Many organizations promote volunteering, but few do so with the ease and expertise as the Jewish Federation of Greater Pittsburgh in the words of Raina Kerman.
That’s why the former Pittsburgher returned from Columbus, Ohio, to participate in the 17th annual Mitzvah Day. The two-day venture, which spanned Dec. 24 and 25, is something she and her parents “look forward to each year.”
Like the Kermans, more than 1,000 volunteers signed up for slots at nearly 100 sites throughout the city, said Amy Cohen, the Federation’s volunteer center manager.
At Murray Towers, a high-rise affordable community in Squirrel Hill, Talia Gasbarro and her son, Armani, joined eight other aids to prepare a brunch of eggs, toast, turkey bacon, yogurt and assorted fruit for residents.
The Sunday morning activity, which was led by Becca Sufrin, communication and engagement associate for 412 Food Rescue, was an exercise in “working together.” Witnessing the collaboration and dedication of volunteers “is amazing,” said the site leader.
Whatever small thing it might be that you’re doing, it makes a huge difference.
Although many Mitzvah Day participants are returnees from prior years, some, like the Gasbarros, are newcomers to the project. Cohen offered a special message for first-timers: “Whatever small thing it might be that you’re doing, it makes a huge difference.”
Gasbarro, a Monroeville-based mom, agreed and added that Mitzvah Day has the ability to educate kids, like her son, about volunteering from an early age. “I wanted him to see that it’s about giving back to other people.”
Among the many benefits that Mitzvah Day affords is that it’s a “great opportunity for younger families,” echoed Meryl Ainsman, Federation chair.
During the holiday weekend, a record number of helpers assisted at stations throughout the city as well in locations including Castle Shannon, Bethel Park, McKeesport and Green Tree, said Cohen.
On Monday morning, Josh Valinsky and his mother, Jane, were seated before an array of markers, sparkly adhesives and sheets of construction paper. The mother-son duo were among those who stickered, colored and inscribed get-well cards during a lively session at the Jewish Community Center of Greater Pittsburgh.
Volunteering, and being able to do so beside his mom, was a great experience, said the 11-year-old. “I get to spend time with her; it makes me feel good.”
Such sentiment is mutual, said Jane. “I’m really proud of him that he enjoys it and is making it a part of his life.”
Mitzvah Day is “a great way to engage members of the Jewish community in tikkun olam and another opportunity and entree to furthering and developing engagement and involvement,” said Jeff Finkelstein, the Federation’s CEO and president.
Mitzvah Day is also “fun,” said Abby Blank, a 12-year-old who spent Monday working on United Way literacy kits alongside her mother, father, brother and sister. The paper creations, which are intended to increase the enjoyment of reading, were great to make “because we got to laugh at each other’s work,” said Blank.
Spending time together as a family also lent some perspective to the Mitzvah Day experience, added the young adult. “It’s important to help people who aren’t as fortunate as us and give them the experience they deserve.” PJC
See the Jan. 5 Community pages for more Mitzvah Day photos.
Adam Reinherz can be reached at areinherz