In the spirit of giving during the holiday season, local synagogues offer a variety of programs and initiatives so that Jewish individuals and families can give back to their communities and participate in mitzvot. From mitzvah projects to cleanup efforts to feeding needy families, congregations offer members a number of ways to give back.
Chizuk Amuno Congregation offers the social justice-themed Gemilut Hasadim program, which is founded on the Jewish imperative of repairing of the world. The organization helps members bring a Jewish perspective to the search for social justice and to provide positions of service and leadership in the larger Jewish and general communities. Any individual can participate in the group’s activities.
The group’s first initiative of the holiday season is its Adopt-A-Road event in collaboration with the Chizuk Amuno Brotherhood on Dec. 4 at 9 a.m. The group will perform the mitzvah of shmirat adamah, protecting the earth, by cleaning a segment of Greenspring Avenue.
Members can also take part in a program through the Ronald McDonald House. On Dec. 21 at 4 p.m., community members will have the opportunity to cook and serve dinners for families with seriously ill children. “The families look forward to home-cooked meals to ease the strain and pressure that come with seeking medical treatment far from home,” the event release says.
“It is our obligation to do what Isaiah says and play a role in trying to overcome these injustices that have been ingrained for many years,” said Cheryl Snyderman, director of Gemilut Hasadim and member engagement. “It is our duty to inform about social justice. We have the [best] opportunity to create a real impact within our own community.”
Weekend Backpacks, an ongoing project through Temple Oheb Shalom, assembles “backpacks” to distribute to inner city schools for their homeless and hungry children. According to an overview of the program, “there are over 3,000 homeless children in Baltimore City schools. Some live with extended family in cars, shelters or on the street. Many of these kids go hungry from lunchtime on Friday until they return to school on Monday.”
Each backpack has enough food to feed four people for the weekend. The next opportunities to help prepare these backpacks will be on Dec. 11 and Jan. 8 at noon.
Beth Tfiloh Congregation also has its share of community outreach programs. On Dec. 11 and 12, BT Brotherhood and Mercaz are respectively having cooking events, the meals from which will be donated to needy families through CHANA.
During Chanukah, there is a group known as the BT Puppeteers who wrote a Chanukah puppet show and perform it at nursing homes to lighten the mood for residents.
Additionally, Jan. 15, will see the congregation hosting a one-day clothing drive.
Many congregations offer opportunities that are not exclusive to the holiday season as well.
Har Sinai and Beth Israel congregations collaborate on Operation Mitzvah Mission through Jewish Volunteer Connection. As a part of the program, sixth-graders from Har Sinai and Beth Israel meet together to volunteer monthly. At each meeting, students are introduced to a core value of Judaism that they will embody as a part of the day’s work.
“The kids really like it, and in the past several years, students have been able to count it as a mitzvah project for a b’nai mitzvah. They can all identify specific mitzvahs that they performed in the program that influenced them significantly,” said Jo-Ellen Unger, director of congregational learning at Har Sinai.
“For me, instead of opening a book to page 72 and reading about a mitzvah, I prefer having the opportunity to go out and enact it in the world,” she continued. “It is so much more educational, it means more to you. We talk a lot about tzedakah, but we don’t collect money anymore. We collect canned food for the crisis center instead, and kids will pick out what food to donate while shopping with parents. We have people bring unopened pasta to use as groggers for Purim, which we donate after. That way you can celebrate the holiday and people still benefit. You are living a mitzvot instead of just looking at it.”
Finally, Community Mitzvah Day, one of the community’s largest volunteer events, takes place on Dec. 25, which this year is the first day of Chanukah. According to its website, the event “engages more than 1,000 volunteers in a variety of service sites including shelters, soup kitchens, nursing homes, group homes for individuals with special needs, hospitals and community-based service projects at the JCCs and synagogues throughout the community.”
Opportunities as a part of the Community Mitzvah Day, anchored by Jewish Volunteer Connection, include making no-sew fleece blankets, knitting hats and scarves, collecting food, toy and clothing donations, writing and coloring holiday cards for members of the community and assembling care packages for less privileged members of the community, which will include homemade holiday greeting cards and winter essentials such as gloves.
Volunteering opportunities for Community Mitzvah Day can be found at jvcbaltimore.org/opportunities.