Every Christmas Day, Pittsburgh’s Jewish community turns out in force to give help to those in need. Now in its 13th year, Mitzvah Day is a stark reminder that the needs of the less fortunate are many, and there are countless opportunities to roll up our sleeves as individuals and help.
“We have somewhere between 600 and 700 people,” said Judi Kanal, chair of the Jewish Federation of Greater Pittsburgh’s Volunteer Center, which oversees the event. “It’s difficult to have exact numbers because we always have walk-ins who want to do mitzvahs.”
In fact, on this single day, volunteers provided the equivalent of 1,700 hours of community service throughout the county.
“It’s so important to let the workers at these locations have the holiday off so they can be with their loved ones,” said Todd Rosenfeld, who co-chaired this year’s event with his family.
The 60 locations countywide varied greatly. They included Family House, Rainbow Kitchen, the Western Pennsylvania Humane Society on the North Shore and Asbury Heights United Methodist Services for the Aging.
“One of the things we’re really excited about this year is the ability to provide lasagna to the Kosher Food Pantry,” said Kanal. “We have sponsors for this — Giant Eagle, Huntington Bank, and Fagrasso Financial Advisors — among others. And that helps us buy the supplies. Kosher food is really expensive, and this allows us to provide a real kosher dinner. The (clients) really look forward to it.”
“It’s also about creating awareness within the Jewish community that there are people we see every day who are food insecure,” added Rosenfeld. “They don’t wear (hunger) on their sleeves.”
Congregation Poale Zedeck came on board and provided the kosher kitchen where the volunteers could assemble and cook the meals. “Mitzvah Day is a great opportunity for those of us who don’t celebrate Christmas,” said Joshua Donner, PZ site captain. “We have off of work, schools are closed, and we don’t have a lot to do. This is a great chance to give back.
“Today we’re making 150 lasagnas for the Squirrel Hill Community Food Pantry,” he added, “which serves families who need extra help putting food on the table, and families that keep kosher elsewhere in Allegheny County.”
The large community room buzzed with activity as a cheery group of adults and kids gathered around a long table carefully assembling the ingredients. Volunteers included students from the Hillel Academy Girls’ School, synagogue members, and those who signed up from the Mitzvah Day website.
At Rainbow Kitchen in Homestead, volunteers made a complete holiday meal for food-insecure and homeless families and individuals. The small space off 9th Avenue was packed with smiling volunteers serving as cooks and wait-staff to a packed house of grateful clients.
Marlene Murphy, Rainbow Kitchen’s outreach coordinator, explained that they served close to 100 meals.
“We really appreciate the (volunteers) coming and doing this,” Murphy said. “It’s a holiday and everybody goes home to their warm houses and forgets about these people who don’t have anywhere to go. We cook meals Mondays through Fridays here, so if were closed, where are they going to eat? These volunteers allow us to open up and offer a nice warm meal and some good fellowship.”
At Anathan House, home of the Pittsburgh chapter of the National Council of Jewish Women, volunteers were assembling bags for children who are removed from their homes by the county.
“Oftentimes, these kids are removed in the middle of the night, or under other rough circumstances, and they aren’t allowed to take anything with them,” said Dana Himmel, site captain at Anathan. “Or if they are, things are thrown in a garbage bag, which sort of makes them feel like garbage.
“So this project, through the NCJW, provides bags to these kids — not a garbage bag,” she continued, “and it’s got some personal care items, like a toothbrush, toothpaste, and soap, a T-shirt, because sometimes they go without anything to wear but the clothes on their back, and a stuffed animal — something loving and nice and soft. Judges, social workers, and others pass these out … and it might be all the kid ends up with while moving from place to place.”
All five Mitzvah Day chairs were Todd, Jordana and Mia Rosenfeld, Delilah Picart and Emilia Brewer.
(Erik Rosen can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.)