Jewish volunteers mark yuletide by aiding others

Presents for the ill, homeless prepared as part of `giving time'

December 26, 2006|By Rona Kobell | Rona Kobell,Sun Reporter

Mike Zubner woke up on Christmas morning and did what came naturally: He drove to the Jewish Community Center to volunteer.

Hundreds of other Jewish people in the region had the same instinct. By 9:30 a.m., three upstairs rooms at the Park Heights building were strewn with gift bags, wrapping paper and crayons. Less than three hours later, the organizers of Community Mitzvah Day announced that the group was finished - they had wrapped more than 1,000 winter supply packages for distribution at homeless shelters and hundreds of presents to deliver to ill children.

Zubner, who came to the event last year and is a regular volunteer for various Jewish causes, said he couldn't think of a better way to spend the day.

FOR THE RECORD - An article in yesterday's editions on Jewish volunteers misspelled the name of Mike Zabner.

"If I wasn't here, I might be sleeping. Or I'd probably be doing laundry," said the 74-year-old Pikesville resident. "It's as good a thing to do as anything on Christmas morning."

While much of America enjoys waking up to a decadent Christmas ham and an armload of gifts ready to be opened on Dec. 25, many Jewish families have developed their own traditions. They go to the movies and out for Chinese food - or maybe to a Jewish deli if they can find one that's open.

Plenty of volunteers at yesterday's events were planning to do that later in the day - more than one even had the movie listings tucked into a shirt pocket. But increasingly, Jewish people like Zubner are looking for something meaningful to do on the holiday, said Leslie Pomerantz, executive director of the Jewish Volunteer Connection, which organized the JCC event.

"We have a history of a mandate to give back to the community," Pomerantz said. "People want to do something that's meaningful, and while we don't celebrate Christmas, it's still a giving time."

The Jewish Volunteer Connection first organized a Christmas Community Mitzvah Day last year because, Pomerantz said, a lot of people were calling and looking for an opportunity to help people on that day.

The organization begins putting the event together in October, advertising in local papers for volunteers and sending out a flurry of e-mail.

In addition to the gift-wrapping, Jewish Connection volunteers delivered the packages to local homeless shelters and served meals there and at convalescent centers.

The get-the-word-out campaign worked so well that, for some of the other volunteer events around the city, organizers had to turn people away. At Beans and Bread, for example, more than 20 people signed up, but the Fells Point organization could only take 10 because it had its regular crew that wanted to help.

But everyone was welcome to decorate bags and wrap gifts - volunteers were still pouring into the JCC long after registration for the event had closed.

Many parents used the day as an opportunity to teach their children about tzedakah - the Hebrew word for helping the less fortunate.

"We came to help some other kids and families that don't have a place to go, that are less fortunate than us," said Jeff Saval, who brought his 10-year-old daughter, Cara, along yesterday.

Cara didn't object - coloring gift bags was a lot more fun than working behind her uncle's deli counter, which is what her two older siblings were doing yesterday morning.

Organizers said some of the volunteers came from the Howard County suburbs, and a few weren't even Jewish - they were just looking to do a good deed on Christmas. Still, the bulk of the crowd hailed from Baltimore's traditional Jewish enclaves - Pikesville, Owings Mills and Mount Washington. The event had the atmosphere of a family reunion, with people running into neighbors, friends and cousins.

Nancy Schwartz, whose daughter helped organize the event, took a break from wrapping presents to smile and make funny faces at 12-week-old Lillian Blumenthal, whose parents are family friends.

"It does feel good to do this, knowing where all this stuff is going, rather than sitting around, going to the movies and going for Chinese food," Schwartz said. "To do something like this today, it's really nice."

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