Baltimore Jews spend Christmas giving back for 'Mitzvah Day'

Christmas service event at Pikesville community center gives out sandwiches, care packages

December 25, 2013|By Colin Campbell, The Baltimore Sun

Four-year-old Kate Grossman held out the white paper bag, one of the 500 she and her two siblings were handing out to the needy at Our Daily Bread's downtown employment center on Christmas Day.

But the woman approaching smiled and shook her head.

"I just want a hug," she said. Without hesitation, all three Grossmans rushed forward for a group embrace that brought the woman to tears.

The Grossmans were among the 600 or so who took part in the ninth annual Mitzvah Day, preparing gifts at the Jewish Community Center in Pikesville and taking them to charities around the city. Volunteers from around the Baltimore area were lined up outside the community center before 9 a.m. to bring donations, put together winter care packages and make peanut-butter-and-jelly sandwiches.

In one room of the community center, a table of about a dozen volunteers churned out 150 peanut-butter-and-jelly sandwiches until around 9:30 a.m., when they ran out of bread. Reinforcements arrived in the form of Darrin Levitt and his daughter, Kelsey, who brought an additional 13 assorted loaves they had picked up at Seven Mile Market in Pikesville. That would last until the peanut butter or the jelly ran low, Levitt figured.

Each Christmas, a rotating group of volunteers makes about 1,500 sandwiches that go to several soup kitchens in the city, according to Betsy Schochet, who serves as the informal "sandwich supervisor."

"It's also a social activity where people can get to know some other people than just whoever they came with," she said.

The Levitts, of Summit Park, wasted no time in sitting down at the table and getting started on some more sandwiches.

"It's just the right thing to do," said Levitt, who has helped out at Mitzvah Day for the past five years.

Over in another room of the center, lines wound around long tables where volunteers filled paper bags containing hand-knit hats and scarves, socks, bottled water, chips, granola bars, shampoo, soap, toothpaste and toothbrushes, all donated by volunteers.

Louise Supnick, an organizer who formerly co-chaired the event, stood at the end of the line, supervising the color-coded packages to be taken to eight homeless centers and charities around the city.

"Mitzvah Day is a chance for the community to get together to support each other," she said.

The need number was slightly down this year, a good sign, according the The Associated: Jewish Community Federation of Baltimore, a major philanthropic and networking organization.

Micah Damareck, who co-chaired this year's event with his wife, said the goal every year — beyond helping those in need — is to improve the experience of the volunteers and get more involved.

"The fact that we have this many people is great," he said. "If everyone does one thing to give someone a warmer winter, or a healthier one, it lets them know we're thinking about them."

One of the changes the group has made in recent years is to make the experience more family-friendly. In the center's gymnasium, kids stuffed balloons with rice to make stress balls for patients at Levindale Hebrew Geriatric Center and Hospital, wrote letters to soldiers overseas, stuffed teddy bears for kids, and even made dog and cat treats for the Baltimore Humane Society, along with other activities. A happy hour from 5 p.m. to 7 p.m. at the Mount Washington Tavern provided another opportunity for young adults to socialize and do service, Damareck said.

Bob Claire and Julie Egert of Columbia were participating for their first time, handing out the bags at Our Daily Bread with the Grossmans in the afternoon.

Grossman's older brother, Matthew, 10, and sister, Alexa, 8, said their favorite part of the day was seeing people look inside the bags. Egert said hers was greeting people as they left the food kitchen.

"It's a pleasure to do things like this," she said. "I absolutely love it. I want to do it every year. It's a great way for them to start the new year. You know, we are all the same. Some are just less fortunate."

Damareck said he hopes Mitzvah Day will help him lay a foundation of community service for his kids.

"We can squeeze in our Chinese food and a movie and still get my 7- and 5-year-old here counting shampoo," he said. "They'll remember that."

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