More than 500 members of Ottawa’s Jewish community braved the snow to participate in the Jewish Federation of Ottawa’s ninth annual Mitzvah Day, February 8, at the Soloway Jewish Community Centre (SJCC) and several off-site locations, resulting in a day of thousands of good deeds rippling across the city and overseas.
“People are coming out in spite of the weather, which is amazing,” said Mitzvah Day Co-chair Warren Melamed. “It’s such a giving community, Ottawa.”
Something new at Mitzvah Day this year was the Jewish Family One-Stop Info Shop consisting of 19 booths representing community organizations which provide services to families. The Info Shop provided even more opportunities for young families to get involved and also showed how they can benefit from their community involvement.
“Every year we try to showcase some of our Jewish agencies,” said Rena Garshowitz, event planner for the Federation. Garshowitz said young families were the focus of the one-stop shop as they are the demographic that tends to visit the SJCC regularly.
“I think it’s a good opportunity for everybody in the community to promote the programs that they offer,” said Early Beginnings Daycare Centre Director Sandy Deyo at the centre’s information table. “So far I’ve seen a lot of our current families who come to the daycare centre and past families too.”
Camp B’nai Brith of Ottawa, Young Israel of Ottawa, Congregation Machzikei Hadas, Ganon Preschool, Star of David Hebrew School, and the Ottawa Jewish Community School were among the organizations that set up information booths in the SJCC social hall.
Many Mitzvah Day activities took place in and around the SJCC, where mostly young families participated in sing-a-longs and crafts with residents at Hillel Lodge, writing letters to patients at the Children’s Hospital of Eastern Ontario and Roger’s House, preparing challahs to be frozen and donated to the Kosher Food Bank, and many opportunities to donate Kosher food, toys, and household supplies for various local and national charities.
Offsite mitzvot included members of the emerging generation serving meals at the Shepherds of Good Hope; and university students at Hillel House and members at Agudath Israel Congregation making sandwiches for the Ottawa Mission.
Event MCs Lianne Laing of CTV Morning Live and “Stuntman Stu” Schwartz of MAJIC 100.3 FM introduced the first mitzvot of the day which saw Ottawa Mayor Jim Watson and Police Chief Charles Bordeleau cut off the long ponytails of Hoodie Greiniman and Abbey Murawnik who donated their locks to Pantene Beautiful Lengths for use in wigs for women with hair loss due to cancer treatment. Bordeleau snapped a selfie with Murawnik , celebrating her mitzvah on his Twitter account.
Among the most popular mitzvot was creating care packages to send overseas to Canadian Armed Forces personnel, a new activity this year. Care packages included socks, deodorant, and personal letters, among other small comforts.
Major Ryan Hartman of the Royal Canadian Regiment and Major Alain Cohen, deputy commanding officer of Les Fusiliers Mount-Royal oversaw the creation of the care packages and emphasized the significance of this mitzvah.
“I think it’s important to show to the community and the rest of Canada that this community does contribute to Canada’s defence and security in a direct fashion,” Cohen said. “It’s important that the community builds ties with other institutions, such as the Canadian Armed Forces.”
Thinking globally but acting locally was a theme echoed throughout the day, but especially when putting together the care packages and writing letters to soldiers.
“We felt it was important to really honour our local Jewish-Canadian soldiers and to say thank you for protecting us, and also for representing our community to the broader world,” said Bram Bregman, Federation vice-president of community building.
Temple Israel Religious School Grade 9 students Isy Burke, Sarah McKeague and Sonia Byerley were some of the volunteers helping to lead the kids through the activity. The girls said while it was their first year in a leadership role, they have participated in Mitzvah Day activities since they were young.
“We’re setting an example for the younger kids, definitely,” Byerley said. “It’s just a good experience. It’s like one big congregation. Everyone just wants to help.”
The spirit of tikkun olam (repairing the world) created energy and excitement among many participants, both first-timers and veterans, who encouraged still more individuals to get involved with Mitzvah Day to affect positive change on an even larger scale.
“We help, obviously, a lot of Jewish agencies, but it’s really extended beyond the boundaries of our own community,” Melamed said.
Melamed and his wife, Linda, said they got involved so that their sons, Michael and Jacob, who joined their parents in co-chairing the event for a second year in a row, would learn the value of giving back to their community.
The Melameds organized a football tournament for teenagers for the second year, and added a dance workshop this year to engage more girls. These activities raised funds for the Pulmonary Hypertension Association of Canada and the Melameds committed to matching all funds raised. They raised $1,000 for the cause last year.
In a new initiative, Joel Yan organized a team of 10 volunteers from Adath Shalom Congregation to run a Canadian Blood Services’ OneMatch stem cell and marrow registry booth. The goal was to boost the pool of eligible donors thus increasing the likelihood of a stem cell or bone marrow genetic match for those suffering from a range of 80 diseases and disorders.
“There’s no way that’s easier to save a life,” Yan said.
There is only a 25 per cent chance that an immediate family member could be a match, and the Jewish population is underrepresented in the international bone marrow and stem cell registry, Yan added, encouraging others to register online at www.onematch.ca.
The stem cell and marrow network allows individuals to potentially save the lives of people around the world.
Mitzvah Day got off to an early start, February 6, when Grade 6 students from the Ottawa Jewish Community School were joined by their counterparts from Charles H. Hulse Public School, whose students are predominately Muslim, for several activities including making tags for warm clothing parcels being created for Mitzvah Day.
Both organizers and participants said Mitzvah Day was a great success. Many headed home with smiles after finishing the day with draws for prizes donated by event sponsors and a free ice cream celebration in the social hall.
“Every year we just try to improve on our record of doing more good for the community,” Garshowitz said. “[And] each year it just gets bigger and better.”