Young and old made mitzvah magic during the Jewish Federation of Ottawa’s 10th annual Mitzvah Day, February 7, on the Jewish Community Campus as well as at several off-site locations.
Between 700 and 800 people took part this year, performing good deeds to help make the world a better place, said Mitzvah Day Chair Tamara Scarowsky.
“It’s a great crowd, and the best part is that I see a mosaic of faces across the community,” said Federation Chair Linda Kerzner as she surveyed the packed Soloway Jewish Community Centre (JCC) social hall during the opening ceremony.
“There are faces I don’t recognize, and that’s exciting for me. There’s everything to feel good about,” said Kerzner. “The word mitzvah has come to mean a good deed, but it’s a commandment. Jews want to live their lives as a model of how we hope all people will choose to live. We want to portray that for our children and friends.”
Ottawa Modern Jewish School teacher Aaron Kaiman, 24, kicked off the first good deed of the day by donating 13 inches of the 25 inches of hair he’d been growing for the past five years. He was accompanied by his former student, Jake Feldman-Starosta, 10, who was also donating his hair.
Nine people made donations of at least six inches of hair to Hair Donation Ottawa, an organization that raises funds for cancer research and empowers kids with hair loss by giving them free wigs.
Mitzvah Day began with a massive bagel breakfast buffet by Creative Kosher Catering and ended around noon with an ice cream party.
Mitzvah opportunities abounded. At Hillel Lodge, children spent time with the residents of Hillel Lodge making crafts to help brighten up their rooms, and there was a singalong with children’s entertainer Monkey Rock.
At the Soloway JCC, Birthday Celebration kits to be distributed to children living in shelters were being put together in one room, and Radiance of Shabbat kits were being made in another room while discussing the value of Shabbat.
“I come to give back,” said Elaine Vininsky who has been participating in Mitzvah Day for years. “It’s a very upbeat and positive environment.”
Vininsky’s mitzvahs this year included Sandwich Making for the Homeless and putting together therapy kits for children and youth at Crossroads Children’s Centre.
Anna Silverman, executive director of the Shepherds of Good Hope Foundation, said sandwich distribution is often the first connection made to a homeless person.
“Food is a great connector. We make about 800 sandwiches a day [at Shepherd’s],” Silverman added. “I figure this morning has made enough for a day.”
Social worker Cara Kaiserman of Crossroads Children’s Centre gave a presentation about children’s mental health issues, while Sylvia Greenspoon, a first-time Mitzvah Day participant, also put together therapy kits with balloons, worry stones, journals and other components.
“It brings all aspects of the community together,” said Greenspoon. “It’s a wonderful, wonderful event. It makes me feel really good to see young families engaged in the community.”
One of the youngest in attendance at Mitzvah Day was three-month-old Eliana Leah Gray, snuggled on the chest of her mother, Rachel, to attend the “Honouring Parents Workshop.”
The workshop was one of several new “specifically Jewish mitzvot linking the Jewish world and the wider community,” said Scarowsky. It centred on discussions about why and how we honour parents and included making keepsakes for parents to show gratitude.
“The day embodies our concept of tzedakah and passing it on to the next generation,” said Michael Polowin, Federation Annual Campaign chair for 2017-2018. “It’s wonderful.”
More than 40 Temple Israel Religious School pupils and Rabbi Rob Morais were among those rolling the dough for Challahs for Hunger, making 150 challah loaves to be frozen and donated to the Ottawa Kosher Food Bank.
“It was a great opportunity for families to come together from all parts of the community to live Jewish values,” said Rabbi Morais, experiencing Ottawa’s Mitzvah Day for the first time.
For Operation Winter Warmth, Ottawa Jewish Community School students collected new and gently used hats, gloves and scarves, which were assembled into warmth packages to be distributed to the city’s homeless population via Jewish Family Services.
Congregation Beth Shalom led the creation of baskets of necessities to be donated to women living in shelters throughout Ottawa.
The Shalom Group, a joint effort of Agudath Israel Congregation, Congrega-tion Beth Shalom and Adath Shalom Congregation to sponsor a Syrian refugee family in Ottawa, had a table at Mitzvah Day where participants could write welcoming notes to the arriving family or sign up for volunteer duties.
In the Mitzvah Fun Zone in the gymnasium, children who had finished other mitzvot wrote letters to lone soldiers in Israel, made cards for sick kids or just ran around for a bit.
Max Morgan, 18, was a captain in the Fun Zone. “I like giving back to the community that has done so much for my family,” he said.
There were also many offsite mitzvot.
At Shepherds of Good Hope, Mitzvah Day volunteers helped to prepare and serve a meal, and cleaned up afterward. At NCSY, students prepared meals to be distributed by Ten Yad, an organization that helps individuals and families in the Jewish community during life-altering situations.
At Temple Israel, volunteers joined in the Temple Israel Quilting Project, which makes and sends baby quilts to places in Israel affected by terrorism, and to CHEO for premature babies. And the Agudath Israel TOV Team spearheaded volunteers making sandwiches for the needy at the Dovercourt Recreation Centre.
An integral part of Mitzvah Day was the collection of many items to give to the needy or disadvantaged, including food for the Ottawa Kosher Food Bank (OKFB).
“We’ve gone from 118 clients to 152 in seven months, so we really appreciate the donations,” said OKFB volunteer Donna Hicks. “We expect 40 new families to be referred to us in the next few months.”
Gently used board games and arts and crafts supplies were collected for Crossroads Children’s Centre and new or gently used children’s pyjamas were collected for the Bethany Hope Centre.
Purses and pieces of jewelry were collected for Dress for Success, which provides economically disadvantaged but employment-ready women with interview-appropriate suits and accessories.
“This was our first time for Mitzvah Day, and the community has come through,” said Dress for Success volunteer Roberta Goldmaker, pointing to six large bags of donations. “It’s really wonderful.”
Scarowsky, who chaired Mitzvah Day for the first time after years as a volunteer, said she had expected “organized chaos,” but was pleased to see “more organized, and less chaos.” She praised the hands-on involvement of the Mitzvah Day sponsors, GGFL Chartered Professional Accountants, which sponsored the event for the seventh year in a row.
GGFL partner Josh Engel said his firm is celebrating its 70th anniversary and hopes to sponsor Mitzvah Day for many years to come.
“It’s just an amazing day for the community,” said Federation president and CEO Andrea Freedman while she watched the finale with children holding up signs saying “I performed a mitzvah today” as balloons dropped from the ceiling.
“Good job,” she said. “Children starting at a young age will do this their whole lives.”