Mitzvah Day volunteers give back at annual Christmas Day event

Carol Thompson
The Detroit News

Santa skipped the chimney Saturday at some houses in southwest Detroit. He knocked on front doors instead. 

"Merry Christmas from Jimmy's Kids," said Santa — or, as he's known most of the year, Raymond Hillenbrand. 

Hillenbrand was one of hundreds of volunteers who delivered sacks of Christmas gifts to families on Saturday through Jimmy's Kids, a Clawson nonprofit that provides gifts to low-income families during the holidays and food, clothing, flood and eviction help year-round.

Howard Lazar, of Farmington Hills, carries bags of Christmas gifts to an awaiting vehicle to be delivered to a family in need, Saturday morning, December 25, 2021.

Jimmy's Kids is one of the groups that received an influx of volunteers on Saturday, when the Jewish Community Relations Council/American Jewish Committee hosted its 25th annual Mitzvah Day. On Mitzvah Day, volunteers from Jewish, Muslim, Hindu, Christian and other faiths serve at various metro Detroit nonprofits so their staff members can spend Christmas at home. 

Volunteers also prepared and served meals at soup kitchens, cleaned cages at the Humane Society shelters, read to children, packed at-home activity kits for Brilliant Detroit to distribute on Martin Luther King Jr. Day and did other activities.

This year, the council is calling the event Mitzvah Weekend because Christmas falls on a Saturday, when some Jews observe Shabbat, said Lauren Garfield-Herrin, associate director of the Jewish Community Relations Council/American Jewish Committee. The pandemic also exacerbated nonprofits' need for volunteers.

"People do want to give back still," she said. "Even more so than before."

Hillenbrand, a Jimmy's Kids board member, has volunteered on Mitzvah Day for years, always in costume. The sight of Santa at the front door is a symbol of hope, he said. Some people still believe in that.

Dr. Ray Hillenbrand, of Rochester Hills, delivers Christmas gifts to Mandy Gutierrez and family in Southwest Detroit, Saturday morning, December 25, 2021.  Mandy kisses daughter, Abigail, 3, while daughter, Amilia, 4, watches Santa.

The gifts left Mandy Gutierrez "overwhelmed," she said Saturday as she gathered with her three children and their cousin, whom the family is fostering, to meet Santa at the front door. The family had gotten a jump start on holiday celebrations, opening some gifts a few days before Saturday, but planned to gather for a traditional Christmas ham dinner with her parents later that day. 

For Summi Akther, of Warren, Mitzvah Day is an opportunity to instill the importance of volunteering in her son, Sajid Uddin. The pair drove through St. Stephens Lutheran Church's parking lot on Saturday to collect sacks of gifts to distribute to families on Jimmy's Kids' list. 

"We just wanted to give back to the community," she said. 

Mitzvah Day volunteers unloaded thick black plastic sacks of gifts from a truck in the parking lot, then gave those sacks to volunteer drivers who delivered them to southwest Detroit families. 

Nickolas Pridoehl, left, his father, Ingo Pridoehl, background-right, and his mother, Michele Pridoehl (Indo's wife), foreground-right, all of Rochester, talk with Jimmy's Kids Founder and Executive Director Jimmy Tuman, second from left, of Royal Oak, outside St. Stephen Lutheran Church, Saturday morning, Dec. 25, 2021.

Howard Lazar, wearing a red and white striped "Cat in the Hat" hat and scarf, joined his family to help load sacks into cars. He and his family started volunteering at the annual event through their temple 11 years ago. His family also purchased gifts for two families this year.

"You realize how many people out there aren't having the holidays that you'd want, or the holidays they deserved," said Lazar, of Farmington Hills. 

The annual Christmas day volunteer effort is an important symbol of unity among people of different faiths, said Jimmy Tuman, 80, who founded Jimmy's Kids in 1988.

"All over the world, people are trying to come together in some degree of harmony," he said. "And here we have pulled it off."