Mitzvah Day
(William Davidson Digital Archive of Jewish Detroit History)

Mitzvah Day in Metro Detroit has a very interesting history.

Last weekend was the 25th Annual Mitzvah Day in Metro Detroit. Sponsored by the Jewish Community Relations Council/American Jewish Committee (JCRC/AJC), in partnership with the Jewish Federation of Metropolitan Detroit, Mitzvah Day is usually held on Dec. 25. Because Christmas was on Shabbat this year, the JCRC/AJC declared a “Mitzvah Weekend.”

Mike Smith
Mike Smith
Alene and Graham Landau Archivist Chair

Mitzvah Day was established by the JCRC in 1996 to assist Christian service organizations on Christmas to allow their staffs to celebrate the holiday with family and friends. Over the years, Mitzvah Day has grown to include hundreds of volunteers, including those from other faiths such as Muslims and Hindus. It is a very nice gift for Cass Community Social Services, COTS, Haven, Jimmy’s Kids and Western Oakland Meals on Wheels, to name just a few.

I decided to research Mitzvah Day in the William Davidson Digital Archive of Jewish Detroit History. It was a heartwarming experience. I highly recommend taking this online cruise. You’ll find reassurance that there is indeed a lot of goodness in the world.

Mitzvah Day in Metro Detroit has a very interesting history. There are 381 entries for the term “Mitzvah Day” in the Archive. Most citations date from the 1990s. Before the concept of a Mitzvah Day, there are a few entries regarding bar or bat mitzvah days for Jewish youth.  

“In Tears and Triumph,” a story about survivor David Bergman’s life, he relates that his bar mitzvah day was held on a train to the Plaszow Concentration Camp in 1944 (May 7, 1998, JN).

From 2010
William Davidson Digital Archive of Jewish Detroit History

The history of the Mitzvah Day in Detroit is complicated. The first mitzvah day story that I could find was a JN report that teens from Temple Israel held a mitzvah day in fall 1957 to help seniors and others with household chores and fall yard clean-up. I soon discovered that many synagogues and congregations held and/or still hold mitzvah days: Temple Beth El, Temple Israel, Temple Kol Ami, Temple Emanu-El and Adat Shalom, and Congregations B’nai Moshe, Shir Tikvah, T’Chiyah and Beth Ahm. And I am certain this is not a complete list of all “mitzvah days” in the Jewish community. 

I like the stories of mitzvah day families. For example, see “One Family’s Mitzvah Day” (Jan. 1, 1999) about the Sakwas — Stuart, Randi and daughter, Hayley, Uncle Mike, Papa Dave and Grandma Joyce. It also has photos of volunteers Shari Goldstein and her son, Michael. Gabriella Ring wrote about helping Alzheimer’s patients with her family (Jan. 1, 2009), and the Nadis family served lunch at the Detroit Rescue Mission Ministries (Dec. 30, 2010).

From 2014
William Davidson Digital Archive of Jewish Detroit History

Who created the concept of a Mitzvah Day? It’s hard to say. A JN editorial (Jan. 3, 2003) reported that Mitzvah Day began “years ago” at Temple Beth El and then the men’s club at Shaarey Zedek held one. In a story about the retirement of Temple Kol Ami Rabbi Norman T. Roman in the April 28, 2011, JN, he claimed: “We were the first local congregation to sponsor a Mitzvah Day.” The JCRC/AJC first held what is now the largest, most recognized Mitzvah Day in 1996. However, it should not be confused with “Itsa Mitzvah Day” sponsored by the Jewish Federation.

Regardless of origins, Mitzvah Day is a great invention. To all the volunteers — mazel tov! 

Want to learn more? Go to the DJN Foundation archives, available for free at www.djnfoundation.org.

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