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Jewish Federation of Greater Pittsburgh doubles effort for Mitzvah Day

| Friday, Dec. 25, 2015, 3:42 p.m.
Mitzvah Day volunteer Sammy Himmel, 15, of Squirrel Hill helps to serve lunch Friday, Dec. 25, 2015, at the Howard Levin Clubhouse in Squirrel Hill.
James Knox | Trib Total Media
Mitzvah Day volunteer Sammy Himmel, 15, of Squirrel Hill helps to serve lunch Friday, Dec. 25, 2015, at the Howard Levin Clubhouse in Squirrel Hill.
Hillel Academy third grader Dov Gelman, 8, writes a note intended for a child at Children's Hospital of Pittsburgh at the Squirrel Hill school on Friday, Dec. 25, 2015. The activity was part of the 15th annual Mitzvah Day of the Jewish Federation of Greater Pittsburgh.
Guy Wathen | Trib Total Media
Hillel Academy third grader Dov Gelman, 8, writes a note intended for a child at Children's Hospital of Pittsburgh at the Squirrel Hill school on Friday, Dec. 25, 2015. The activity was part of the 15th annual Mitzvah Day of the Jewish Federation of Greater Pittsburgh.
Hillel Academy third graders Lillian Vidmar-McEwen, left, 8, and Ella Greenfield, right, 8, create 'Circle of Courage' bracelets for the Caitlin's Smiles program, which is dedicated to bring happiness to children with chronic or life-threatening illnesses, at the Squirrel Hill school on Friday, Dec. 25, 2015. The activity was part of the 15th annual Mitzvah Day of the Jewish Federation of Greater Pittsburgh.
Guy Wathen | Trib Total Media
Hillel Academy third graders Lillian Vidmar-McEwen, left, 8, and Ella Greenfield, right, 8, create 'Circle of Courage' bracelets for the Caitlin's Smiles program, which is dedicated to bring happiness to children with chronic or life-threatening illnesses, at the Squirrel Hill school on Friday, Dec. 25, 2015. The activity was part of the 15th annual Mitzvah Day of the Jewish Federation of Greater Pittsburgh.
Hillel Academy third graders create 'Circle of Courage' bracelets for the Caitlin's Smiles program, which is dedicated to bring happiness to children with chronic or life-threatening illnesses, at the Squirrel Hill school on Friday, Dec. 25, 2015. The activity was part of the 15th annual Mitzvah Day of the Jewish Federation of Greater Pittsburgh.
Guy Wathen | Trib Total Media
Hillel Academy third graders create 'Circle of Courage' bracelets for the Caitlin's Smiles program, which is dedicated to bring happiness to children with chronic or life-threatening illnesses, at the Squirrel Hill school on Friday, Dec. 25, 2015. The activity was part of the 15th annual Mitzvah Day of the Jewish Federation of Greater Pittsburgh.

As its gift to the neediest at Christmas, the Jewish Federation of Greater Pittsburgh decided this year to double the number of good deeds it usually performs.

Most of the time, the nonprofit's annual Mitzvah Day is Dec. 25, but because Christmas fell on Friday this year — the Jewish Sabbath begins at sundown Friday — they added Christmas Eve to the schedule, staffing organizations and agencies devoid of employees during the yuletide season on both days.

In Hebrew, “mitzvah” means a number of things — a commandment to be followed, a good deed that's done on behalf of the less fortunate or an act of loving kindness.

As their Christmas Eve mitzvahs, volunteers cooked and served meals at soup kitchens Uptown and on the South Side, stitched blankets for the homeless in East Liberty, organized a toy drive in Shadyside and held an ice cream social for sick military veterans in Highland Park.

On Christmas, they concentrated on feeding the needy, with groups gathering in Squirrel Hill and Wilkinsburg to cook lunch for the elderly, bag peanut butter and jelly sandwiches for impoverished kids and stock food pantries with homemade lasagna.

More than 700 adult volunteers enlisted for the shifts, and they were joined by hundreds of students.

“Mitzvah Day is really great for us. Our school is in session; teachers are already here, and many parents are able to come in and volunteer because their workplaces are closed,” said Yikara Levari, 33, of Squirrel Hill, Hillel Academy's assistant principal.

At Levari's Beacon Street campus, more than 300 pupils and teachers helped 75 parents assemble months of meals for needy families. High schoolers did a lot of the packing, while elementary students sorted foods for freezing or prepared friendship bracelet kits for patients at Children's Hospital in Lawrenceville.

“We make the bracelets because it's no fun for kids in hospitals,” said Rivka Plotkin, 8, of Squirrel Hill. “It's nice to do something other kids will enjoy.”

Levari said that while every day is Mitzvah Day at Hillel Academy, this time of year is particularly poignant for staffers. The meal program flows out of an ongoing effort to give back to the community following the tragic early 2014 death of Fayth Aronson-Berkowitz, 27, a beloved Hillel Academy grad who became a teacher in Baltimore before succumbing to ovarian cancer.

Her mom, Selma, 66, works at Hillel Academy as the executive administrator. She watched hot chocolate pies, squash soufflés and apple crisps cooling on the cafeteria racks — recipes supplied by instructors there — and thought of the fundraiser that flowed out of her daughter's death and how it continues to support Mitzvah Day and missions to the poorest Pittsburghers.

“She was involved in helping so many people in Baltimore, so it's special for us to see the students and everyone else working so hard to help people in Pittsburgh,” said Aaronson of Stanton Heights. “It means more when everyone works together to serve the community, not just for a day but every day.”

That wasn't lost on Morningside's Alexa Barr, 12, as she put bagged food into a freezer. The Hebrew word on her mind was “chesed,” the loving kindness that marks a special relationship between Jews and God all year round.

“This food will go out to people who need it,” she said. “And we made it.”

Carl Prine is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at 412-320-7826 or cprine@tribweb.com.

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