honeymoon Israel who converted — we all do Shabbat and validate each other.” Also, “having an aliyah for Yom Kippur [at IKAR] made me feel so validated and so important. I’m not just a bystander, but as family. That’s all we [Jews by choice] want to do is belong.”

Since 2013, Worthy of Love has served 3,600 kids at a cost of $3,000 per party, most of it raised through sponsors or donations of food and party goods. In the fall, Davis will be back at AJU, studying for her MBA, which, she hopes, will help her identify sustainability options for the organization. 

When people ask her how they can support Worthy of Love, she recommends birthday fundraisers, asking for donations instead of gifts, and volunteering at one of the parties, especially with their kids. (Underground parking and security is provided for volunteers and participants.)  

“Poverty is not TV. It’s 10 miles down the street,” she said. “On the rooftop, you don’t feel like you’re in Skid Row. There’s beautiful sky, but peek over the edge and you’ll see tents, mental illness, you’ll see it all. If you can make the drive and put yourself in these kids’ shoes — those who don’t have a choice to be there — that’s making the kid feel more normal and important, that you actually care enough to come down and make a difference.” 

Although they don’t currently have the financial support they’d need to expand, Davis said, the emotional support from the Jewish community “changed the way I looked at Judaism.” In one example, Miller Program Director Rabbi Adam Greenwald volunteered to help Davis and Kadin create a Worthy of Love Chanukah party: Greenwald presided over candle lighting and explained that Chanukah is about light in the darkness. 

“The kids really liked that,” Davis said. “They didn’t know what Chanukah means. These kids are looking for a miracle on Skid Row — to know that it’s possible is huge.” 

Because most of the groups helping the homeless are Christian, Davis also charged Los Angeles’ Jewish and civic leadership to step forward in a major way. “We’d love for Mayor [Eric] Garcetti to come to the party. We need organizations that aren’t going to put a religious label on it. And we need the Jewish community to say [to the homeless], ‘We’re here for you, too.’