Mitzvah Day, or rather Mitzvah Days, is approaching. The annual event, which encourages members of the Jewish community to volunteer on Dec. 25, has grown. This year, the number of participants, volunteer opportunities and even days for mitzvahs have increased.
“Mitzvah Day has expanded enormously over the course of the last couple of years. This will be another record year,” said Adam Hertzman, director of marketing at the Jewish Federation of Greater Pittsburgh.
As of Dec. 9, more than 800 volunteers had registered for the program, said Vicki Holthaus, chair of the Jewish Federation Volunteer Center. “Last year, we had a total of 650 volunteers; the fact that we are over 800 now is incredible.”
Hertzman explained that due to increased demand, additional volunteer locations have been added. This year, more than 95 volunteer opportunities are available throughout the area.
Potential volunteers can visit an alphabetical list of opportunities at jfedvolunteer.org and choose from diverse activities including cleaning, disinfecting and organizing toys at the Pittsburgh Toy Lending Library and assisting with a weekly ice cream social at the Southwestern Veterans Center.
Along with increasing volunteer opportunities, efforts were made this year to broaden the program’s geographical reach. Accordingly, areas such as Monroeville, the North Hills and South Hills were targeted.
“The most important consideration was finding opportunities in areas of the cities where Jews live but are harder to get to from Squirrel Hill,” said Hertzman, who shared his excitement for one particular South Hills opportunity.
On Dec. 24, between 10 a.m. and noon, volunteers will work in the South Hills Interfaith Ministries’ food pantry and clothing donation room.
“The reason why I’m excited is because our Community Relations Council has been doing a lot of great outreach work to faith-based ministries for other cultural and ethnic groups in Pittsburgh, and this is one of the opportunities that came out of that outreach,” said Hertzman, who added that interfaith work to date has “improved cultural understanding and relations” between the Jewish, African-American and Asian communities. “We have expanded the impact of the Jewish Federation of Greater Pittsburgh on all of Pittsburgh, not just Jews in Pittsburgh.”
Benefiting the non-Jewish Pittsburgh community rests at the heart of Mitzvah Day, said Holthaus.
“The volunteers are from the Jewish community, and that’s why we specifically do it on Christmas, to give our Christian brothers and sisters time to spend with their families.”
“This is a great day for Jews who don’t celebrate the holiday to show support for people of other religions and allow people who want to celebrate Christmas,” said Hertzman.
He also noted that Mitzvah Day comes at a time of potential increased hunger.
“The Greater Pittsburgh Community Food Bank has an extra burden over the holiday periods because a lot of children in food-insecure households get free or reduced lunch at school, but that means that during periods when school is closed, often those kids go hungry,” Hertzman said. “We would be especially ashamed to have Christian families go hungry on Christmas.”
The fact that Dec 25, falls on a Friday presented a beneficial challenge to Mitzvah Day organizers. Because candle-lighting times are so early in the winter, it is difficult to provide volunteers with enough time for the activity, cleaning up and leaving for Shabbat, said Hertzman.
Accordingly, Mitzvah Day 2015 will occur on both Dec. 24 and 25.
Adding an extra day enables greater volunteer opportunities, said Hertzman and Holthaus.
“There are more agencies and organizations than we have ever worked with; it’s tremendous,” said Holthaus.
And perhaps as an added bonus, the extra Mitzvah Day is allowing members of the Jewish community to combine a particular form of altruism and tradition.
After volunteering on Dec. 24, a group from Shalom Pittsburgh (the Federation’s young adult division) will be traveling to Row House Cinema in Lawrenceville to watch “Die Hard” and eat Chinese food. According to Shalom Pittsburgh’s website, the program titled, “A Very Jewish Christmas Eve,” encourages participants to join their “fellow Hebrews to celebrate the holiday season our way with Chinese food and a movie.” More information is available at shalompittsburgh.org.
Adam Reinherz can be reached at email@example.com.