Mitzvah Day continues to bring the Jewish community together on Christmas day to volunteer at different social service agencies in Metro Detroit.
For Christians of all varieties, Dec. 25 was Christmas, the holy day that celebrates the birth of Jesus. For a large number of Jews in Detroit, along with some Muslims, Hindus and participants from other non-Christian faiths, this was “Mitzvah Day.”
According to Lauren Herrin, assistant director of the JCRC/AJC, current sponsor of Mitzvah Day with the Jewish Federation of Metropolitan Detroit, more than 600 volunteers fulfilled the duties of workers at about 45 social service agencies in Metro Detroit, allowing those folks to celebrate Christmas Day with their families.
Some say Mitzvah Day began in Michigan in 1993, when a synagogue in West Bloomfield first urged members to devote a day (back then, it was in March) to a day of volunteering.
Just the name of the day tells you that its origins are Jewish, but I was intrigued by the notion that Mitzvah Day was a Michigan creation. So, I thought if any source could tell me about the birth of this day of good deeds, it would be the William Davidson Digital Archives of Jewish Detroit History.
Well, I could not find a definitive answer, so what follows is not a comprehensive history of Mitzvah Day, just some highlights or fodder for future research.
A search for “Mitzvah Day” found the term was cited 381 times in the historic pages of the Detroit Jewish Chronicle and Jewish News. However, one has to be careful when searching this term because, prior to the 1950s, a citation for “mitzvah day” was usually preceded by a “bar” or “bat” — that is, the items were usually an announcement of a boy or girl celebrating his/her personal bar/bat mitzvah day.
One of the earliest citations of a mitzvah day was in the Oct. 10, 1958, issue of the JN declaring that Temple Israel’s Youth Group would hold its second annual Mitzvah Day or “Take It Easy Sunday” on Oct. 17. The group would clean windows, rake leaves and do other odd jobs for whatever charitable donation someone wished to give to the youth group. This was a big assist to the elderly, as you can imagine.
I found another interesting story from April 22, 1994, about Temple Kol Ami’s first mitzvah day the previous November when women from the temple contributed to the ABC Quilt Project to raise awareness of children born with birth defects due to AIDS or a mother’s drug use or alcoholism.
It is hard to say just when Mitzvah Day began to be held on Dec. 25. I can tell you that, by the 2000s, Mitzvah Day was a generally recognized day of volunteering for Detroit Jews. It has long been under the auspices of the Jewish Community Relations Council (now JCRC/AJC).
By the way, International Mitzvah Day, a day of “faith-based” social action based in London, England, was on Nov 17. It was inspired by Mitzvah Days in the United States.
Want to learn more? Go to the DJN Foundation archives, available for free at www.djnfoundation.org.