Event should be a “beacon for other groups in the city to follow and replicate,” Mayor Jim Watson says.
Hundreds of volunteers – from young children to seniors – spent a few hours doing good deeds during the Jewish Federation of Ottawa’s eighth annual Mitzvah Day, February 9.
A total of 544 community members eagerly signed up to give back to the community in the spirit of tikkun olam (repairing the world), one good deed at a time.
The good deeds piled up quickly, with 74 team captains wrangling the participants – including 120 students from Ottawa’s Jewish supplementary schools – to and from such activities as writing letters to lone soldiers in Israel, decorating cards for sick kids at CHEO and Roger’s House, and making sandwiches for the Ottawa Mission, among others.
The majority of the 15 different mitzvot were held on the Jewish Community Campus at the Soloway Jewish Community Centre and Hillel Lodge, while three were held offsite.
One of the main events of the day was when three young girls had their ponytails cut so that the hair could be donated to Locks of Love, a charity that provides hairpieces for children suffering from long-term medical hair loss.
Mayor Jim Watson, who cut Talia Freedhoff’s ponytail, had participated in the Locks of Love hair-cutting at Mitzvah Day last year and joked that he hoped for sharper scissors this time.
“I’ll never make it as a barber, but, once a year, I think I can handle it,” he said.
“It was a little difficult cutting through some of the hair,” Watson smiled. “But it’s such a wonderful sight to see these young girls doing something year-long, and which culminates with the cutting of their hair for cancer patients on Mitzvah Day.”
The other girls donating their ponytails were Abby Tatham, whose hair was cut by Mitzvah Day co-chair Linda Melamed, and Elana Rogoff, whose hair was cut by Josh Engel of Mitzvah Day sponsor GGFL Chartered Accountants.
Mitzvah Day co-chair Warren Melamed, Linda’s husband, said his family’s decision to accept the Federation’s request that his family take on a major role in organizing Mitzvah Day was an easy choice.
“We said yes because we thought, not only is it a nice way to get involved with the Jewish community and to help and give back, but also to teach our kids to get involved and put others before themselves,” he said of sons Jacob and Michael, who joined their parents as Mitzvah Day co-chairs.
The Melameds said their involvement was also to raise awareness for pulmonary hypertension, a medical condition affecting blood pressure in the lungs, which can lead to heart failure. The family said the cause is very important to them, as they have a close family member diagnosed with the illness.
Michael Melamed organized an extreme football challenge in which participants donated $10 to play, with the funds being matched by the family.
About 20 of his friends signed up to play, but the game was much less extreme than initially anticipated, with participants opting to stay indoors due to the cold weather. All proceeds from the tournament were donated to the Pulmonary Hypertension Association of Canada.
“People come back every year,” Linda Melamed said. “It’s an event that’s very popular.”
Mitzvah Day has long been a family affair for Sara Miller, whose father, Jeff Miller, is a partner at Mitzvah Day sponsor GGFL.
“I love participating,” she said. “I wish I could’ve been more involved in planning; I’m a student now, again, so it’s much more difficult. But I like the feeling I get from helping.”
Event organizers said getting involved with Mitzvah Day not only gives participants a fantastic feeling by helping others, but also pointed out that high school students can use their Mitzvah Day time toward the 40 volunteer hours they need to graduate.
“I enjoy coming because it’s just such a wonderful, beautiful concept, that a community gets together and does good deeds,” Watson said. “It’s not about fundraising, it’s not about advocacy; it is just doing good in the community. I think that’s very heartwarming.”
Watson, who said he has been attending Mitzvah Day for the past five years, added he would like to see the event gain more widespread recognition, so that the Mitzvah Day model can be used as a “beacon for other groups in the city to follow and replicate.”
“The greatest form of flattery is imitation,” he said. “And I’m sure the Jewish community would share their manual on how to do a wonderful Mitzvah Day with other groups so that we can instil this sense of responsibility in all corners of the city.”
The legacy of Mitzvah Day in Ottawa goes back much further than just eight years, said Francie Greenspoon, senior director of communications for the Federation.
“When I went to look back in the archives the other day, it actually has gone on longer,” she said, noting it was originally organized under a different name, though with the same intention to do good deeds in the community.
Mitzvah Day is now organized at many of the Jewish federations in North America, Greenspoon said.
Sara Miller said there is no question as to why people have – and should – get involved.
“It really, really makes you feel good at the end of the day. It’s just a couple hours of your day to help somebody and make them happy. It’s just a fantastic event to get involved in,” she said. “I recommend everybody try it at least once – and then you’ll be hooked.”