Mother’s Day mitzvah project benefits local women’s shelters

B’nai Amoona Sisterhood President, Gail Feldstein (left) and event chairperson Barbara Berson of Traditional Congregation, make the final ribbon twirls on bags that will be donated to local women’s shelters. 


While many mothers across the St. Louis area will get flowers, homemade cards, breakfast in bed and handcrafted gifts, others will be lucky to get through Mother’s Day without being verbally and/or physically abused by their spouse or partner. That’s why, for the past 20 years, members of Traditional Congregation in Creve Coeur have tried to send those moms some love with special gift bags, assembled by the local Jewish community. 

“These are women with low self-esteem or they’re escaping dangerous situations, so who’s going to help them celebrate Mother’s Day?” says Barbara Berson, who has spearheaded the Florence Gaponoff Mother’s Day Mitzvah Project for Traditional’s Chesed Committee since the early 1990s.

This year, Traditional’s mitzvah project sent a record 318 Mother’s Day gift bags to women’s shelters across St. Louis and St. Charles. The year 2013 also marked the first time in the project’s impressive history that congregants from other synagogues have assisted in gathering supplies and assembling gift bags.

Berson’s daughter, Elizabeth, 14, has seen the project grow each year—she attended her first Mother’s Day Mitzvah project at six months—and said that even though many people focus on their own families on Mother’s Day, she’s always been taught to remember others. “I’m sure [the shelters] get donations on major holidays, but these women are mothers, too, and I’m not sure how they feel on Mother’s Day,” said Elizabeth. “Getting nice donations must brighten their day. “


Barbara Berson says she does not know of any organizations that do Mother’s Day charity drives for women in St. Louis. She got the idea for a Mother’s Day project when she worked at the now-shuttered St. Louis Regional Hospital, which treated the uninsured. Berson encountered many young mothers at the cash-strapped hospital who didn’t have basic resources like shampoo and toothpaste. After Regional Hospital closed, Berson shifted the congregations supply drive to benefit women’s shelters.

This year each gift bag included 15 to 17 items, some high-end like sandalwood soap, Paul Mitchell mousse, or Clinique facial scrub. Traditional collects supplies throughout the year for this purpose.

Annabelle Chapel of Traditional has participated in the project throughout its history and said that it always gives her pause to reflect on her own life. “I am such a fortunate woman as a mother, with my family,” Chapel said. “So as a mother I want to pay it forward to other mothers who haven’t had that fortune with their own families. I think that’s what brings us all here.”

Last Sunday, about 30 volunteers from various congregations, including Traditional, B’nai Amoona, and Shaare Zedek/ Kol Rinah showed up to decorate and assemble gift bags.

Mary Burns, executive director of Woman’s Place, a St. Louis drop-in support center for women facing domestic violence, says the gift bags are a welcome surprise for the center’s clients.

“Often their self-confidence has been chipped away by their abuser to the point where they don’t think anyone cares about them at all,” Burns said. “These bags are made very lovingly and they mean a lot to the women who receive them.”

Women’s shelters in St. Louis have always faced funding shortages. But domestic violence intervention services here and across the country have been hit especially hard this year by budget sequestration. About $20 million has been cut from the Violence Against Women Act, which funds domestic violence prevention services, and nearly $9 million was cut from the Family Violence Prevention Services Act, which is the primary funding stream for battered women’s shelters.

Berson explained that the Florence Gaponoff Mother’s Day Mitzvah Project is named for her mother, who passed away five years ago. Gaponoff, who had been legally blind since birth, often flew out from California to keep Berson company as she delivered supplies to the shelters’ secret locations across St. Louis.

Elizabeth Berson says her family has big plans for her mom this Mother’s Day; her two older brothers are coming home from college and the family is taking Barbara to a Cardinals game.

One year she and her brothers locked their mother in the bathroom and decorated her bedroom with streamers and paper chains.

“She does all of this stuff for other moms, so it seems fitting that we do something big for her each year,” says Elizabeth.