Big Sunday sets up a safety net

Jewish Journal
May 25, 2016

Big Sunday sets up a safety net

by Ryan Torok

Every May, people across the country fan out and beautify schools, plant neighborhood gardens and feed the homeless, often with the words “Big Sunday” emblazoned on T-shirts while they perform these mitzvot.

But Big Sunday, which has its headquarters on Melrose Avenue and grew out of a mitzvah day at Temple Israel of Hollywood in 1999, is expanding far beyond the traditional volunteer work — and calendar — that has become synonymous with its name.

The organization’s flagship Big Sunday event, which began as a single day and grew into a full weekend including volunteers from synagogues, as well as churches, schools, businesses citywide and more, this year offered an entire month of volunteer activities called Month of Big Sundays (MOBS), which concludes May 31.

And the nonprofit’s Big Sunday Emergency Fund now offers emergency cash grants to community members in need. This could be a single mother whose refrigerator breaks, a young woman who can’t afford to visit her dying mother across the country, or a high school student who doesn’t have a bed and sleeps in a chair.

“It is for people without a safety net,” David Levinson, executive director and founder of Big Sunday, said in a phone interview. “[For] you or me, if our car breaks down, if our refrigerator breaks down, it will not totally screw our lives up. But for a lot of people, people who don’t have a network of friends or families who can come up with a quick 4[00] to 500 [dollars], it will.”

The Big Sunday Emergency Fund, which officially launched in 2014, assists one or two people a month with approximately $400 to $2,000 in assistance. But instead of Big Sunday providing emergency grants to recipients directly, the organization requires that a registered 501(c)(3) nonprofit organization submit the request.

“We don’t give a check to the individual,” said Levinson, author of “Everyone Helps, Everyone Wins” and a former Hollywood screenwriter. “In the name of keeping everything as kosher as possible, we give it to the nonprofit.”

For example, the organization recently worked with My Friend’s Place, which assists homeless youth in Hollywood. One of its clients, who had aged out of the foster care system, wanted to visit her dying mother across the country but could not afford to do so.

“We got her on the red-eye that night, paid for her plane ticket as well as cabs to and from [John F. Kennedy International Airport] in New York,” Levinson said. “This was somebody who didn’t have six months or six weeks to wait to file some grant proposal or something.”

Another recipient was a high school student over 6 feet tall who had serious back pain. An inquiring teacher discovered that he was sleeping in a chair every night.

“We got him a bed,” Levinson said. “That was in the no-brainer category.”

If the money is needed immediately, the recipient nonprofit might put the money up on its own and then invoice Big Sunday for the funds spent. The organization vets requests based on the significance of the need and who is asking for it.

“Really it is whether they’ve exhausted all other options [and] how significant the emergency seems to be,” Levinson said.

Levinson explained that the organization has partners that provide items such as discounted beds and that partnerships with local businesses enable Big Sunday to do what it does.

Big Sunday is not the only organization to do this type of work. The Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles has a community tzedakah fund that provides one-time emergency “financial assistance to Jewish individuals and families experiencing an unexpected catastrophic event,” according to its website. And the Jewish Free Loan Agency provides interest-free loans of up to $3,000 for emergency situations, such as a car breaking down, moving expenses and more.

The money for Big Sunday’s program comes from Big Sunday Lemonade Stand kits that are provided to supporters, with all the proceeds from the stands benefiting the fund. Also, donations to the fund are tax-deductible.

A recent outgrowth of the organization’s emergency fund is TGIW! (Thank God It’s Work!), which helps out-of-work people secure jobs by employing them at Big Sunday or at one of the group’s partner organizations. Big Sunday is invoiced the labor costs of those who work at its partner organizations, Levinson said.

“We’ve found that a lot of people, including beneficiaries of the emergency fund, want to work. … They’ve been laid off, they’re older people, they’re having a string of bad luck. We help them find temporary employment, either with ourselves or with sister nonprofits,” Levinson said. “We will find them a job.”

The one demand Levinson makes of emergency fund recipients is that they write a thank-you note afterward.

“We ask people to send a note to say ‘thanks.’ People donate to the emergency fund and part of the appeal is there’s a real person on the other end of the donation,” he said. “There’s a donation, and there’s a story on the other side of it.”

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“To All at Big Sunday, Now, more than ever, we need the goodwill that you share and the good works that you do”

- — L.B., Los Angeles