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Hundreds get busy on 'Mitzvah Day'

Carrying on what's become a Baltimore tradition, hundreds of area Jews spent Tuesday up to their elbows in craft paper and care packages, working on community service projects for Mitzvah Day, now in its eighth year.

At the hub of the action, the Weinberg Park Heights Jewish Community Center, about 300 people of all ages, those who don't celebrate Christmas, used their day off trying to help others, while about 300 more worked from 16 other locations across the city for Jewish Volunteer Connection's annual event.

So many people packed into the JCC Tuesday morning that it was hard to find a parking spot in the center's vast lot. Inside, folks filled the auditorium, the gymnasium and the lobby. They colored flash cards for Ethiopian students learning English. They made cards for U.S. and Israeli soldiers. They filled balloons with sand, crafting stress balls so arthritic patients in nursing homes and assisted-living centers could exercise their hands.

They made place mats for Meals on Wheels, stuffed plush bears for homeless children and scissored paper snowflakes to decorate Sandy Hook Elementary in Newton, Conn. They made fringed fleece blankets to wrap around babies in neonatal intensive care units.

"In a year like this where all of these heartbreaking things are happening, we wish someone would do something," said Jen Grossman, who helped organize the event. "These people are all doing something."

Kate Benjamin was there for the first time with her daughter, Samara Winrose. Samara, who loves art, used markers to draw snowmen and fish onto bags that others would fill and deliver to area shelters, glad to be doing it, she said, "for poor people."

"My daughter is 5 now and I felt it was the right time for her to understand it's important to give back to the community," Benjamin said.

Baltimore's Donna Hoffman helped stuff the decorated bags with socks, chips and hand-knit scarves, happy to be doing some good on a day when she'd otherwise be doing who-knows-what. And having had some rough luck herself this year, she said she knew how much the help was needed.

"We were going through hard times and we wanted to give but we couldn't give money," she said. "So we wanted to give time."

At a table where volunteers swabbed people's cheeks, entering them in the national bone marrow registry, Michelle Bresnick Walsh, who just celebrated her 42nd birthday, said she wouldn't have if someone hadn't donated bone marrow. Diagnosed with leukemia in 2008, she got a bone marrow transplant from a woman in California who signed up for the registry at her Mitzvah Day in California.

Jordan Cohen, who's 12 and from New York, helped out with his Baltimore cousins. He shot some hoops to benefit various charities through The Associated: Jewish Community Federation of Baltimore.

"I love being with my cousins," he said, "And I love doing good for people."

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