During the past few years, in the wake of the pandemic, volunteer aid has been more necessary than ever. Unprecedented circumstances have led vulnerable people to seek help from their communities. The mitzvah of giving is a central tenet of Judaism — and the basis that Chabad Chessed Circle was founded on in the summer of 2019.
An extension of Chabad of Owings Mills, the Chabad Chessed Circle is a Jewish volunteer organization dedicated to helping out people in the area. The group has a focus on charity and community service, having hosted several drives and events over the past few years.
“Olam chesed yibaneh” is their motto — “The world is built on love and kindness.”
Martha Gross, a Chabad of Owings Mills member, founded Chabad Chessed Circle and started out as its only member. She was a Red Cross nurse for 26 years and had recently retired when she founded the group in 2019. Prior to her retirement, she had been leading a nurse assistant training course. She said she enjoyed working with others but missed it once she retired.
She approached Rabbi Nochum Katsenelenbogen, known to many as Rabbi K, and his wife Chanie about starting a community service organization as part of the Chabad.
As one of the chessed group’s first projects, Gross and Chanie Katsenelenbogen created and delivered Rosh Hashanah care packages for underserved people in the community.
“People were happy to be remembered on the holiday,” Gross said.
Another one of their early efforts was a November 2019 event Gross hosted, where guests made fleece-tied blankets to donate to Sinai Hospital. Though they did not have many volunteers at the time, Gross said she was surprised by how many women came.
“I was overwhelmed with the response we got,” Gross said. “They were thrilled to death to have those blankets and said they were extremely useful for their patients.”
But not long after, the COVID-19 pandemic hit. The work that she and the other Chabad Chessed Circle volunteers did delivering supplies became more important than ever, as many could not leave their homes.
The pandemic did not deter people from volunteering to help out, though — if anything, it only emboldened them.
“We had to pivot from community events in house at the Chabad and started doing things … where people would come out of their homes during COVID wearing gloves and masks and deliver them to people’s homes,” Gross said, recalling how the group’s work changed in early 2020. “We got a tremendous response from the community; people felt good being remembered by the Chabad during the pandemic.”
Since then, they have done school supply drives for local schools and Chanukah can drives. On one occasion, they received so many cans that they built a menorah made out of cans — a “canorah,” in Gross’ own words.
So far, though, no event Chabad Chessed Circle has done has been as important to Gross as the supply drive and barbecue they planned for Israel Defense Forces soldiers. Gross’ son was a lone soldier in the Israeli military, so the cause is “near and dear to [her] heart.”
They held a get-together for IDF soldiers, where they gave them candy, supplies and exercise equipment to take with them.
“It was overwhelmingly satisfying to me because of my son,” she said.
Since its founding in 2019, Chabad Chessed Circle has grown from being only Gross to being a group of 30 volunteers who help out around the community. Gross has since been able to hire an assistant due to the larger scope of their work.
Though Chabad Chessed Circle has finished work for the summer, they plan to have a calendar of events up by late August to early September for prospective volunteers who want to help out. Gross says she welcomes all help, and that those interested can contact her or Rabbi Katsenelenbogen.
“I’ve been overwhelmed by the response, and I have discovered how everyone, no matter how little time they have, everyone wants to make a difference in someone’s life,” Gross said. “And I believe that we have done so many mitzvahs now that we have brought a lot of goodness and light to the Chabad of Owings Mills community. And it makes me and everyone involved also feel good.”