A Salvation Army Bed and Breakfast food truck pulls into a deserted parking lot. Even with the heaters on and its riders dressed in heavy winter clothing, the cold cut through them the minute they open the door.
Outside the people stand, many shivering. They had been in this weather all morning. All Christmas morning. Probably longer.
As each one is handed his or her food from the truck they thank each of the people, saying “God bless you” before they begin to eat the meal that will help keep them warm.
Micki Grossman was one of the volunteers handing out food and the gratitude of the people is still a strong memory. It was one of many Mitzvah Day’s that stand out in her head.
“It’s more than a project, it’s a special day,” says Grossman, co-chair of the by the Jewish Community Relations Council (JCRC/ARC)’s Mitzvah Day.
For those who don’t speak Hebrew, a mitzvah is a good deed. Mitzvah Day is when metro Detroit’s Jewish community collectively volunteers across the region on Christmas Day.
The Christmas Day mitzvah also allows many people working in charitable organizations to take the day off without worrying about staff shortages.
Mitzvah Day began when Grossman met with the Jewish Federation’s Business and Professional Women’s group and discussed what they had planned for the Christmas season.
After the usual joke about getting Chinese food (since it is often all that is open Christmas Day), they realized something, according to Grossman. They were not just a group for Jewish people, but a group dedicated to community outreach. Volunteering on Christmas Day allowed them to spend the day in the service of others.
Mitzvah Day began in 1996 when many of the group volunteered at Sinai-Grace Hospital, talking to the patients and bringing magazines and books for them to read.
Since then the number of nonprofits they work with has grown. For example, Grossman alone has volunteered at Vista Maria, packing Meals on Wheels at a center in Royal Oak and delivering in downtown Detroit. Others volunteer at nursing homes and hospices, work with animals or help children in need.
The growth of options also helped increase the number of participants. That first year there were only a couple hundred. This year they expect around 800.
“People are eager to help,” says Grossman.
That larger number includes people returning with their families, making it a tradition. Parents often bring their children to foster a feeling of gratitude and instill community service.
One man who made this a tradition is 96-year-old Bernie Jonas, who has been volunteering with Mitzvah Day since around the beginning.
For many years, he volunteered with his wife until she passed. In the years since he has started seeing a “lady-friend,” as he says, and now volunteers with her.
Mitzvah Day, however, is only one day of the year. Jonas volunteers year-round at Yad Ezra, which packs kosher meals for Southeastern Michigan Jewish families in need.
His reason for volunteering is a simple one – appreciation for what he has.
“I’m on this side and not on that side,” he says. “I’m not in a nursing home or assisted living. I lived with my late wife until she passed.”
While still largely a Jewish day of altruism, other faiths have begun taking part in Mitzvah Day. Christians and Muslims have begun to participate in past years.
“We take everybody,” says Grossman.
A colleague of Grossman’s was talking to a counterpart of hers at the Michigan Muslim Community Council (MMCC) about the outreach both organizations had planned. Mitzvah Day seemed like an interesting idea, especially since the MMCC does its own volunteering throughout December so another organized outing seemed natural.
The MMMC helped spread the word in the Muslim community about volunteering for this organized day of giving.
During one Mitzvah Day Grossman partnered with a Muslim woman. The two became friendly and at one point the women told Grossman she didn’t think her children knew about the Holocaust.
As it happened Grossman volunteers at the Holocaust Memorial Center in Farmington Hills so she gave the woman and her children a guided tour. A day of community outreach turned into a chance to share a deeper understanding of an important chapter in the history of her people.
In the book of Isaiah in the Tanakh (Hebrew Bible), it is written, “And you draw out your soul to the hungry, and an afflicted soul you sate, then your light shall shine in the darkness, and your darkness shall be like noon.”
Metro Detroit should be a very bright place on December 25.Any interested parties can register here to become part of Mitzvah Day. The group is also interested in hearing from nonprofits looking for volunteers.