Working to make the world a better place is deeply rooted in Jewish values. For many, Mitzvah Day is a family affair that helps children internalize the value of giving of oneself.
One of the largest annual events organized by Jewish Volunteer Connection (JVC), an agency of The Associated: Jewish Federation of Baltimore, Mitzvah Day has connected volunteers with hands-on service projects throughout the Greater Baltimore area for the past 14 years.
Always held Dec. 25, this year’s Mitzvah Day started “early” with volunteer opportunities on the evening of Dec. 24. Over 1,100 volunteers participated this year, according to JVC Executive Director Ashley Pressman. They came from Pikesville, Towson, Baltimore, Westminster, and more: people of all ages united by their mission to do a mitzvah, a good deed.
And according to Pressman, the programming Dec. 25 alone served more than 4,000 people throughout Baltimore.
Instilling Jewish Values
First-time chair of Mitzvah Day Deborah Harburger was one of hundreds of people who participated with their families at the Weinberg Park Heights JCC. She was joined by her husband, Noah, and their two children: Jack, 13, and Molly, 9.
“I think that kids need to be exposed to volunteering early on so that it becomes second nature to them,” said Harburger, who lives in Baltimore. “It is important to expose them to the challenges that people in our own community face and give them an opportunity to take action to address some of the inequalities that exist.”
As a social worker, the act of giving back is of particular importance to Harburger. “This is taking social work into my family,” she said. “It’s also about how we change systems and positively impact the lives of kids and families.”
The Harburgers colored cards and made soup kits, both of which went into winter care packages. The family also created flash cards for students learning English as a second language, both in Baltimore, and in Baltimore’s sister cities of Ashkalon in Israel and Odessa in Ukraine.
“I like to participate in Mitzvah Day because I know, in the end, someone that needs our help has gotten it,” Jack Harburger said. “I like doing the care packages because they are fun to make, and they are very useful to others. I also like to make the peanut butter and jelly sandwiches because I can imagine how hard it is to be hungry so making these sandwiches will probably really help people.”
Food for Thought
Barbara Korenblit, her husband David Beller, and their 31-year-old son Daniel Beller served lunch at the Weinberg Park Assisted Living in Baltimore. Korenblit and Beller live in Pikesville; Daniel, who went to Owings Mills High School and is now a professor of physics at the University of California, Merced, traveled from California to visit his parents for the holidays.
“We like to give back, brighten the holiday for other people – it’s nice to do that in the context of the Jewish community,” Korenblit said.
“It’s a chance for us as a family to focus on people other than ourselves,” her husband added.
“As a family we enjoy giving back to the community on a day that’s a day of celebration for other people,” their son chimed in.
Another family team that served lunch at the assisted living facility was Robyn Marsh and her daughter, Makenzie, 15. Marsh said that her daughter has participated in Mitzvah Day since she was nine years old. The Marshes live in Westminster and are members of Har Sinai-Oheb Shalom in Baltimore.
On Mitzvah Day, “I can help people that are less fortunate or don’t have opportunities that I am lucky to have,” said Makenzie, a 10th grader at Westminster High School. ”I think it’s important to give back because there could be a time where I am in need of help and would want people to help me.”
“Also, I think it’s a good learning lesson — not only for myself but for others — to do good in the community when capable and have the time,” she added.
Approximately 100 people participated in Mitzvah Day at Beth Am Synagogue in Baltimore. Robin Katcoff and her children Wriley and Ariella helped assemble food packages for families celebrating Christmas.
“I probably started volunteering for Mitzvah Day about five to six years ago, when our younger daughter was old enough to easily join in with us,” said Robin. “My husband and I wanted to show our daughters that it is important to help others. Volunteering at events like Mitzvah Day and at other times throughout the year teaches our children empathy and that not everyone has the same opportunities as them.”
“By going to or organizing a Mitzvah Day event, we are saying we know our world has problems, and we are going to fix it,” said Wriley Katcoff, 14. “We can’t save everyone, but we have to try our best to help the people we can.”
Ariella Katcoff, 11, said Mitzvah Day is makes her feel “really happy” because other people are going to feel more happy.
“You’ve helped make your community a more peaceful and a more positive place,” she said.
Arthur Shulman, an attorney who lives in the Reservoir Hill neighborhood of Baltimore, has been participating in Mitzvah Day projects at Beth Am Synagogue across the street, for a decade. He and another Beth Am member, Jackie Donowitz, shared the responsibility of coordinating Mitzvah Day activities as past co-chairs of the Social Action Committee at Beth Am. That role has now been passed on to Evan Serpick and Natalie Spicyn, who have been Committee co-chairs for the past two years.
“We started preparing and delivering food packages on Christmas day to 12 families,” Shulman shared. “Then it grew to 24, and we now connect with 36 families in our community. Evan and the team are ensuring that this annual event continues to evolve and inspire — a reflection of Beth Am as an anchor institution in Reservoir Hill.” Children bake pumpkin bread and decorate holiday cards, all of which are included in the food packages which are later delivered to families in need that have been identified by various partners in the neighborhood.
Shulman’s daughter Eden, 12, and son Gabe, 8, have participated since the very beginning, when they were just toddlers “running around,” Shulman added.
Eden, now a seventh grader at Krieger Schechter Day School, decorated cookies and cards for food packages to be delivered by other participants.
“Mitzvah Day is important to me because not only does the community come together as one, but we help others as well. It’s always a pleasure to see the community get together. Knowing that even a simple task can make someone smile, even just for a moment, can inspire everyone to do good,” Eden Shulman shared.
“Engaging children is key on many levels,” Shulman said. “It’s about working to instill the significance of giving back, of doing mitzvot, and of staying connected with the community at large regardless of socio-economic background or other differences.”
“As parents we must ensure that our children understand the importance of neighbors helping neighbors.”
Inclusion of children volunteers is a priority for Mitvah Day and beyond, Pressman said:
“We really want kids to understand that everybody deserves a good life and to live with dignity.”
However, to preserve the privacy and dignity of youth living in challenging circumstances, JVC and many nonprofit organizations do not allow youth volunteers to work directly with peers of similar ages. Instead, JVC supports programs where children visit friends who may be sick, or programs where teens work with younger children.
“We look at Mitzvah Day from the lens of engaging kids so they know they’re always able to help,” Pressman said. “We aim to humanize service recipients, even when volunteers don’t encounter the recipients directly.”
What Mitzvah Day Means to Me
Ariella Katcoff, age 11 (Pikesville)
“Mitzvah Day means to me, it’s a day where we are giving back to all of the people who might need a little more help than we do. And this makes me feel really happy because
they are going to feel more happy and you’ve helped make your community a more peaceful and a more positive place.”
Jack Harburger, age 13 (Mt. Washington)
“I like to participate in Mitzvah Day because I know, in the end, someone that needs our help has gotten it. I like doing the care packages because they are fun to make, and they are very useful to others. I also like to make the peanut butter and jelly sandwiches because I can imagine how hard it is to be hungry so making these sandwiches will probably really help people.”
Eden Shulman, age 12 (Resevoir Hill)
“Mitzvah Day is important to me because not only does the community come together as one, but we help others as well. It’s always a pleasure to see the community get together. Knowing that even a simple task can make someone smile, even just for a moment, can inspire everyone to do good.”
Makenzie Marsh, age 15 (Westminster)
“Mitzvah day to me means a day where I can help people that are less fortunate or don’t have opportunities that I am lucky to have. And I think it’s important to give back because there could be a time where I am in need of help and would want people to help me and also I think it’s a good learning lesson not only for myself but for others to do good in the community when capable and have the time.”