Jews at Christmas — it’s a mitzvah thing

Christmas Day for many Jews is about more than eating Chinese food and going to the movies.

This year like every year, as part of the time-honored American tradition of Jews doing mitzvahs at Christmastime, Jewish volunteers across the Bay Area will be offering gifts of comfort and community — sheltering the homeless, feeding the hungry and caring for the vulnerable. In the process, they are creating their own family traditions of performing hands-on mitzvahs and modeling for their children what it means to be Jewish.

Focusing on these charitable activities in December, according to many Jews, is part of being American; stepping in to replace Christian volunteers on Christmas Eve or Christmas Day so they can be home with their own families is just being a mensch.

When Rachel Kesselman began bringing Christmas meals to the homebound with San Francisco’s Project Open Hand, an activity sponsored by the S.F.-based Jewish Family and Children’s Services, her three children were tiny.

“I would take any neighborhood they gave me,” she said. “I would go to the Tenderloin with my 2-year-old and my 6-year-old. It’s a little touch of community to someone who may not have a community.

“For the kids, I try to use it as a moment of education, Jewish learning: caring for the stranger, caring for someone who has less.”

That was 21 years ago, when Project Open Hand served patients with HIV/AIDS. Since then, the group has broadened its scope, delivering meals or weekly groceries to a wide spectrum of homebound and critically ill people. Founded by Ruth Brinker in 1985, the nonprofit also serves hot lunches to seniors at various sites in San Francisco.

The Kesselman family (left to right, Maya, Talya, Iva, Michael and Rachel) has volunteered with JFCS and Project Open Hand at Christmas for 20 years. photo/courtesy of family

Every year, JFCS recruits volunteers to help out with Project Open Hand, especially on Dec. 24 and 25.

“JFCS has taken the lead in successfully recruiting our volunteers to prepare and deliver holiday meals to clients,” JFCS spokesman Robert Miller said. “We have done so for more than two decades, and hundreds of JFCS volunteers have participated.”

Many, like Kesselman, who is the director of volunteer services at JFCS, have worked all parts of the operation.

“People peel 200 pounds of yams or potatoes or carrots for 2,000 meals a day,” she said of kitchen duty at Project Open Hand. Each day, according to a chef with the agency, more than 100 volunteers help prepare 500 to 1,500 pounds each of produce and protein (meat, beans and/or tofu).

“One year we had to grate cheese that came in these enormous blocks,” Kesselman recalled of one Christmas prep shift. “It’s so fun. You have 12 people who don’t know each other all working together.”

Gary Stower’s daughters, stepson and wife all join him in making deliveries on Christmas for the project, including bringing meals to buildings in disrepair, where the stench of urine fills the hallways and the carpets are worn to threads.

“This gives them a view of society they might not see otherwise,” he said. “It’s a humbling experience. The conditions are hard on your senses. It’s not pleasant.  It wakes you up to reality.”

His wife waits in the car in neighborhoods where dealers are openly selling drugs.

The volunteer cooking crew at the Berkeley Food and Housing Project, Dec. 25, 2011 photos/courtesy of levinson benefits group

“It was shocking to her,” he said. Yet, he adds, “We’ve never had a bad experience.”

While Stower has high praise for JFCS, he plays down his own role.

“I do not see this within myself as extraordinary,” he said. “It’s a small, small contribution.”

In Lafayette, Temple Isaiah houses more than a dozen homeless families from Dec. 17 to 31, a two-week period that includes Christmas. That means providing gifts, a holiday meal and much more.

It’s all part of Winter Nights, a shelter program of the Contra Costa Interfaith Council in which houses of worship rotate to put up needy families for two-week stretches.

Families otherwise face grim options: sleeping in the car, sleeping outdoors, “or your family gets split up,” said Rebecca Klein, an Isaiah member who coordinates the program with her husband, Jonathan. “And the damage done is huge.”

But the congregation does more than provide shelter. Winter Nights is about building dignity and providing practical support. Some volunteers transport children to school; studies show homeless students typically lose about a year’s worth of education due to transfers when they move from place to place. Other volunteers tutor the children.

Moreover, Isaiah has piloted some new programs that have been adopted by the Winter Nights program overall — in the areas of health and nutrition, employment training and parental counseling.

A volunteer (right) talks to a resident of the Berkeley Food and Housing Project, Dec. 25, 2011.

Cooking classes emphasize nutrition, but “the reason for doing them is that most families have lost their kitchens,” Klein said. The classes allow mothers and fathers to take the helm in the kitchen and teach their children to prepare dishes — a bonding activity that is part of normal family life but which goes by the wayside when people are homeless.

“We had a burrito breakfast cook-off,” Klein said. “We bought soy chorizo at Whole Foods. At 5 a.m., these young men were up and cooking and they were having a blast. They loved serving everyone.”

Volunteers get up at 4:30 a.m. to make their guests a hot breakfast. They take the kids on outings — young children to the museum Habitot, for example. Teens may go horseback riding or enjoy a “neon disco bowling party.”

When Temple Isaiah began its participation in the program nine years ago, a network of strings and draped sheets provided little privacy in the temporary living area. Today, the temple builds a tent city in its social hall.

“One day a woman told me, ‘This is the first time in four months I haven’t had to change clothes or my children’s clothes in a public restroom,’ ” Klein said.

There is a play area for children, a space for teens, and even a Santa’s workshop. Volunteers buy gifts for the children with some counsel from parents. For themselves, the adults might select a new or gently used outfit for work or job interviews in the “business casual boutique.”

The program’s newest facet is tutoring for people in the shelter who never graduated high school. The goal is to help them earn a GED.

Longtime volunteers say one of the rewards of this Christmas season mitzvah is a kind of learning that flows both ways.

For example, volunteers find many homeless people are highly skilled. “I met a woman who was a professional recruiter with a master’s degree,” Klein said. “She had a serious health issue” that set off a downward spiral.

Noah Elder (left), Jake Hirsh and Kim Elder of Temple Isaiah prepare food for Winter Nights, Dec. 24, 2011. photo/michael fox

“I don’t know if I could do what I see these families do,” Klein said. “It’s incredibly inspiring.”

In all, the volunteers “leave with more than what they brought,” Klein said. “They practice Jewish values. Tradition matters.”

A similar program enriches the congregation at Peninsula Temple Beth El in San Mateo, said chairs Carol Kadet and Carla White.

Needy families come to the synagogue from Dec. 16 to 30 through Home and Hope of San Mateo County; the senior havurah as well as the congregation’s teens take part.

On Christmas Day, White said, “We make gingerbread houses, play games, do art projects. Someone might bring in a guitar, or play the cello.”

The work helps the volunteers as much as the clients, she says. “We are teaching [the teen volunteers] to be responsible as adult Jews. We put up the tents, take them down. You are meeting people from the congregation you wouldn’t run into otherwise.”

In addition to the family tents, a comfortable living area is set up for the families’ exclusive use during the two-week period.  Volunteers cook and host dinners and spend time with the guests in the evening; two volunteers sleep over each night.  Many of the clients, it turns out, are working; others are job hunting.

“Every group of families is different,” Kadet said. “Last year on the last night they said they had something to show us. They had created a poster with hearts on it thanking us. I just wanted to cry.”

Synagogue members contribute “generously” to a gift card campaign, the chairs said.

JFCS also partners with Peninsula Temple Sholom in Burlingame to provide gifts for 30 to 45 people each Christmas, which they receive at a party hosted by one of the 4-year-old program’s partners.

Jamie Gracer (on guitar) entertains with Rebecca Calahan Klein (left) and Risa Dunbar at Temple Isaiah’s Winter Nights, Dec. 24, 2011; a Jewish Santa (below) adds to the good cheer. photos/michael fox

“These are [mostly] families who are … on the way to finding a home,” said Patty Anixter, a member of Peninsula Temple Sholom. “They get clean sheets and friendly faces. It makes everyone feel good.”

In Napa, members of Congregation Beth Shalom prepare and serve 225 meals a month throughout the year as part of the Table, an interfaith project. But on Dec. 25, they serve up an eight-course meal called a “Christmas Mitzvah.”

In addition, “all of our diners will be leaving with a gift bag,” said project leader Rhonda Simon. “It’s cold in December, so the gift bag will be filled with warm goodies, such as a fleece scarf, socks, gloves, a hat and of course our homemade cookies.”

Congregants fund the project through donations, while a group of about a dozen people bake upwards of 100 cookies for the gift bags.

It’s not just Jewish nonprofits doing this work. In Berkeley, Levinson Benefits Group has been providing Christmas Day meals for the past six years to residents of Berkeley Food and Housing Project. Last year, celebrity chef Joey Altman of the Food Network served as guest chef; this year, it will be Chris Pastena, a well-known restaurateur-chef in Oakland who opened Chop Bar.

The Christmas event attracts many volunteer families, said the group’s founder, Ilene Levinson. Most of them are Jewish.

“Kids are doing the dishes in the kitchen while parents are out there serving,” she said.

“This is not a passive, hands-off thing,” she added. “We participate. It is a day to be cheerful and joyous, to have a giving spirit.”

The kitchen crew begins its work at 7:30 a.m., and people start arriving at 8:30 or 9 a.m., said volunteer coordinator Sandy Lipkowitz. Volunteers guide kids in arts and crafts activities.

“We’re teaching [the kids] to be volunteers,” she said. “To treat people with care and respect.”

The meal begins with a prayer circle.

“It’s very moving,” Lipkowitz said. “We talk about what’s happened in their lives — their hopes and dreams.”

The joy of giving is so heady that all these local programs say they are overwhelmed with volunteers — 500 to 700 volunteers serve meals at Temple Isaiah’s Winter Nights alone. They give, and they receive, in the spirit of love.

“If you use Jewish values to inform what you do, in the end we’re obligated to treat others as we would want to be treated,” said Temple Isaiah’s Klein. “To meet people where they are.”

Christmas mitzvahs around the nation

Christmas mitzvahs draw hundreds, if not thousands, of Jewish volunteers in programs across the country. Here are some examples:

Michigan: Three years ago, Muslims joined the Jewish community in its 20-year tradition of Mitzvah Day, a program of the Jewish Community Relations Council of Metropolitan Detroit.

Georgia: A Jewish group dubbed the Pinch Hitters has been voluntarily taking on nonmedical work at Atlanta-area hospitals to help relieve staff for 30 years.

Pennsylvania: Jewish volunteers pack backpacks for at-risk children, serve meals to the homeless and care for animals at the Humane Society.

on the cover — photo/ michael fox
Temple Isaiah volunteers at Winter Nights in December 2011

Rebecca Rosen Lum

Rebecca Rosen Lum is a freelance writer.