Mitzvah Day is a Christmas tradition for some Jewish families in Maryland

The Solomon family of Columbia, from left, Lyla, 2, Max, 4, and Jordan, 6, pack lunches with help from parents, John and Judy. Ilyse Reid of Columbia, right, make sandwiches with assistance from her nieces, 8-year-old twins Shannon, front, and Mira.

The Goldberg family had Chinese food for dinner on Christmas Eve, and on Christmas Day they planned to take their 4-year-old daughter to see her first-ever movie in a theater.

But between these time-honored Dec. 25 traditions for Jewish families, the Goldbergs attended the Jewish Federation of Howard County’s Mitzvah Day, choosing to do charity work on this day off from school and work.


Similar events take place around the state and the country, with some Jewish families deciding to make the day of community service a tradition.

“It’s nice to come together on this day,” said Debbie Goldberg, 33.

From left, Dara Snyder, 2, Alex Poltilove, Zachary Forman and Miriam Holgate, with her mother, Eliana Holgate, decorate rice krispie treats for Paul's Place homeless shelter.

About 150 people gathered Monday morning at the Bet Yeladim Preschool in Columbia to make meals for the homeless and create cards for sick children in Israel. Mitzvah Day has been going on in Howard County for at least a decade, said Beth Millstein, president of the county’s Jewish Federation.

“It’s important, especially for young families, to learn at an early age to do community service and to give back. That’s one of the core Jewish values,” she said. “It’s such an important day for most of the world. To just sit at home and go to the movies and eat Chinese food — that’s fun for us, but it doesn’t help others.”

Four-year-old Miriam Holgate spent the morning drawing on brightly colored construction paper, making cheerful cards that wished good health to sick children in Israel. With colorful crayons, her mother, Eliana Holgate, then translated her daughter’s message into Hebrew.

Holgate has always loved doing community service on Christmas. Her uncle owned a delicatessen in Dallas and growing up, she would volunteer to work the store so Christian employees could take the day off to be with their families.

She said she was glad the federation offered an age-appropriate way for children to learn about giving to others. Following their community service, the kids were treated to a puppet show about “tikkun olam,” or the idea of repairing the world.

“We wanted to pass on the sense of community,” Holgate said.

Ella Haetzni, an Israeli native, works as a cultural ambassador between the Jewish community in Howard County and the people of Israel. She plans to travel back home later this week, and will bring the children’s handmade cards along with her.

Haetzni said it’s important to begin forging a connection between American Jews and those in Israel at a young age.


Sandy Spiegel sat in a small plastic chair to smear jelly onto bread in a sandwich assembly line. The 61-year-old Clarksville resident is Catholic, but said she has always enjoyed spending her Christmas with the Jewish community.

Spiegel sported a Christmas tree brooch as she packaged food for the homeless, which will be sent to either Grassroots Crisis Intervention Center in Columbia or the Paul's Place homeless shelter in Baltimore.

“I love the Jewish faith,” said Spiegel, whose husband is Jewish. “It’s a very positive experience here. You’re doing something good — not just sitting around the table and overeating and opening presents.”

Alex and Seth Poltilove, 10-year-old twin boys, attended the event with their father and grandmother.

The boys, wearing matching red shirts decorated with gingerbread men, said Christmas was the perfect day to take on these activities.

In Baltimore, the Jewish Community Center hosted a Mitzvah Day of its own. At the Park Heights location, people put together about 1,500 winter care packages, and made fleece blankets, decorated cards and assembled peanut butter and jelly sandwiches.


Jodi Fishman, executive director of Bet Yeladim, said the people behind Mitzvah Day are trying to make the holiday meaningful for Jewish families, too.

“Prior to Mitzvah Day, Christmas was a day off to go to the movies and get Chinese food,” she said. “This adds a little more to the day.”