Christmas Day is the day of the year which some Jews often fill by doing some mitzvah volunteer work, then enjoying Chinese food and a movie. But that annual mitzvah-Chinese food-movie ritual is being put aside this Dec. 25 for Chanukah.
"Chanukah makes it a big deal because now Jews have something to do that day," said Rachael Martin, program coordinator at Westwood's Conservative shul, Sinai Temple.
This year, traditional Christmas Day volunteering is being spread out across December. The shul's ATID young adult leadership group's annual Dec. 25 Mitzvah Day is being merged with templewide volunteering on Dec. 18, the formal start of Sinai's yearlong centennial anniversary.
The young leadership division of the Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles visited the elderly at the Fairfax District's Shalom Retirement Hotel on Dec. 11, with music by madrigal singers from Beverly Hills High School. A week earlier, Sinai hosted a holiday party for several hundred soldiers and their families at the California National Guard compound in Westwood.
The Reform Temple Israel of Hollywood still will host its annual Christmas Day dinner at the nearby Hollywood United Methodist Church. Like the last 21 Christmases, about 200 Temple Israel volunteers are expected to join another 250 nontemple volunteers to feed more than 1,500 people in need, as well as give out toys to kids and health-care products to adults.
In addition, Temple Israel member David Levinson, chair of the Jewish community's annual "Big Sunday" spring day of volunteering, has been coordinating Christmas mitzvah work throughout December.
"We've been doing things all month, since Thanksgiving," Levinson said. "We have about 30 projects of our own through New Year's Day."
Away from Southern California, the still-pressing needs of Hurricane Katrina victims are on the holiday wish list. Last month, Rabbi Steve Jacobs of the Reform synagogue, Kol Tikvah in Woodland Hills, visited Katrina victims still homeless in Houston.
"There's so much that's not being done about Katrina," Jacobs said. "We have to have Chanukah and Christmas come together and not let the lights go out in these people's lives."
One Kol Tikvah congregant heeding that advice is Jacob Margolis, a 16-year-old student at El Camino High School. For three days this week, Jacobs planned to raise Katrina relief donations from his fellow students, partly by making his pitch at lunch over the public address system.
"Get on the PA, put on some music, talk to the people," said Margolis, adding that his Katrina pitch would be heard, ironically, amid the student body's Santa Claus picture-taking.
From last January's Asian tsunami through September's Katrina disaster, Jewish donations have been pouring into emergency relief funds. The downside of such altruism is that local nonprofits have been hurt.
"We kept hearing the same thing from the nonprofits," Levinson said. "A lot of the nonprofits here are really hurting, and they could use help this year. A lot of the homeless here are still really suffering, partly because a lot of the funding for that has dried up. They're not getting quite the donations that they used to."
Before Chanukah begins, Sinai Temple's Martin also will spend part of Christmas Day at the Salvation Army shelter in Echo Park.
"We don't need volunteers [at that shelter] on Christmas," she said. "But we need them every other day of the year."
Rabbi Mark Diamond, executive vice president of the Board of Rabbis of Southern California, said the "great confluence" of Christmas and Chanukah being so close to each other means Jews should do volunteer work on Dec. 25 before Chanukah starts later that day. Diamond and his family will spend Christmas at Pasadena's Union Station, feeding the poor.
"The mitzvah we will do earlier in the day will enhance our Chanukah observance," said Diamond, who then pointed out that Chanukah's menorah-lighting is itself a mitzvah, prompting him to paraphrase a Talmudic precept: "One mitzvah leads to another mitzvah."
For this holiday season, "there's stuff to do all month long," Levinson said. Some of that volunteer "stuff" being coordinated by Big Sunday includes:
- Dec. 17 -- The "big holiday party" for at-risk teens at the Aviva Center in Hollywood.
- Dec. 18 -- The ninth annual Christmas/Chanukah/Kwanzaa party at the Umoja apartment complex for previously homeless families in South Los Angeles.
- Dec. 17 and Dec. 23-25 -- Gift-wrapping and preparation for the Christmas Day party for the homeless at St. Michael and All Angels Church in Studio City.
See full roster of Big Sunday holiday activities at www.bigsunday.org.