Local Jews volunteer for that other really great holiday | Wisconsin Jewish Chronicle

Local Jews volunteer for that other really great holiday

You don’t have to be a Christian to act like Santa Claus and spread joy this time of year.

You can be a Jew with a kind heart and the belief that there’s a line in the Torah that reads: Thou shalt not spend all Christmas Day patronizing a Chinese restaurant and a movie theater.

Those Jews might take a shift at work on Christmas that would ordinarily be manned by a Christian. They might visit hospital patients. They might get together with fellow congregants to make and serve food for the hungry at shelters, bring hand warmers to the homeless and give toys and books to children who otherwise might not get anything.

Shir Hadash volunteers Lenore Lee (in hat) and Marilyn Jacobs help serve food to the poor and homeless on Christmas. Shir Hadash photo.

The Jewish volunteers don’t do it for the rewards, but that doesn’t mean the work isn’t rewarding.

“I get much more out of it than I give,” said Nadine Zuckerman, the event chairperson for Congregation Emanu-El B’Ne Jeshurun who helps organize volunteers for Christmas at the Meta House and the Guest House. “For me, it’s very rewarding. I realize how fortunate I am, so I want to give back a little something. These people are trying to get their lives together, and it’s not always easy, especially when they don’t have family.”

Meta House deals with women’s substance abuse, while Guest House provides shelter for men. Women at Meta House are allowed to have their children with them.

Zuckerman said CEEBJ volunteers serve lunch on Christmas for 30 to 35 women and children. They play bingo, sing Christmas carols and bring gifts for the children and toiletries, jewelry, scarves, hats, socks and mittens for the women.

The volunteers also mingle with the clients to see if they want to talk. “Maybe they want to talk about family or the weather,” Zuckerman said. “We take our cue from them. We want them to feel comfortable.”

Davey Singer is among the Shir Hadash volunteers who bring joy to Christians on Christmas. Shir Hadash photo.

Between six and eight volunteers have provided homemade lunches for 30 to 35 people on Christmas at Meta House for the past 10 years. Congregation Shalom provides money for gifts.

CEEBJ volunteers have been going to Guest House a few years longer. Zuckerman said her group used to provide a turkey dinner on Christmas, but because there are several other spots where the homeless and poor can get a turkey lunch, CEEBJ switched three years ago to homemade pasta and casseroles for approximately 86 men. “When giving people a meal (that include salads, fruit and dessert), it’s nicer if it’s homemade,” Zuckerman said.

She added, “It’s Jews doing something for Christians on their holiday.”

Reenie Kavalar, who as CEEBJ’s social action chair also helps coordinate the synagogue’s Christmas activities, says it’s not hard getting volunteers, who try to make the day special for clients.  “Guest House is not very big so we have had to turn volunteers away,” she said.

Kavalar added, “It’s wonderful to see how appreciative these individuals are. It’s lovely to do something for someone on their holiday so they’re not forgotten.”

Kavalar said Deborah Carter Berkson, the late wife of CEEBJ Rabbi Marc Berkson, was an “instigator” for the Christmas projects. In her obituary, the Berkson family suggested memorials go to the temple’s Food Bank Fund.

Bill Gartenberg, a member of Shalom’s social action committee, said one of the group’s original ideas was to have Jews work for Christians on Christmas. “But that didn’t evolve because of legal reasons,” he said.

Tikkun Ha-Ir volunteers help serve food on Christmas Day. Photo by Sami Avner.

So Shalom volunteers, partnering with volunteers from CEEBJ, Congregation Sinai and Congregation Beth Israel Ner Tamid, provide activities at the VA Center as well as the Sojourner Family Peace Center, Meta House and Guest House. Staffing is low on Christmas, so volunteers enable the full range of activities to go on.

Toby Recht got Shalom involved 10 to 12 years ago, and Gartenberg eventually took over.

Gartenberg said he has tried without much success getting other non-Christian communities involved. The Mormon community has helped, and one of its volunteers sings and plays his guitar.

Gartenberg has had more success getting Jewish volunteers, such as Elaine Nelles, a member of the CBINT social action committee. Gartenberg contacted the synagogue about six years ago and since then, anywhere from three to 10 CBINT volunteers have partnered with the Shalom group.

Nelles said the volunteers don’t have a script when they enter a room with small gifts supplied by Shalom. “We want to let them know that others are thinking about them on their holiday,” she said. “Whoever I have talked to have shown a sense of gratitude, an appreciation for the attention paid to them, especially those who don’t have anyone to come see them. To be alone is tough.”

Nelles added, “I have found that it means as much for the volunteers as for those people being visited.”

Shalom and its partners also work with Aurora hospitals in the area on Christmas, as volunteers bring plants and good cheer. With the help of Andrea Bernstein, Hours Against Hate coordinator for the Milwaukee Jewish Federation, one Jewish girl and one Muslim girl went into hospital rooms on Christmas last year to introduce themselves to patients.

Although Gartenberg works with “some big-time repeat volunteers who have done this for years at various sites,” he has had years when he still needed volunteers a few weeks before Christmas. “But I learned not to panic because every year it comes together,” he said.

 “Seeing the gratitude of the people we help makes it worthwhile,” he added.

Gartenberg, a retired pharmacist, used to volunteer to work on Christmas so Christians could have the day off.

Tikkun Ha-Ir works with various synagogues and Hillel Milwaukee to provide Christmas cheer at Friendship House and the Cathedral Center, which serves homeless unaccompanied women and families.

Sami Stein Avner, Tikkun Ha-Ir’s executive director, said, “It’s such an uplifting and humbling experience to be part of bringing someone joy, helping them find a little extra light in often a dark time. It feels like we’re doing a mitzvah.”

An intergenerational group of about 10 serve meals. Gifts for kids are unwrapped, allowing children to select their own books. Volunteers often talk with the children, who can be as young as 8, asking such things as what is exciting for them during the Christmas season. “We want to make it a positive experience for the kids,” Avner said.

Toys, books and winter essentials come from Tikkun Ha-Ir’s annual homeless gift drive.

Shir Hadash has been working with the St. Vincent de Paul Society of Milwaukee for more than 20 years, providing the Christmas meal so that the staff can have the day off and the clients can experience an air of festivity.

Jim Hagen got involved early once his family joined Shir Hadash. He was asked by Rea Katz to supply milk for the meal, and he recalls his daughter, then 3 years old, helping bring the milk from the family van during a blizzard. “She was pushing the jugs down the sidewalk like they were hockey pucks,” Hagen said. His daughter is now 23 and still plays a part by baking cookies.

Children are kept busy carrying water to tables and wrapping utensils in napkins. “When kids help, they see the face of poverty and hopefully realize there is more to life than themselves,” Hagen said.

Hagen added, “It’s an unfortunate period in these people’s lives, sometimes out of their control. I can see myself in their shoes if something in my life didn’t go right.”

St. Vincent de Paul provides the turkeys, but Shir Hadash cooks them and provides sweet potatoes, stuffing and cranberries. Shir volunteers, who range from those in their 80s to preschoolers, also include a healthy component to the meals, such as salads and fresh vegetables. They also bring tablecloths and festive napkins.

Hagen called the older volunteers “a real cast of characters.” They included Bob Jacobs and Sidney Fine, both of whom have died.

“Jacobs loved to tell jokes, and Fine was a very loving person who had his bar mitzvah at Shir when he was 85,” Hagen said.

Volunteers sometimes bring instruments to play holiday music and engage people who can be very lonely much of the year in conversation.

Hagen, who uses an online spreadsheet to sign up volunteers, said Shir Hadash Rabbi Michal Woll is involved in a hands-on way, working in the St. Vincent kitchen with her husband and two daughters and wanting to make sure the clients have a good experience. “She doesn’t want it to be an institutional meal,” Hagen said.

Why do so many Jews give up time at home with their own families to help others? For many, it could be the message of Billy Jonas’ song, More Love: “There is just one task; All that matters is the answer when the question’s asked; Did you put more love in the world today?”

Hagen said, “The Torah teaches us to help those less fortunate. Love your neighbor as yourself. That’s why I do it. We are expected to help our neighbors, and Milwaukee is an extended family.”

Avner perhaps speaks for all Jews who volunteer on Christmas, noting: “The holiday itself doesn’t mean anything to me, but it means something to me to help someone else celebrate.”