Missy Jacobson, co-chair United Jewish Federation Mitzva Day Committee, worked busily at Sojourner House in Friendship, decorating the party room and serving a holiday meal to families.
“Mitzva Day allows the Jewish community to come and do all sorts of work throughout the day on Christmas, so that our Christian counterparts can enjoy themselves, spend time with their families and not have to work,” she said.
“We use this day as an opportunity to volunteer. We often get much more out of it than we give back but it’s just and opportunity for us to get together as a community and help in any way that we can.”
Just as Orthodox Jews appreciate “Shabbos Goys,” those non-Jews who historically turned on and off the lights in synagogues on Shabbat, Christians appreciate Jews for our Christmas Mitzvas.
Every year, area Jews sign up for Mitzva Day in the Greater Pittsburgh area. This year, 420 people signed up to volunteer at 36 sites around Pittsburgh and the Allegheny County.
Attendance for this year’s Mitzva Day was up significantly from last year’s total. Volunteers also had seven new sites to volunteer at including Angel’s Place and the Ronald McDonald House in Shadyside.
As volunteers decorated the party room, nine young children sat eagerly around the crafts table with crayons and brightly colored construction paper. “Where’s the sizzors? I need some more paper.”
Three-year-old Rayheim, his 6-year-old sister Raysha, and 10-year-old brother, Raytaum, participated in the crafts and festivities while eagerly awaiting their Christmas dinner. Rayheim and Raysha sat around the crafts table while Raytaum hung out with Dejon, 10, a friend he had met at Sojourner House.
Dejon’s mouth watered as she described the delicious dinner she anticipated, “yams, turkey, green beans, and ham.” Raytaum was more practical, explaining that he liked Sojourner House because “it is warmer here and there are toys to play with and television.”
Jill Pancoast and 5 1⁄2 year old daughter Hannah were visiting from Florida. They called UJF for a Mitzva Day assignment and found themselves at the Sojourner House Christmas Party.
“We’re here to help the sick people, give them presents and make sure they have a good Christmas,” said Hannah.
It could not have escaped Hannah’s attention that she was the same age as other children in the room.
Sojourner House is a faith-based residential rehabilitation facility where addicted women learn to break the inter-generational cycle of poverty and chemical abuse while in their own apartment with their children.
“Good deeds like Mitzva Day help these women in recovery,” said Ombrea Askew, a personal aide at Sojourner House. It shows them that other people care about them and their families.
“We are known for helping a lot of women who have mental problems and drug and alcohol abuse problems. A lot of women come here that go through the (12-step) programs.”
The program was named after Sojourner Truth (Isabella Baumfree). Born into slavery in 1797, in Ulster County, N.Y., she rose to become a Methodist preacher, abolitionist and women’s rights supporter. She died in 1883.
In October 2008, Sojourner Truth became the First Black Woman to be honored with a Bust in the U.S. Capitol.
(Dev Meyers can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.)