Santa Shapiro is in it for the tzedakah — JCC leader volunteers with Tikkun Ha-Ir every Christmas Eve

MILWAUKEE — If you don’t celebrate Christmas — because you’re Jewish — what should you do with yourself on Christmas Eve?

For Mark Shapiro the answer is obvious: Get into a Santa Claus outfit. 

He’s been doing so for years as part of a larger effort by Tikkun Ha-Ir, the nonprofit that seeks a more just Milwaukee. Tikkun Ha-Ir volunteers and “Santa Shapiro” annually spend Christmas Eve at shelters, to spread Christmas cheer, serve a meal, and give out gift bags that were assembled in the Jewish community. Mark’s wife Sharon arrives as Mrs. Claus and their daughters Sophie and Carli are elvish helpers.

Mark is careful to point out he’s one volunteer among many, his family is instrumental and nothing is possible without Tikkun Ha-Ir.

He becomes Santa with a pillow for added weight and an ice pack to help cool down the workout. Santa is not an inactive fellow, you know.

Mark Shapiro is a local Jewish leader but come Christmas he’s Santa Claus. Here, he reads to children at a Milwaukee shelter on Christmas Eve.

“He really takes his charisma and puts it all out there for the families,” said Sami Stein Avner, executive director of Tikkun Ha-Ir.

One does not have to be Christian to understand that Santa is a key role, a larger-than-life character who matters deeply to people. Mark said that with the suit comes responsibility. 

“The suit is powerful,” said Mark, whose day job is president and CEO at the Harry & Rose Samson Family Jewish Community Center in Whitefish Bay. “It makes adults turn into children. It makes children the happiest that they can be.”

Santa Shapiro makes several stops, including Friendship House and the Cathedral Center, shelters for women and families in Milwaukee. Those served can be escaping abusive relationships or single mothers in a tough financial spot.

Santa visits with families who may not expect that they can afford gifts. Mark remembers a boy turning to his mother and saying, “See, I told you Santa was going to come this year.”

“Ho-ho-ho,” Mark will sometimes bellow, Avner said. “The kids are jumping all over him.”

Mark also visits a women’s floor. There are no kids here, but it’s worth it. Avner remembers a shriek on the women’s floor: “It’s Santa!”

“He really puts on his shtick,” Avner said.

But why? Santa’s a symbol of Christmas, right? It’s an awfully nice holiday, but it’s not ours. So why the show up for Christmas Eve?

On this, both Mark and Avner are confident.

“We don’t have to wait for just a Jewish holiday to go and give back to people,” he said, citing the Jewish value of tzedakah, or charitable giving. It’s “truly creating a just world,” he said.

“It’s an opportunity to step in,” Avner said, noting that non-Jews may be less available to volunteer on Christmas Eve. “I think it’s important for us to take up the responsibility on Christmas Day and Christmas Eve. I think bringing Santa in is an act of chesed.”

She sees it as “an act of loving kindness, and not to our Jewish community but to our broader community.”

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Three ways to help

1. Support the holiday gift drive — see “Giving” menorahs at several locations in the Jewish community. 

2. See volunteer opportunities Dec. 24-25 in Coming Events, in this edition of the Chronicle, page 14.

3. Visit the Tikkun Ha-Ir site at Thi-Milwaukee.org for more ideas.