Hundreds turn out for 'Mitzvah Day'

Jewish volunteers pack gift bags, serve meals

December 24, 2010|By Arthur Hirsch, The Baltimore Sun

Some 300 volunteers converged Friday morning on the Harry and Jeanette Weinberg Jewish Community Center in Park Heights, where a couple of rooms thumped like a disco and looked like a strange combination of package assembly line, craft workshop and youth basketball practice.

The noise and frenetic activity has become a seasonal custom for the Jewish Volunteer Connection, as it commands troops of people at the city center, another in Owings Mills and other locations around the area. This year, about 650 signed up ahead of time and another 100 showed up in the morning to lend a hand in an array of charitable works, including packing and delivering goody bags, serving meals, writing letters to soldiers, donating blood, making sandwiches for a soup kitchen and contributing a few dollars to charity for the chance to shoot hoops in the gym at Park Heights.

Since 2005 the JVC, a program of The Associated: Jewish Community Federation of Baltimore, has been staging what it calls "Mitzvah Day," using the Hebrew word meaning both an act that fulfills a commandment and a charitable deed. The event has always been held on Christmas Day, said Ashley Pressman, the JVC's executive director, but as Dec. 25 this year falls on Saturday, the Jewish Sabbath, it was moved a day earlier.

This year, Pressman said, the organization added new locations and events, such as assembling toiletry kits for families whose children are being admitted to Johns Hopkins Hospital through the emergency room.

At the Park Heights center, disc jockey Joe Pachino pumped up-tempo numbers such as "I Will Survive," "Let's Get Loud" and "Movin' Out" into the auditorium and the gym, where most of the volunteers were working. In the quieter community room upstairs, the Red Cross was taking blood donations at five stations.

Brenna Friedmann of Pikesville showed up at the Park Heights center about 9:30 a.m., getting to work on the gift-bag assembly lines in the auditorium with her 12-year-old son, Sammy.

"It's important," she said. "It's a day we can give, Jews can give. It's important to teach the children."

Friedmann and her son packed decorated white shopping bags with an array of items: one hand-knitted wool scarf and hat, one pair of gloves, a water bottle, pair of socks, granola bar, bag of Doritos, pretzels, containers of hand lotion, shampoo and deodorant, candy cane and handmade holiday card.

In a little over an hour, Friedmann said, she and her son must have packed 30 or 40 bags.

"He said, 'Every time you go around, you make a person happy,'" Friedmann said, quoting her son.

Donni and Liz Engelhart of Baltimore were wheeling their 10-week-old son, Aviv, bundled under several layers, in a stroller on the assembly line.

"We were looking for a way to volunteer," said Donni. "Just wanted to spend the day doing something productive and helpful."

The packed bags were being hauled out to waiting cars for delivery to seven spots in the city and one in the suburbs, including Our Daily Bread, The Baltimore Station, The Helping Up Mission, the Hannah More Shelter and the Baltimore Child Abuse Center. Pressman said volunteers worked at about 20 city and county sites on Friday.

Irene Himelfarb of Pikesville heard about the event at her Owings Mills synagogue and decided to try it for the first time.

"I'm trying to figure out why I didn't come before," Himelfarb said. She moved to the bag-packing line after putting in some time in the gym, which was dubbed the "Mitzvah Room." She was sewing bags for wheelchairs and walkers until her hands hurt so much she had to stop.

At other stations in the "Mitzvah Room," some volunteers were making blankets that would be distributed next week to children being treated for cancer, and some were making math flash cards that would be brought to Milbrook Elementary, a Baltimore County school, in a couple of weeks.

For contributions of $1, $2 or $3, children were getting four, eight or 15 shots at the basket.

Pressman said the event drew about a hundred more volunteers this year than last, and 36 blood donations. Months of planning appeared to have paid off.

"It's by far our biggest Mitzvah Day event" she said, adding that planning for 2011 — when the event will shift back to Dec. 25, a Sunday — will start in a few weeks.

Even Friday, as some volunteers were frantically packing gift bags, others were working at a long table off to the side, decorating white shopping bags for next year.

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