Metro Detroit Jews give back on Christmas

Mark Hicks
The Detroit News

Carving out time in her schedule to volunteer for charitable causes is nothing new to Joy Alekman.

On Wednesday, when many of her neighbors celebrate Christmas, the Farmington Hills resident plans to add another project to that list. 

She and other Jewish residents from across Metro Detroit are set to spend a few hours sharing snacks, games and holiday cheer with youths at Methodist Children's Home Society in Redford Township, which has therapeutic residential treatment services for boys in the foster care system.

From left, Taylor Chimoff of Oak Park and Sally Schulman of Huntington Woods start cooking noodles while preparing dinner during "Shelter Week" at Congregation Beth Shalom in Oak Park, on Dec. 22, 2019.  Congregation Beth Shalom takes in people from the South Oakland Shelter/Lighthouse of Oakland County during the week of Christmas to help out the organizations that might have volunteers celebrating Christmas.

“Just to be able to give back was something I wanted to,” Alekman said. “Helping others and serving others — that’s how I identify.”

That idea boosts the latest Mitzvah Day, a daylong event launched in 1996. More than 600 volunteers representing different faiths are expected to visit nearly 40 locations for social service projects such as distributing meals to seniors, giving gifts to families in need and tending to animals, organizers said.

Meanwhile, on the same day, Congregation Beth Shalom in Oak Park plans to entertain homeless guests on the fourth night of an annual week-long effort.

All the activities fall during Hanukkah, the eight-day holiday that commemorates their ancestors’ triumph over darkness.

While the acts are separate from that milestone, participants see their work each Dec. 25 as another way to express their Jewish identity and highlight the faith’s call to repair the world.

“Jews believe in doing good things for people and coming together as a community,” said Sheri Schiff, the co-chair of Mitzvah Day who is active with the JCRC/AJC, the group presenting it. 

Volunteer Jack Kahn handles the dishwashing during dinner preparation  Dec. 22, 2019 at Congregation Beth Shalom in Oak Park.

Long considered the largest volunteering opportunity for the Jewish community in southeast Michigan, Mitzvah Day often draws repeat visitors who flock to the partner sites year after year.

Among them is Debbie Morosohk of Beverly Hills, who has volunteered with Meals on Wheels but now plans to spend hours at the Michigan Humane Society. She and her two daughters in town to celebrate Hanukkah are donning gloves and old clothes to prepare for duties such as cleaning cages, walking dogs and mopping.

“It’s a great opportunity for us to reach out and help and make our community better,” she said. “It’s a fabulous tradition and I think every community should do something like it.”

Mitzvah Day has become a longstanding tradition for Howard Lazar of Farmington Hills and his family, who help deliver presents through the nonprofit Jimmy’s Kids, which receives requests from schools, hospitals, churches, neighborhood associations and others.

He and his wife, Wendy, welcome fulfilling wish lists through the group, which fields requests from churches, neighborhood associations and others, while joining the hundreds of volunteers. The delighted response illustrate an important lesson for their children who accompany them, Lazar said. “It’s nice to let them know we need to be thankful for what we have and give back.”

That event is expect to draw many Muslim volunteers, who participate as part of their annual Days of Ihsan initiative to give back during the holiday season.

Program coordinator Julie Grodin checks in a guest preparing dinner during "Shelter Week" at Congregation Beth Shalom in Oak Park.

Among them is Arslan Raheem, a college student from Bloomfield Hills. The 21-year-old enjoyed his Mitzvah Day experience in 2018 and hopes to make it an annual tradition.

“I feel a lot closer to God and more enlightened spiritually,” he said. “There are so many things that divide us all but stuff like this, giving back to the community is something that is taught through many different religions.”

For others, connections are also key.

Longtime volunteer Ian Zitron was so moved helping out at Bridging Communities, which serves seniors, he returned regularly and eventually join its board of directors. On Wednesday, he’s the site team captain for participants delivering meals.

“Taking time out … is a possibility to reach out, meet people who you would otherwise never have met, interact with them, realize that they’re absolutely wonderful and recharge your spiritual batteries,” the retiree said.

The same goes for volunteers at Congregation Beth Shalom, which started its Christmas “Shelter Week” more than 20 years ago, site coordinator Julie Grodin said.

During their stay, men, women and children referred through a shelter program under what is now the Lighthouse of Michigan have all their needs met, from meals cooked in the conservative synagogue’s kitchen to receiving donated toiletries, even spa-like pampering and Yuletide music, she said.

The volunteers’ effort, Grodin said, reflects an oft-repeated concept in Judaism:  “Helping to heal the world.”