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Detroit — No one can put an exact date on how long Mitzvah Day has been Christmas tradition in Metro Detroit — “about two decades” is the best guess, organizers say — but in 2017 its purpose was the same it ever was: give Christians celebrating the birth of Jesus a day off from volunteering, with Jewish (and now Muslim) volunteers standing up in their stead.

Mitzvah Day is organized by the Jewish Community Relations Council/AJC, and of late has been joined in by volunteers from the Muslim community, organized by he Michigan Muslim Community Council.

On Christmas 2017, Mitzvah Day 2017, some 1,000 volunteers fanned out to 50 sites in Metro Detroit to spread holiday cheer. Dozens volunteered at the Capuchin Soup Kitchen on Conner, on the city’s east side.

Milt Newman, 63, of Oak Park, was site leader at the soup kitchen, which prepared to serve a hot meal to more than 700 people and distribute gifts to least 300 children.

“It gives people the day off to be with their families, but also to check out different agencies to see if they’d be interested in volunteering (regularly),” Newman said. “It’s a real nice thing to be a part of.”

Capuchin executive chef Joy Brown, 46, crafted a menu of cornish hen, greens, cornbread, macaroni and cheese, apple pie, and shrimp cocktails — usual fare, aside from the specially donated shrimp and the cornish hen, which might have been chicken on a normal day.

Before meal service began and the gift room was opened, Terrance Wright, 47, director of security at the kitchen, laid out the ground rules of the day: no second trays of food, at least to begin with, and no toys for adults without children — no exceptions.

He explained as much to meal recipients before Jerry Johnson, 47, gave the prayer.

“If you don’t have Ki-Ki or Ray-Ray with you (when trying to get a toy), you better go get him,” Wright said, to laughs.

Johnson, director of service, said the soup kitchen’s two sites serve some 2,000 meals a day to area needy. Mitzvah Day volunteers supplemented those who volunteer regularly and volunteers who serve on Christmas but aren’t connected to Mitzvah Day.

“Can I ask you a personal question?” Ray Wojciechowski, 75, of Fraser, said to Gabriel Macintosh, 8. “Are you married or are you happy?”

Gabriel didn’t quite know what to make of that, or the “shooting turtle” balloon animal that came landing next to his plate seconds later, which Wojciechowski had been creating the entire time he told jokes. Little brother Christian, 3, would get his own shooting turtle seconds later.

For adults, Wojciechowski, who wore a Santa suit T-shirt, made “apple watches,” then asked how much memory they get, usually to no response. The answer: one bite (byte).

“There’s nothing like putting smiles on kids’ faces,” Santa shirt said as he continued to work the room.

For the boys’ grandmother, Vicki Leigh, 63, the smiled came at the end of a tough 2017.

“I’m kind of glad to see it’s over,” Leigh said of the year.

Free food and gifts for the boys were nice, but the shrimp were a special delicacy.

“I don’t get to eat shrimp all that often,” Leigh said. “I think I got full on just the shrimp,” she laughed, showing off the bowl with only cocktail sauce and shells left.

Not everyone took the opportunity to fill up. At least twice, diners were asked to try to clean their plates, rather than throw away edible food.

“It’s a sin to waste food,” one of the voices from the microphone said. Seconds later, a teenage girl handed in her tray, with hardly a scrap of food touched.

The volunteer she handed it to said, not so much to her as within her earshot: “We’re getting a lot of clean plates. We’re getting too many clean plates.”

jdickson@detroitnews.com

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