Mitzvah Day unites all ages in effort to help Jewish Ottawa and whole city, Louise Rachlis reports.
“People need some hope,” said Chris Johnson, a representative from StreetSmarts, as he encouraged young Mitzvah Day volunteers to put a note in their Bracha Bag care packages.
StreetSmarts is a Jewish Family
Services’ outreach program that offers resources, referrals and basic supplies to Ottawa’s downtown homeless population.
Along with socks, gloves, snacks and toothbrushes, the participants were asked to “put on the cards what you feel from the heart, and we’ll put your notes in” the Bracha Bags (bracha is the Hebrew word for “blessing”).
The snowy Sunday February 4 morning brought out over 425 generous hearts of all ages to the Soloway Jewish Community Centre, and about 100 more to three off-site locations: Shepherd’s of Good Hope, Torah High and OTC’s Chabad Hebrew School.
The participants ranged in age from the tiniest, such as three-year-old Galit Petel getting his first haircut for Hair Donation Ottawa (he was one of nine donating their hair to create wigs for children suffering from medical hair loss) to retiree Flo Morgan, an annual Mitzvah Day volunteer, who this year was helping make Havdallah candles.
“We’re trying to appeal to all age groups, having activities for younger children, older children and grownups,” said Naomi Hirshberg Mitchell, who co-chaired Mitzvah Day 2018 with her husband, Jonathan Mitchell.
Indeed, Mitzvah Day has a broad appeal. It attracts all ages, and also reaches out to the wider community in its attempt to help not just Jewish Ottawa, but the whole city.
In recognition of the day’s significance, Andrea Freedman, president and CEO of the Jewish Federation of Ottawa, welcomed many special participants. Among the guests helping out with the first mitzvah – taking the ceremonial ponytail snip for the hair donation ceremony – was Mayor Jim Watson; Ottawa West MP Anita Vandenbeld; Rebecca Hubble from MPP Lisa McLeod’s office; Kitchissippi Ward Councillor Jeff Leiper; Shlomit Sufa, Deputy Head of Mission, Embassy of Israel in Canada; and Yasir Naqvi, Attorney General of Canada, and his son, Rafi. The political guests were joined by Federation Campaign co-chair Aviva Ben-Choreen, and vice-chair of the Federation Board, Michael Polowin, as well as Josh Engel of GGFL Chartered Professional Accountants, which was sponsoring Mitzvah Day for the ninth consecutive year.
A drum roll announced the big moment when the volunteers snipped off the locks of hair donors Penelope Bornstein, 8; Galit Petel, 3; Noa Petel, 5; Gila Shapiro, 4; Shayna Shapiro, 4; Miriam Tatham, 9, and adults Amanda Klein, Dara Lithwick and Mitzvah Day Committee member Yael Pfeiffer.
Hair Donations Ottawa, a charity that raises funds to fight cancer, collected 74 inches of hair to help create wigs for people suffering medically induced hair loss.
Helping fine tune the haircuts after the ceremony were volunteer professional stylists Eli Saikaly, Eli Cohen, Kenton Delgreco and Christopher Lord, who shared a special post on social media thanking the hair donors: “We appreciate you helping us change lives!”
After the opening ceremonies, the crowds of volunteers took over the SJCC with groups manning various Mitzvah stations throughout the building.
In one bustling classroom, piles of cake mixes, candles, cards, and crowns were being bagged to create birthday celebration kits to be distributed to children living in shelters.
“When a child celebrates a birthday in the shelter, a mom can make a cake for their child,” said Nathalie Conners, a case manager with Chrysalis House, a first-stage emergency shelter for women and their dependents who are in violent and abusive situations. “It’s pretty special,” she said. One hundred and twenty birthday kits will be distributed to shelters throughout the city.
In another Mitzvah room, therapy kits were being assembled for Crossroads Children’s Centre. The kits had pictograms to make it easier for children to express a range of feelings, such as blue for bored, sick, tired or sad, to red for mad, mean, terrified and out of control.
At the challah mizvah room, loaves were being braided to either be donated to the Kosher Food Bank or participants were giving $5 to take their loaf home with the proceeds going the food bank. The dough for the challahs was donated by Rideau Bakery, which also donated all the bread for the sandwich-making mitzvah, where about 450 sandwiches were made for the Ottawa Mission and the Shepherd’s of Good Hope.
Across the parking lot, at Hillel Lodge, preschoolers were doing Purim mask crafts with residents, and there was a sing-a-long led by “Zaidy Joel” and “Bubby Toby” (Joel and Toby Yan) where families laughed, danced and sang as delighted Lodge residents clapped along.
Off-site at Torah High, high-school students prepared meals to be distributed by Ten Yad of Ottawa, a grassroots, Ottawa-based volunteer organization dedicated to undertaking acts of chesed.
If all this wasn’t enough, ahead of the big day, items were collected in the Soloway JCC lobby, including sporting equipment for the Multi-Faith Housing Initiative, which helps people achieve greater stability and financial security through safe, affordable and secure rental housing. Games, books and toys were collected for the Youville Centre, which serves adolescent mothers and their children. Old electronic gadgets and used batteries were collected for electronic waste recycling.
At the end of the morning, co-chair Jonathan Mitchell said that many in attendance had expressed to him “how nice it was to have all the children involved, and a family day together, to explain to the children why we’re doing this.” Indeed, he and Naomi, took on the task of Mitzvah Day chairs for this very reason as they felt it was a wonderful opportunity to model volunteering and Jewish community involvement, as well as the importance of tikkun olam, “repairing the world.”
Naomi summed up the day during the closing ceremony as she thanked all those involved, telling them: “You have brought smiles and comfort to many in need.”
To help maintain the spirit of Mitzvah Day, she encouraged everyone to keep up the volunteer momentum by registering at the Volunteer Centre: jewishottawa.com/volunteering.
The fun and inspiring morning ended with a doughnut party because, well, everything is better with doughnuts!