Ari J. Zakem and about 15 of his fraternity brothers from the Johns Hopkins University got up early yesterday, ready to have some fun and help some people.
After all, that is what the Jewish holiday Purim is all about - doing good works and spreading cheer.
The members of Zakem's fraternity, Alpha Epsilon Pi, were among a group of about 100 children and young adults who crowded into Weinberg Jewish Community Center on Park Heights Avenue yesterday for events tied to the Purim holiday.
They prepared food gifts, small baskets of candy treats and similar items for the sick, poor, elderly and others in the community.
"It's a Jewish tradition to do community service," said Zakem, 21, who is his fraternity chapter's philanthropy chairman. "I can't imagine not doing it."
The event was organized by the Jewish Volunteer Connection and the young adult division of The Associated: Jewish Community Federation of Baltimore.
Zakem said his fraternity tries to get involved in a philanthropic activity at least once a month as a way to give back to the community.
Giving is a central tenet of Purim - a holiday that commemorates and celebrates actions that Queen Esther and her uncle Mordecai took to save the Jews of Persia from annihilation 2,300 years ago.
The actual Purim holiday this year is tomorrow, although observance starts tonight with the reading of the story of Queen Esther. She and Mordecai battled to thwart Haman, an adviser who counseled the Persian king to destroy the Jews.
Among other activities at the community center yesterday, volunteers worked with autistic and special-needs children and adults on crafts tied to the story.
They used feathers, glue and sequins to decorate small cardboard tubes that were filled with rice and turned into noise-making "groggers." The tubes are shaken loudly to drown out the name of Haman as the story of Queen Esther and Mordecai is told for Purim.
In other rooms at the center, volunteers made sandwiches for the poor to take to Our Daily Bread and packed small bags of sweets and snacks to give to the elderly in assisted-living centers.
For Michael Boltansky, 7, the contribution was of the artistic variety. The Pikesville boy was busy working with others on a mural for the Stephen Kaufman HIV/AIDS outreach project.
With his mother, Hilarie L. Boltansky, looking on, the youngster pointed out his handiwork.
He cut felt cloth in the shape of a person and glued it to the mural. He also pasted colorful stars and stickers and swirled pink glue around in different designs.
"It was fun," Michael said.
Better yet, he said, he got out early from Beth El Hebrew School so he could go the center with his mother.
The excitement was shared by some of the young adults as well, such as Alison M. Kleiner, who was leading a group of young volunteers called TAG - short for "Twenty-somethings and Graduates."
"This is my favorite holiday," Kleiner said. "Everybody is excited. It's fun. I love seeing kids having a good time."
The food gift sacks and other items will bring cheer as they are distributed to the elderly and others, said Caron Blau Rothstein, associate director of Jewish Volunteer Connection, one of the groups involved in organizing yesterday's event.
"You're going to get a lot of smiles on a lot of people's faces today," Rothstein said.
Lynne B. Kahn, co-chairwoman of Associated's young adult division, said she was pleased by the turnout.
"It was fantastic," she said. "I think people got a great deal out of this project. It's a fun holiday."