Jews make Christmas a day of service

470 gather in Triangle on Christmas Day to clean parks, carol, aid needy

bsiceloff@newsobserver.comDecember 25, 2012 

On a balmy Christmas morning in East Durham, Shula Bernard waded out of the brambles with a stinking bagful of garbage plucked from the banks of Goose Creek, where it oozes through Long Meadow Park.

“I’ve got all kinds of bottles and trash, and I think people just drive by and throw things in the creek,” said Bernard, 61, of Chapel Hill.

She grabbed an empty bag and waded back in for more.

“Last year, we did this in Chapel Hill, and we had to fight over the garbage, the park was so clean,” Bernard said. “There’s no lack of trash here. I actually feel like I’m doing something.”

She was one of 470 volunteers with the Durham-Chapel Hill Jewish Federation who observed Christmas as Mitzvah Day – in Hebrew, a day for good deeds. Retirees, young singles and families with children gathered for breakfast at the Levin Jewish Community Center in Durham and then fanned out across Orange and Durham counties.

They took baked goods, clothes and gifts to new mothers and elderly shut-ins. They served more than 250 meals to folks at shelters and crisis centers, and to police officers on holiday duty.

“It’s a tradition in our family to come out and do it every Christmas morning,” said Annie Giarla, 18, of Chapel Hill. “We started out delivering meals. Now we’re cleaning a park. We made blankets for people and toys for dogs one year. So it’s kind of cool to do something different every year.”

What else is there to do, if you’re a Jew, on Dec. 25?

Willing volunteers

“Christmas is just a vacation day, not a holiday for us, obviously,” said Guy Goldhagen, 42, of Durham, who turned out with his wife and their two sons. “I’m very glad we do get this opportunity to give back, to contribute to the place where we live.”

It was the seventh annual Mitzvah Day for the Durham-Chapel Hill group, but only the first for Lynne Grossman.

“My mother was at Hillcrest Convalescent Center for 10 years and I went to visit her every day, so I felt like that was my mitzvah,” said Grossman, 67, of Durham.

She worked alongside Bernard near the creek, using a mechanical grabber to tease a crumpled soda bottle from the clutches of a thorny bush.

“I wish we could recycle some of this trash,” Shula said.

“I know, there’s a lot of recyclables,” Grossman replied. “But that was not our charge.”

A minute later, Bernard stepped carefully to the water’s edge and wrinkled her nose at what she recognized.

“Lynne, these are dirty diapers! Dirty diapers!” Bernard shouted.

“Oh God, don’t pick those up,” Grossman said.

Too late.

Bernard and Grossman filled six bags, and they were just two of the 25 volunteers cleaning Goose Creek and Long Meadow Park.

Respecting another’s religion

At Brookdale Senior Living in Chapel Hill, a quintet in blue “Got Mitzvah?” T-shirts serenaded retirees with Christmas hymns and carols. When they faltered on the refrain of “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas,” Frank DeMonchaux smiled in appreciation.

“A little flat,” said DeMonchaux, 80, leaning on his walker. “But good and sincere.”

The Jewish singers brought out two small boys to help with a Chanukah favorite, “I Have a Little Dreidel.” Otherwise they stuck to Christian standards that celebrate the newborn king, Christ the savior, and a night divine when Christ was born.

“It’s important to remember with respect and sensitivity that although it’s not my religion, it’s somebody else’s religion,” Holly Gauss of Chapel Hill, the music leader, said later. “Just as I take my religion seriously, so do other people. And it’s great music – it’s beautiful to sing.”

She clutched a sheaf of lyrics for reference – the singers lost their way after two bars of “Good King Wenceslas” – but she remembered the carols well, from her days in high school chorus.

“It’s nice to bring a lot of joy to other people,” said Gauss, 37. “Especially since today is just Tuesday to me. So I’m glad to be here to help.”

Mitzvah Day ended back at the Levin center with another Jewish Christmas tradition: Chinese food and a movie, “The Princess Bride.”

Siceloff: 919-829-4527 or or

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