The Jewish sages said acts of kindness are one of the pillars upon which the world stands. Every year on Dec. 25, our community’s institutions give Jews and non-Jews alike ample opportunities to help those in need.
At the Edlavitch JCC’s Dec. 25 Day of Service (D25), for instance, several dozen gift-wrappers prepared over 1,900 gifts for donation across the region. Donors contributed 82 dozen — that’s 984 — baked goods, and 70 people participated in a blood drive — it may not have been a traditional Christmas present, but donating blood was another way to give something valuable to the community.
The 31st annual D25 drew about 1,000 volunteers at 55 sites in DC and Maryland; from food kitchens and homeless shelters run by Christian organizations, to DC Hebrew Home and Jewish Foundation for Group Homes (JFGH) facilities. Local Jewish businesses and institutions also contributed food and services throughout the day.
D25 is one of the DCJCC’s four major days of service and the product of institutional and personal relationships that have been cultivated over many, many years. This was reflected in one of the highlights of the day for Adina Kanefield, deputy executive director at the DCJCC: When volunteer Ben Becker, who arrived at the DCJCC with his family of four decked out in matching red shirts, told her he was continuing his parents’ tradition of bringing him to this annual day of service with his own children.
“It was a really nice moment of history and continuity, where you could see the DCJCC has been a center of volunteerism for generations,” Kanefield said.
The Jewish Volunteer Connection (JVC), a program of The Associated: Jewish Community Federation of Baltimore, hosted their 12th annual Mitzvah Day Dec. 24 – 25. Like D25, Mitzvah Day had over 1,000 participants, with the Baltimore area’s two JCCs serving as hubs of volunteer activity and dozens of on-site volunteer opportunities across the community as well.
According to JVC Executive Director Ashley Pressman, the “seasonal” factor in the origins of Community Mitzvah Day 12 years ago was not Christmas itself but people’s availability and repeated inquiries about volunteer opportunities. With the exception of yeshiva day school families, both Jewish and non-Jewish parents and kids have off from work and school, and “it feels like a good day to give back,” said Pressman.
“This is a day of the year when people can feel sort of isolated from the larger community, particularly people who have a lot of friends celebrating Christmas. This is an opportunity to be part of a community,” she said. For members of the Jewish community, “this is an opportunity to say, ‘I am Jewish, and this is the thing I do on this day, and it’s special and really amazing.’”
Kanefield focused more on the role of Christmas in amplifying the need for acts of kindness.
“There is such a great need on Christmas Day to help others who are celebrating the holiday,” said Kanefield. Programs like D25 help members of vulnerable populations enjoy what should be a special, happy time of year for them. It is also a great vehicle for Jews who want to give back to the community as well as non-Jews looking to celebrate Christmas with “a meaningful service opportunity for their families.”
In addition to massive productions like D25 and JVC’s Mitzvah Day, programs with the same generous mission were organized by smaller institutions. For example, over 150 volunteers participated in projects for the Jewish Federation of Howard County’s Mitzvah Day. At Bet Yeladim Preschool in Columbia, Maryland, young families packed lunches for a crisis intervention center, made bracelets and cards for sick children in Israel, enjoyed a puppet show about tikkun olam (fixing the world), and more.
They may not be Chinese food and a movie, but these programs are definitely December traditions worth preserving.
By Rachel Kohn
Rachel Kohn is editor in chief of Kol HaBirah.