Mitzvah Day fills stomachs, warms hearts, meets seniors, wags tails
At the Jewish Community Center, they stuffed peanut butter and jelly sandwiches into plastic bags for hungry children.
Down the street, they layered lasagnas at Shaare Torah for the food pantry.
In Homestead, they served meals at the Rainbow Kitchen.
And on the North Side, they cleaned out kennels at the Western Pennsylvania Humane Society.
And these were just a few of the 65 places where Jews from across Greater Pittsburgh gave their time to help, others at the 12th annual Mitzvah Day — the annual Dec. 25 day of community service.
Nearly 700 people signed up for this year’s Mitzvah Day, said Jewish Federation of Greater Pittsburgh spokesman Raimy Rubin, some 100 more than the previous year.
In fact, the response was so great this year that the turnout swamped the slots available for service.
“They literally turned people away this year,” Rubin said. “People kept signing up.”
People tried to sign up hours before Mitzvah Day began.
“We had people calling us at 10 p.m. [Monday] saying, ‘please let us do something,’ ” Judy Kanal said.
Kanal is the chair of the Federation’s new Volunteer Center at the Jewish Federation of Greater Pittsburgh, which coordinated this year’s Mitzvah Day. She said the response to this year’s event demonstrates how much the people of Jewish Pittsburgh want to volunteer.
“We are continually growing our database,” she said. “We have hundreds of names on our database, and this is just a way to feed it.”
One of the most popular of the 65 sites Tuesday was the at the JCC in Squirrel Hill where 80 to 100 people filed in all morning to prepare peanut butter and jelly sandwiches, which were then bagged and distributed to area school children participating in lunch programs, who would eat them that same day.
“The number one question everyone asks me is where are these sandwiches going,” said Jenny Jones, coordinator of the sandwich-making event. “They’re very surprised that kids don’t have lunch today. People feel very good that they’re doing something that’s going to affect kids today.”
Across the hallway, volunteers were affecting children in a different way. Instead of making sandwiches to fill their stomachs, they made sock puppets to buoy their spirits.
The puppets would be sent to kids at the UPMC Children’s Hospital in Lawrenceville.
The project was the brainchild of Lisa Lederer and her husband, Josh.
“Josh and I run this event every year,” Lisa said. “This is our third year. We started it for our friends. The Federation got wind of it and said, ‘oh, you should do it for Mitzvah Day.’ ”
Emmeline Silk of Stanton Heights was making sock puppets for the second year in a row. When she was done, she planned to head over to Canterberry Place to make crafts with the senior citizens living there.
“So I’m doing a double Mitzvah Day,” Silk said. “Bringing a little happiness to someone, that’s what counts.”
Actually, the sock puppet project seemed lightly attended until a squad of boys from Hillel Academy marched into the gym, occupied a group of tables and busied themselves making the puppets, happily cheering their school’s name when videotaped by a reporter.
At Shaare Torah, about 30 people — adults and children — showed up to make 100 kosher lasagnas — some of which were cholov yisroel — for the Squirrel Hill Community Food Pantry.
In fact, they made so many lasagnas so quickly that event coordinator Emily Richmond announced midway through the morning that they were running out of tomato sauce.
“We’re having a good time — lots of teamwork going on,” Richmond said. “It’s a great family project.”
Across town at the Humane Society, seven volunteers signed up to feed and care for those who couldn’t say thank you — the dogs, cats and rabbits housed there.
Even if they couldn’t say thank you, “they looked like they were having a good time,” site coordinator Becca Ackner said.
Two of the volunteers were Rachel Hess and her 9-year-old daughter, Sidney Koutrouba, of Highland Park.
“It’s one of the best jobs I thought there was,” Sidney said of the Mitzvah Day offering. Adding she might like to do it again next year.
“My daughter and I wanted to volunteer with the animals,” Hess said. “We try to do something every year on Mitzvah Day, and this year, it was this one.
(Lee Chottiner can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.)