Mitzvah Day has been a Christmas Day tradition for over two decades, allowing volunteers to give back to the community.

Photos courtesy of Jeff Aisen

By Lauren Garfield-Herrin, Special to the Jewish News

It’s been a Christmas Day tradition for more than two decades. Mitzvah Day, the largest single day of volunteering in the Metropolitan Detroit Jewish community, is an initiative of the Jewish Community Relations Council/AJC (JCRC/AJC) in partnership with the Jewish Federation of Metropolitan Detroit.

“This will be our twenty- third Mitzvah Day and it gets bigger and better every year,” said Illana Stern, JCRC/AJC board member and co-chair of Mitzvah Day. “We have nearly 40 returning and new sites this year that offer volunteers the opportunity to do anything from delivering meals and toys to spending time with senior citizens, children and veterans and helping at animal shelters.”

Mitzvah Day was founded by JCRC/AJC’s predecessor, the Jewish Community Relations Council, in 1996 in order to fill staff shortages or allow organizations to reduce staffing on Christmas Day. Through the years, the event’s reputation grew, bringing more locations and volunteers into the fold, including participation from friends in the Muslim, Hindu, Christian and Sikh communities.

Four years ago, Patty and Jerry Stelmaszak, heard about Mitzvah Day while attending services at Temple Emanu-El in Oak Park. The Ferndale residents, who spend much of the year in Nashville, thought it would be a wonderful way to spend Christmas.

JCRC/AJC Secretary Phil Neuman and his daughter, Elie, at St. Leo’s Soup Kitchen

“When we first began volunteering, we spent the day handing out gifts and treats at a convalescent home. We were quickly hooked and, since then, have signed up for two locations to volunteer at each year,” Patty said.

In 2018, the couple began the day preparing and serving meals alongside Chef Matt Prentice at Cass Community Social Services before heading out on Salvation Army’s Bed and Bread Truck, where they served meals to individuals living on the streets in Detroit.
“Every year we volunteer at two sites because each location gives us a different feeling around the city,” Patty said.

Last year on the truck, both experienced eye-opening moments, including driving through Jerry’s childhood neighborhood, which he found unrecognizable, and meeting young children who had not eaten since the day before.

“Our experience on that food truck was so profound and heartbreaking, but we love doing it. We truly believe in tikkun olam, making the world a better place,” Jerry said.

Volunteers with Chef Matt Prentice at Cass Community Social Services.

This sentiment is widely shared among volunteers, including Stern who brings along her children. “Volunteering is a mitzvah in and of itself, but doing the hands-on work is extremely rewarding,” she added.

This year, the Stelmaszaks will be serving as site captains at Cass Community Social Services and Methodist Children’s Home Society where they will play games and help assemble Christmas presents with boys in the foster care system. Patty has already gone online to purchase toys and other items for the youth they will be visiting.

Many of the sites continue to request volunteers because of the touching care they receive from volunteers, such as the Stelmaszaks and Sterns, each Christmas Day.

One of these organizations is the HOPE Inc. Adult Shelter and Recuperative Center in Pontiac. “A goal of my agency is to reconnect those experiencing homelessness with the community. These individuals often feel disconnected and invisible when they are on the street,” said Elizabeth Kelly, the nonprofit’s executive director.

“The amazing Mitzvah Day volunteers not only provide that connection that make HOPE guests feel valued, but they do this in a joyful, fun way. The games, snacks and, especially, the conversation is often life-changing for HOPE’s guests. Asking someone about their day may not seem like much, but for those who don’t often experience it, this is often something that the person recalls later as the tipping point to make them feel as if they belong.”

With more than 600 volunteer spaces to fill, spots are still available. Register by Dec. 20 at mitzvahdaydetroit2019.eventbrite.com. Stern suggests that potential volunteers read thoroughly through each organization’s description as each outlines arrival information, age restrictions and other important details.

For more information, contact Sandy Lippitt at slippitt@jfmd.org.

This story was first published on myjewishdetroit.org.

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