Question: When is a Jew making ham a mitzva?
Answer: When it’s on Christmas.
More than 400 local Jews joined with Jews all over the country Friday to participate in the annual late-December festival of togetherness, cheer and chesed (kindness): Mitzvah Day, a program run by the United Jewish Federation to put Jewish volunteers in important communal positions that would otherwise have been vacated on Christmas. The activities ranged from preparing meals for the homeless to calling bingo for the elderly, and much in between.
At the Rainbow Kitchen in Homestead, one of Mitzvah Day’s most popular sites, the 20 volunteers there expected to feed around 100 people a holiday meal of turkey, ham, potatoes, stuffing, vegetables and dessert, according to the site’s volunteer manager, Debbie Mendelson.
Similar work was being done at the Family House in Oakland, a place where the families of hospital patients from out of town can live while their loved ones are admitted for treatment.
“It’s a wonderful, beautiful program,” said Ferne Averbach, a volunteer preparing a free holiday meal for residents at the Family House. “We have a diverse group of volunteers and this helps you to meet people from your community, plus seven of my own family are here.”
This family included her daughter-in-law, Pearl Averbach, a geriatric care worker for Jewish Family & Children’s Service and overseer of the effort at Family House. “We have nine volunteers here today and we expect to feed about 50 family members,” she said.
Shortly before mealtime, the atmosphere in the kitchen was relaxed, but active. “She’s really putting us to work here,” Craig Nayhouse, a volunteer from Squirrel Hill, said. “Usually, we just get to interact with people, but she’s putting us to work. She’s doing an excellent job, though.”
Over at Charles M. Morris Nursing and Rehabilitation Center in Squirrel Hill, Mitzvah Day volunteers were helping the Jewish elderly by carrying out a bingo game. The caller, attorney Jeff Pollock, does some acting “on the side,” so he knows how to project his voice while relishing a role — frequently mixing up the style of game play (with mixed reviews from the audience), like playing one game where only four corners wins, another where only an “X” across the board wins and associating the numbers called with famous Pittsburgh athletes past and present.
Pollock’s 8-year-old daughter, Brady, handed the winners their prizes. “She loves senior citizens because they have fuzzy cheeks,” he said.
At Rainbow Kitchen, Mendelson said the facility would have been open without them, “but this makes the staff’s lives much easier.”
Leah Whitcroft, a part-time manager at Family House, said meals would still be served there with or without Mitzvah Day, but for the volunteers, it is a pleasure. “It’s just really nice to help people celebrate their holiday,” Nayhouse said.
Ferne Averbach agreed. “If I wasn’t here, I would be watching football and my husband would be watching ‘A Christmas Story,’ ” she said.
The effort does not go unappreciated by the recipients.
Sarah Kiner and her small son are staying at the Family House while her husband underwent (successfully) a double lung transplant. She said the Family House experience was “amazing.”
When told her Christmas dinner was made by local Jewish volunteers, her eyes bulged, “Oh really?” she said, “Wow, that’s really awesome!”
Jewish youths comprised many of the Mitzvah Day volunteers.
“I think it’s more what we give than what we get,” said Lauren Mendelson of Squirrel Hill, who, along with her brother and cousins, spent her sixth Mitzvah Day at Rainbow Kitchen. “I mean, Christmas is just another day for us, but it’s one of the most special days of the year for them, so why not volunteer and help out?”
Added her cousin, Cara Mendelson of Upper St. Clair, “I think everyday should be Mitzvah Day, but it doesn’t have to be to this extent with the volunteering. Whatever you can do is good.”
(Derek Kwait can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.)