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Jews give back to community on Christmas

| Monday, Dec. 22, 2003

It was the least wonderful time of the year.

Two years ago, I found myself stuck working in Pittsburgh on Christmas Day -- hundreds of miles away from friends and family. With three older sisters scattered around the Eastern seaboard, my parents were somewhat used to not having all their kids home for the holidays. But I wasn't. This would be my first major holiday away from home.

So I sulked. I complained to friends who would get to spend time with their families on Christmas. And I went to work.

Christmas is what they call a slow news day. So slow that I spent nearly an hour talking with a certifiably crazy man who called the newsroom claiming he had written an unpublished book about a sexual tryst he had with a certain, prominent U.S. senator when she was just 16 years old.

I read the paper and drank coffee by the gallon. Finally, it was time to go out to my assignment, where I found myself at a half-constructed house in the Hill District.

At that house, 10 volunteers from the United Jewish Federation of Greater Pittsburgh were working on a Habitat for Humanity project. There were about 390 people like them at 31 other projects and institutions throughout the city, volunteering as part of the Federation's Mitzvah Day.

I have enough Jewish friends to know that Christmas can end up being a nonday. For many, it's a chance to see a movie and maybe catch dinner at a Chinese restaurant, and not much more.

That was until Mitzvah Day came along. The Hebrew word mitzvah means "good deeds" or "loving acts of kindness," and, whether they were fumbling with hammers or filling in at community centers so nonJewish staff members could spend the holiday with their families, the people I met that day were living up to the spirit of the funny-sounding word.

"Jews don't have a lot of meaning tied to Christmas," said Brian Balk, one of the volunteers at the Hill District project. "We're trying to build a tradition based on helping others and giving back to the community."

This Christmas will mark the federation's fourth annual Mitzvah Day, and chances are there will be far more than the 400 volunteers I reported on two years ago. Volunteers will be visiting residents at the Kane Regional Nursing Center, delivering meals for shut-ins and spending time with patients at UPMC Shadyside.

After seeing all that, I can't say that Christmas 2001 was the best I ever had. But I certainly was feeling a lot less sorry for myself as I drove away from the Habitat for Humanity project.

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