On a date marked on many calendars as a holiday celebration with family and friends, members of the Jewish Federation of Howard County followed suit — sort of — on Dec. 25 by making the day a festival of community service.
Some 250 people took part in Mitzvah Day activities organized by the federation, a Columbia-based group that works to support and serve the county's Jewish community.
On Wednesday, youngsters and adults visited Lorien Columbia and Harmony Hall nursing centers to spend time with residents and sing holiday songs. Schoolchildren and their families gathered at Bet Yeladim Preschool in Columbia to pack lunches for people in need and write greeting cards for those in the armed services. And at Days End Farm Horse Rescue in Woodbine, teens mucked out stables and cared for the animals so staff could have a day off.
"It was a great success," said Meghann Schwartz, senior associate for campaigns and community engagement for the federation. She said the volunteers "were so grateful for the opportunity to do something, meet people and give back to the community."
"I heard someone said, "I never thought shoveling horse poop would be so much fun,' " she said.
The federation has organized Mitzvah Day events for the past several years with nursing home visits, Schwartz said, but last year "took it to the next level" by expanding its offerings for families wanting to take part.
Schwartz attended the event at Bet Yeladim, where both the preschool and the federation had publicized the outreach effort. The result, she said, was a large number of families taking part, including many the federation had previously never encountered.
"The preschool did a really good job of recruiting people, and everywhere you looked, you saw people meeting each other for the first time, making plans and working together. It was wonderful," she said.
The first goal was service, and the volunteers took on the task of packing lunches for clients of the Grassroots Crisis Intervention Center shelter. Schwartz said the large numbers of volunteers made quick work of that, then turned their attention to writing and coloring cards to military personnel.
Schwartz said promoting community involvement is part of the mission of the federation, and she said many parents taking part on Wednesday noted that it was nice to be able to share with their children the importance of service.
She said the federation sees Christmas as an opportunity to help organizations that might otherwise have difficulty functioning on a day when so many people wish to spend time with their own families.
"Sometimes they struggle for help on those days, so I think they really appreciated it," she said.
So, too, did Schwartz's daughter, 5-year-old Penina. She said Penina was initially confused that some people might go without lunch on any day — and was eager to help pack food for those in need. Later, the youngster told her dad that she had also "colored cards for people who keep us safe," Schwartz said.
Schwartz said the success of the Dec. 25 Mitzvah Day has inspired the federation to organize another — and soon. On Jan. 20, she said, the group will host another outreach effort to coincide with Martin Luther King Jr. Day.
Details are still being worked out, she said, but one aspect will be a drive in mid-January that will gather hats, gloves, scarves and similar items for those at Grassroots. Details on that, and other activities, will be posted on the Jewish Federation of Howard County website, at jewishhowardcounty.org.