Mitzvah Day 2014: Volunteers at UPMC Heritage House painted nails and played bingo with residents. Millie Otlano has her nails painted by Jenny Katz. Photo by Joshua Franzos Photography.

When you’re Jewish, there’s not much to do on Christmas Eve and Christmas Day. Everything’s closed and all your friends who celebrate Christmas are opening presents and visiting family. So, for decades the Jewish American tradition has become going out for Chinese food and then to a movie.

But in Pittsburgh’s Jewish community, a different tradition has taken hold. And the satisfaction lasts much longer than a feast at even the finest Chinese restaurant.

This year will mark the 15th annual Mitzvah Day a program of the Jewish Federation of Greater Pittsburgh’s Volunteer Center. In Hebrew, “mitzvah” literally means “commandment,” but it is understood in Judaism to mean a “good deed” or “act of loving kindness.” On Christmas Day (and, this year for the first time, Christmas Eve) hundreds of Jews, from toddlers to seniors, will volunteer at more than 90 locations throughout greater Pittsburgh.

Courtesy Jewish Federation of Greater Pittsburgh.

Volunteers will help at a broad range of locations including senior living centers, food pantries, hospitals, nursing facilities, homeless shelters, and community outreach agencies. Some volunteers, including the youngest helpers, will volunteer at the Jewish Community Centers in Squirrel Hill and the South Hills.

“We have many opportunities that are specifically designed for families of young children,” says Adam Hertzman, the Jewish Federation’s director of marketing. “People will be making peanut butter and jelly sandwiches and packing lunches for homes with children who need lunches when they’re out of school. Since it’s the holiday, kids will decorate lunch bags so it brings a little extra holiday cheer, and they’ll make crafts and help wrap gifts.”

From Mitzvah Day 2014: Volunteers at Congregation Poale Zedeck making lasagna to be delivered to the Squirrel Hill Food Pantry. Keller family, L to R, Jonah, Matt, Arielle and Kristen. Photo by Joshua Franzos Photography.

The kitchens at the Jewish Community Centers will also be busy with volunteers making lasagnas for homeless shelters. The cost of all the food and gifts can be significant, and Hertzman says Mitzvah Day would not be possible without corporate sponsors, Giant Eagle, Huntington Bank, and Sampo Distributors.

Hertzman explains that Mitzvah Day got its start thanks to the Federation’s Community Relations Council

“They became aware that many organizations can have trouble staffing, and certainly getting volunteers, on Christmas,” he notes. “Mitzvah Day as a December 25th tradition is really a way of the Jewish community helping where help is needed, and on Christmas that means human services agencies need a helping hand.”

In a broader sense, Hertzman says, Mitzvah Day springs from one of the most important concepts in Judaism, which is “tikkun olam,” or “repair the world,” through acts of kindness, social action and pursuing social justice. “Tikkun olam is not just about helping fellow Jews, but the community at large. Mitzvah Day is the desire of the Jewish community to make Pittsburgh a better place to live, not just for Jews but for everybody.”

Mitzvah Day 2014: Volunteers at Ronald McDonald House clean, take presents to patients and prepare meals. Photo by Joshua Franzos Photography.

Mitzvah Day has grown each year, with nearly 800 volunteers registered for this year, up from almost 700 in 2014, and Hertzman attributes the growth to the word-of-mouth from volunteers. “Our volunteers have terrific experiences,” he says. “There’s just a wonderful, warm feeling that the volunteers get from the community and the people they interact with.”

Much of the interaction is just a matter of fun, Hertzman adds, like when volunteers simply visit and joke with residents at senior centers, perform music or play games.

Just because Mitzvah Day is a growing tradition in the Pittsburgh Jewish community doesn’t mean the tradition of Chinese food and a movie has been abandoned. Following Mitzvah Day volunteering on Christmas Eve, Shalom Pittsburgh, a group for Jewish young adults ages 22-45, is sponsoring “A Very Jewish Christmas Eve” gathering at Row House Cinema, featuring (of course) Chinese food and a movie (the holiday classic Die Hard, with Bruce Willis). After all, what are holidays about if not tradition?

December 16th is the deadline to register for Mitzvah Day 2015. 

Jonathan Wander

'Burgh-loving Jonathan Wander (Twitter: @jmwander) has written for various publications including Men’s Health, and has gratefully guest-posted on amazing sites like That’s Church.