When Christmas Shopping is a Mitzvah

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Odelia Elliott, Amidan Cantor, and Shira Evans having fun shopping

Chanukah candles are bringing holiday cheer to families beyond the Jewish community this year: During their synagogue’s annual Teen Mitzvathon, students from Chevrei Tzedek Congregation in Baltimore raised $800 selling Israeli-made Chanukah candles and used those funds to purchase Christmas presents for children in families dealing with addiction.

“The name of our synagogue is Chevrei Tzedek, which means ‘friends of righteousness,’ so it’s important for our synagogue to do a social action project for each holiday,” said Becky Pearlman, a coordinator and volunteer administrator at Chevrei Tzedek.


“In the 20 years I’ve been in Baltimore, [Mitzvahthon] has happened every year. The synagogue’s been around more than 30 years, and this is one of the oldest traditions that we have,” she said.

Students sold candles from Nov. 23 through Dec. 14. Then they had a field trip to a local Target to buy the gifts. The teens wrapped the presents before Pearlman delivered them to Dee’s Place, a center in East Baltimore that serves people in recovery from addiction and their families.

Back in November at the start of the project, Chevrei Tzedek students participated in a Lunch and Learn where a representative from Dee’s Place explained the work they do, Pearlman said. In past years, that representative was Program Manager Coriless Jones. “Coriless would explain how courageous her clients were in the difficult recovery process, and how Dee’s Place was committed to serving their children with homework help, a small food pantry, and lots of love.”

Jones died in July 2019, so this year’s participating students dedicated the Mitzvathon in her honor, according to Pearlman.

“Ms. Coriless was actually a devout Muslim,” Pearlman noted, “and I think there’s something beautiful in a Muslim woman getting together with Jewish teens to get Christmas presents for children.”

Following the Lunch and Learn, the students presented what they learned to their congregation and raised funds by selling handcrafted Chanukah candles imported from Safed, a city in northern Israel.

On Dec. 14, the teens were divided into groups and each group was assigned a specific family, Pearlman said. Groups were then given basic information about each child they were shopping for — age, clothing size — and a fixed budget, and tasked with finding an appropriate gift for the child assigned to them.

“Our shul community is really into activism and helping out different communities, and we’ve been helping out Baltimore,” said Shira Evans, Pearlman’s daughter. “I wanted to participate because that’s how I was raised in the shul.”

— Jesse Berman

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