Everyone benefits from a little kindness – given or received. To spread some kindness across Jewish Memphis, the Memphis Jewish Community Center launched the MJCC Ahavat Achim (Brotherly Love) Challenge, led by Rabbi Mordechai Harris, Director for the Center for Jewish Living and Learning.

The goal: to build bridges, strengthen existing bonds and make a bold statement of mutual caring and interdependence in the Memphis Jewish community.

It was nice to see a program that involved the staff of every institution. In addition to the beauty of everyone coming together, it was also a chance to involve the professionals who keep all of our agencies running.

David Fleischhacker

Baron Hirsch

Rabbi Harris carefully planned this program to coincide with the Three Weeks – the 17th of the Hebrew month of Tammuz to the 9th of the Hebrew month of Av is a period of mourning recalling the destruction of the Jewish Temples. Rabbis teach that these tragedies were a consequence of needless Jewish infighting or Sinat Chinam – ‘baseless hatred.’ To counteract and correct these flaws, we are taught to foster Ahavat Chinam – ‘unconditional love.’

“The MJCC encouraged members to make a special effort during this time to perform unprompted deeds of kindness toward one another, and in particular, on behalf of others who inhabit different social circles and demographics,” says Rabbi Harris. “We wanted members to apply their creativity to enhance feelings of appreciation, warmth and interconnectedness among our diverse community during the period of mournful introspection, in hopes it would serve as the catalyst for a happier, healthier, more connected community.”

Rabbi Harris also points out that the kind deeds and giving weren’t limited to a monetary value or material items. “It’s the gift of kindness, of compassion, of caring and appreciation that builds love through all its diverse expressions,” he says. “You could hold the door, smile and share greetings or pay something forward.”

The SAGE project brought our staff together in such a fun way! We all met in the afternoon to open the gift and read the ‘Ode’ that went with it. Everyone helped plan and decide what our Secret Agency would receive. The Revealing was great; we never suspected that we had each other! The project promoted interagency thoughtfulness as well as a real team spirit.

Leigh Hendry

Plough Towers (Buddy, Baron Hirsch)

We were elated to join this beautiful “giving” program. Creating gifts and having them delivered to our recipient gave us great pleasure knowing they would soon receive a happy surprise! Such a great way to bring the community together!

Suzanne Back


Local Jewish agencies were involved on a larger scale within the Ahavat Achim Challenge. Fourteen Jewish organizations participated in the Secret Agency Gift Exchange or ‘SAGE.’ The agencies were randomly paired with a secret ‘buddy’ agency, and each was asked to perform gifts of kindness, with a firm $100 limit on total expenses, for their partner agency throughout the three-week period in late July and the beginning of August.

“As organizations thought of ways to give to their SAGE beneficiary, we advised them to keep in mind the unique mission and needs of that organization, as well as the many types of people who may be involved as staff, lay leadership and members/participants,” explains Rabbi Harris. “The goal was to help the people who comprise the organization to feel valued as part of the larger Memphis Jewish community.”

Several members provided creative input for this community-unifying project to create a beautiful gift basket for Chabad. Modeled after the Mi Shebeirach recited in synagogues around the world each Shabbos prior to the Musaf prayers, the basket contained Shabbos candles, bottles of wine for Kiddush and Havdallah, a gift certificate to Ricki’s for Challahs, and Tzedakah – via Kroger gift cards. With this gift basket, we hoped to partner with Chabad in their efforts at sharing these enriching Mitzvahs with our fellow Jews.

Rabbi Akiva Males

Young Israel

During the program, Rabbi Harris posted pictures and updates on social media about inspiring moments from the secret gift exchange. It was clear everyone really got into the spirit of giving kindness and sharing love. “I received emails and Facebook messages from around the U.S., the UK and Israel, with people sharing how touched they were or how cool they thought the project was,” says Rabbi Harris. “One person from Seattle asked permission to use my invitation letter at a Limmud event as an example during an introduction to her discussion on productive discourse between diverse Jewish groups. It was wonderful to be able to project such a positive image of our great community and to inspire other communities to follow suit.”

While the plethora of thoughtful and fun secret gifts were far too many to list, here are a few of the lovely acts of kindness: pizza lunch at MJCC; flowers to Temple Israel with and a note that read: “Thank you for all you do to help the community blossom;” Baron Hirsch Congregation received lottery tickets; snack baskets sent to Memphis Jewish Home & Rehab; plants to Bornblum Jewish Community School; and Margolin Hebrew Academy received yummy donuts.

The Project was a great way to bring those of us who work in the Memphis Jewish Community closer together.

Joel Ashner

Memphis Jewish Home and Rehab

The program, a simple but brilliant project, gave all participants a respite from territoriality. Everyone’s focus was on uplifting others. When we received our beautiful gift of indoor plants from an unknown donor, every agency was “suspect” of having reached out with kindness. For an all-too-brief time that suspicion generated smiles whenever we were in contact with one of the participants. That smile will outlast the flowers – and for that we are grateful.

Rabbi Cantor David Julian

Or Chadash

The SAGE program culminated on August 7, which was Tu B’Av – the Jewish holiday of love and rebirth – with a reveal luncheon party where the participating agencies found out who their secret partner had been. “The sentiment was universally one of gratitude and appreciation for what we had done together,” says Rabbi Harris. “People shared endearing stories of their planning and process, as well as reactions of sincere appreciation to the generosity of others. Plough Towers [representatives] even brought one last gift for their mystery agency – their self-published cookbook. Seeing how the thoughtful exchanges put smiles on people’s faces and totally transformed their day was priceless. While I may have organized [the program], the bulk of the credit goes to everyone who participated.”

The SAGE program was so successful that Rabbi Harris plans to organize it again next year. “It was neat to watch from my unique perch as different organizations in town strove to learn more about another organization, not just about their mission, but about the people behind it, “ he says. “A lot of thought went into the different gifts, cards and activities. No one simply went through the motions, and that investment of energy yielded positive feelings and a more profound work for the roles others play in our community. To me, this program is proof of our capacity to unite, and I’m hopeful that the bridges built will naturally lead to more collaboration and warmer hand-offs between agencies as the people we serve move freely between us.

“The inspiration and positive energy we created together during this three-week SAGE project is something we can all be proud of, he continued. “Together, we helped build a strong and united Jewish community in Memphis, one we can model to a broader world, which desperately needs it. I know that I will personally draw on those good vibes in the weeks and months ahead.”


Everyone was so inspired by the SAGE project and brought unique and fun ideas to our brainstorming sessions. Our favorite part was probably getting the kids involved, and teaching them about the value of giving without the expectation of receiving something was an added bonus!

Melinda Lejman

Beth Sholom

The SAGE project was enlightening and inspiring. We loved the “game” of guessing who was sending our gifts and coming up with creative ideas of things to give to our assigned agency. On a deeper level, it was an opportunity to connect with other agencies and the people who help support our community on a day-to-day basis, professionals and volunteers alike.

Gila Golder

Jewish Community Partners