Mitzvah Day: ‘My favourite day of the year’

By Dana Simpson               

People perform mitzvot (good deeds) all year round, but on February 2, more than 450 people of all ages, gathered together at the Soloway Jewish Community Centre (SJCC) and Hillel Lodge to take part in the Jewish Federation of Ottawa’s annual Mitzvah Day, a special day when good deeds are performed and celebrated.

The Sunday morning proceedings began with a breakfast buffet followed by the opening ceremonies which saw Federation leaders and VIP guests – including Ottawa City Councillor and Deputy Mayor Laura Dudas; Ottawa City Councillors Rawlson King and Jean Cloutier; Nepean MPP and Ontario Minister of Heritage, Sport, Tourism and Culture Industries Lisa MacLeod; Orleans MP Marie-France Lalonde; members of the Ottawa Redblacks Cheer and Dance Team and mascot Big Joe – march into the social hall at the SJCC in the Mitzvah Day Parade.

Also on hand were several Ottawa Police Service officers and Canadian Armed Forces soldiers.

First time co-chairs for Mitzvah Day were the husband-and-wife duo of Leslie Feldman and Mike Klein.

“Giving back is a Jewish tradition,” said Feldman. “Mitzvah Day is such an important event for children in our community to get to know what a mitzvah is.”

Mitzvah Day Co-Chair Leslie Feldman welcomes participants to a day of performing good deeds, February 2, at the Soloway Jewish Community Centre. (Howard Sandler)

An annual event since 2005, Mitzvah Day 2020 saw 13 mitzvah activities at the SJCC and Hillel Lodge.

Among the activities – some new, some long-time favourites – were the Great Jewish Adventure Scavenger Hunt; Can-gineering, a team activity to build structures using cans and boxes of food which were then donated to the Ottawa Kosher Food Bank; Furrever Homes, which recycled single socks into catnip toys for foster cats; and the ever popular Dance-a-Tonne at Hillel Lodge which saw Lodge residents moving and grooving with some of the youngest kids.

Mitzvah Day Co-Chair Leslie Feldman welcomes participants to a day of performing good deeds, February 2, at the Soloway Jewish Community Centre. (Howard Sandler)

“We try to have new activities every year,” said Federation Vice-President (Community Building) Sarah Beutel.

And alongside activities old and new stood both first-time and returning participants.

Ottawa City Councillor and Deputy Mayor Laura Dudas fondly remembered taking part in challah braiding last year during Mitzvah Day and said she was happy to see the community come together year after year for Mitzvah Day.

“We always see so much about the bad and it’s so great to see a community of people who want to do better,” said Dudas.

For other participants, giving back was only part of the fun.

Asked why she participates in Mitzvah Day, Hillel Lodge resident Sheila Bahar responded without skipping a beat.

“It’s because there’s so many kids here,” Bahar said.

Kids who, like four-year-old Shmuel Caytak, came to learn about mitzvot and get to the root of the more personal meanings behind a mitzvah.

While patiently waiting for his herbs to grow at the Sprouting Knowledge station, Shmuel talked about what Mitzvah Day means to him.

“It’s special because it’s Jewish and it makes the bad dreams go away,” he said.

Whatever the motivation for attending the event, Mitzvah Day 2020 was a tremendous success.

“It brings all the community together regardless of age and denomination,” said Jewish Federation of Ottawa Chair Michael Polowin. “Mitzvah Day is my favourite day of the year.”

As Mitzvah Day wound down, Federation President and CEO Andrea Freedman reflected on the day’s events while passing out cookies with a smile.

“People, food and giving back,” said Freedman. “What could be bad? It’s about the power of each of us.”

A power fully exercised on Mitzvah Day.

Rabbi Reuven Bulka, co-chair of the Jewish Federation of Ottawa annual campaign and rabbi emeritus of Congregation Machzikei Hadas, showed his pride in the Jewish community and in Mitzvah Day by describing its importance in an organic way.

“It’s like planting a seed,” said Rabbi Bulka. “It’s a small little thing but it can make a big impact. It’s community growth at its finest.”