Running out of money to buy food, David P. Anderson was among the first to file into the dining room yesterday at Our Daily Bread. Behind him, dozens waited in line on Christmas morning as Anderson sat down to a turkey dinner and reached first for the cranberry relish.
But it wasn't until he was walking out of the downtown Baltimore soup kitchen that Anderson learned who had prepared the meal and served it to him.
For the 15th year, members of the Baltimore Hebrew Congregation stepped in so the usual volunteers, several of them Christians, could celebrate Christmas Day at home with their families.
"That's beautiful," said Anderson, 54, a disabled shipyard worker who lives in Cherry Hill.
This mitzvah - a day of good deeds - began in the early 1990s when Sally Palmbaum, who volunteered at Our Daily Bread, heard that spaghetti was on the menu for Christmas dinner.
"I didn't think that was right. I went to the powers that be at the synagogue and said, 'This is what I'd like to do. Can I have a green light?' and they were all for it," said Palmbaum, who is assistant to the Hebrew Congregation's executive director.
Yesterday, 48 members of the Pikesville synagogue served a turkey dinner to the needy in a room featuring a carving titled "The Christ of the Bread Lines," pictures of Pope John Paul II and a poster with quotes from Mother Teresa.
"It's the true meaning of the holidays," said Joann Levy. "When Christmas and Hanukkah overlap, it's very special. For me, we are separated by very little. We are more the same than different."
Among the volunteers was 21-year-old Becca Trosch. It was her eighth Christmas helping out at Our Daily Bread.
"It's something good for the family to do on Christmas, since it's a holiday we don't celebrate. Part of Judaism is doing whatever you can to give back to the community and to help those who are less fortunate," said Trosch, a senior at Dickinson College in Carlisle, Pa.
Trosch was the "cake person." At the end of the kitchen's assembly line, she made room for the cake and then slid pieces onto trays so the runners could relay the food to the servers.
Her mother, Alice, had stayed up until 4 a.m. at her Towson home to carve 44 pounds of turkey.
Alice Trosch and other Hebrew Congregation members deliver casseroles one day a month to Our Daily Bread, along with leftover food from catered events.
She said she was a Lutheran before she converted in 1978 to Judaism, deciding with her future husband to raise their children in one faith.
"Reform Judaism is founded on social justice and social action. It's ingrained in us. It's important that people who come to Our Daily Bread know that people care for them and that they are respected," she said.
Trosch said it's "amazing" that Our Daily Bread, a program of Catholic Charities of the Archdiocese of Baltimore, has expanded into an employment program for the poor and jobless.
"They're taking somebody from the lowest rung and helping them help themselves," she said.
Yesterday was the first time that Steve Sakamoto-Wengel had volunteered on Christmas at Our Daily Bread.
"I've wanted to do it for years, and I was offered the opportunity," said Sakamoto-Wengel, an assistant attorney general in the consumer protection division. He cleared dishes, washed tables, refilled water pitchers and put napkins on the tables.
As in past years, the Baltimore Hebrew Congregation had a lengthy waiting list of members who wanted to volunteer.
The synagogue also raised $3,300 for Our Daily Bread, some used for the Christmas dinner and the rest for the program's operating expenses, Palmbaum said.
The worsening economy has increased the response from those who wanted to help the needy, said Lee Egerton, 73.
"People are shocked out of their complacency. It could happen to anybody, through no fault of their own. You can't say everybody who needs help here is drug-addicted or a felon. It can be someone who lost a job," Egerton said.
During the past 15 years, congregants have served 250 to 600 people on Christmas.
"You have to be really desperate to go to a soup kitchen on Christmas," said Palmbaum. "It's very rewarding for us, but I also find it very sad."
Yesterday, nearly 600 people were served from 10:30 a.m. until 12:30 p.m., said Aaron Kennedy, volunteer coordinator at Our Daily Bread.
"For the Hebrew Congregation, it's a gracious gesture. Worlds collide here. We've got a lot to learn from each other. There are also sorts of bits and pieces of why people are here and what they can learn - patience every day, compassion and sincerity," he said.
After eating dinner, Wendy Lomax clutched a sandwich bag with a piece of white cake in it and stopped at the artificial tree near the soup kitchen's exit.
She gazed at the white branches, the bright multicolored ornaments and the tiny white lights.
"It's gorgeous, isn't it?" said Lomax, 53, who said she has lived in a homeless shelter for six months. "I want to thank those who cared for us today."