Different faiths come together to serve on Christmas Day

pseligson@newsobserver.comDecember 25, 2013 

This Christmas tradition is shared by Jews and Christians.

About 10 Jewish volunteers served 190 meals for Christmas lunch at Urban Ministries of Durham on Wednesday. This is the eighth year of the tradition and part of a larger day of service.

Herbert Irving, 55, is staying at the shelter and enjoyed one of the meals, which included hot chicken, sliced potatoes, oranges and dessert.

“I appreciate all the good things people are doing for me,” he said. Others have nothing to eat, Irving said, and he felt blessed this Christmas to have food.

“We’re all people of different race, color, religion,” Irving said. “It’s good that we can all mingle together to show some love.”

The Jewish Federation of Durham-Chapel Hill organizes an annual Mitzvah Day on Christmas, and the handful of volunteers serving meals were part of a larger group of about 500 Jews working on 30 projects in Durham and Orange counties.

Abby Zarkin, the volunteer who organized the meal, said serving meals on Christmas lets her Christian neighbors take the day off.

“We look forward to it every year,” she said.

Serving meals is also a chance to see people in person. Zarkin said being part of somebody’s day feels more meaningful than just giving an item or donation.

The Mitzvah Day ties into the Jewish concept of Tikkun Olam, a Hebrew phrase that means, “to repair the world,” Zarkin said. Doing a good deed, or “mitzvah” in Hebrew, helps fix the world piece by piece.

“Community service is something we raise our children with,” Zarkin said. “We don’t just talk about it, we do it.”

Patrice Nelson, executive director of Urban Ministries of Durham, said the shelter is a 365-days-a-year, 24/7 operation, including holidays. The Jewish volunteers filled in for the staff, most of who were off spending time with their families.

“It is so special to us that they come on Christmas, every Christmas to do this Mitzvah Day project,” she said.

Urban Ministries of Durham partners with a number of groups, including different Christian denominations, Jews, Muslims and Baha’is, as well as nondenominational groups and nonfaith-based groups, Nelson said. The center serves 6,000 people each year and helped 245 people move from the shelter to permanent housing last year, she said.

Nelson said 80 percent of the organization’s funding comes from private donations.

“With reduced food stamps, unemployment cutbacks, it is essential to us that we have the community support,” she said.

Gregory Johnson, 45, lives in Durham and enjoyed one of the hot meals on Christmas. He said the volunteers and Urban Ministries of Durham are doing good things for people. Even on Christmas, he can count on them for a meal.

“There’s always somebody going to be here,” Johnson said. “Without this place, there would be a lot of people that would go hungry.”

Another Mitzvah Day group handed out blankets to those eating the meals. Kenneth Alexander, 55, of Durham chose a yellow and black one; the colors of his Pittsburgh Steelers.

“I’m quite sure it’s going to keep me warm,” he said.

Rachel Zarkin, 23, joins in Mitzvah Day each year with her friend, Elena Korn, 22. The two have been friends for years, and for them, this is just how they always spend Christmas.

“It’s become my tradition,” Zarkin said.

Korn said the day is holy for people in the community, so she’s happy to volunteer so that others can spend time with their families.

“It’s no sweat off our backs to do a little mitzvah,” Rachel Zarkin added.

Seligson: 919-836-5768

News & Observer is pleased to provide this opportunity to share information, experiences and observations about what's in the news. Some of the comments may be reprinted elsewhere in the site or in the newspaper. We encourage lively, open debate on the issues of the day, and ask that you refrain from profanity, hate speech, personal comments and remarks that are off point. Thank you for taking the time to offer your thoughts.

Commenting FAQs | Terms of Service