Why I love Christmas: Thoughts on Mitzvah Days and Social Justice Work

Published Dec 27, 2010

Michal RosenoerMichal Rosenoer was born and raised in the San Francisco Bay Area. She graduated from UC Berkeley with a BS in Environmental Politics and International Development in May of 2010. When she’s not leading volunteer groups for Behrend Builders at the DC JCC, she can be found teaching kids how to backpack, studying urban beekeeping, and advocating for local food justice.

Today was a good day at work, a very good day indeed. You might think that’s strange since I’m writing this on Christmas Eve (and who wants to work on the eve of the birth of our savior!?!) but as a Jew in a country perpetually full of stocking-stuffing, tree-decorating, name-mispronouncing Christians, I am pretty accustomed to spending Christmas either at work or wishing I were (there’s only so much Chinese food I can eat with my family before I need to run away and hide somewhere). Don’t get me wrong, I actually love Christmas to an inordinate and almost creepy degree, but not because I revel in Mary’s virginity. Rather, I love Christmas because it tends to inspire togetherness, comfy sweaters, snuggling, and peppermint bark.

My Good Day at Work today had more to do with the former – the togetherness and the community that tends to become more apparent during the holidays – than with the celebratory peppermint bark I may or may not be eating right now (stop judging me). As the Program Coordinator for Behrend Builders, a non-profit that operates out of the Washington DC Jewish Community Center, today I was in charge of leading a 50-person volunteer project today for the DC JCC’s annual December 24th Day of Service. As any good American Jew knows, no year is complete without a ridiculous Mitzvah Day project, and here in the district we conduct almost 60 service projects with almost 1,000 volunteers on this day every year.

Today I took my 50 volunteers (of all ages and from all over the place) to Unity Health Care, a non-profit health and medical clinic that serves local community members regardless of income, insurance, or prior conditions. In fact, Unity Health Care is geared specifically towards treating the homeless community in DC and actually sees over 90,000 people a year. Their program is unique and does meaningful, impactful work. Thus, I was more than happy to help them out with a new paint job they requested earlier this month. As a result, from 10am-2pm today, I helped a bunch of very eager Jews (and some very sweet gentiles) paper, tape, paint, edge, and basically beautify the inside of the health care clinic.

To many of you this might sound totally mundane and to many more of you (given the progressive and liberal nature of many of my friends), you might be saying “but Michal, since when is painting an act of social justice or community?” “Ahh, the age-old question,” I would respond. Can Mitzvah projects, which are generally shorter, one-time direct service stints, truly be political acts or acts of community building?

“Hell yes” is my new response. That’s right. I said hell. While the painting work we did today didn’t involve building relationships across class or race boundaries, and it didn’t necessarily speak to the root causes of homelessness or poverty in DC, I am positive that the work we did inspired continued action or at least continued thought around those issues for many of our volunteers. And that spark  – that “ah ha” moment that begins the process of internal reflection around issues of social justice – is absolutely necessary to a future that involves more liberation and freedom for all members of our society.

Four months ago, when I started my position with the JCC, I might not have said that. But today I was reminded of something I’ve known for so long but tend to forget – it’s the little experiences that change people’s perspectives and eventually their actions. Earlier this year I found it a little reprehensible that so many of my volunteers tend to only come out a few times a year, and many only around the holidays.  As it turns out, hungry people are still hungry the day after Thanksgiving, and homeless people are still homeless on December 26th.  Personally, I feel that there’s so much work to be done in the field of social justice that I can’t imagine working in a job where I could not actively engage with issues of classism racism, and inequality on a daily basis. But then I remembered something important – even my passion for advocacy and social work started with the Mitzvah Days I participated in as a young child.  And the fact that I was privileged enough to have that opportunity – to help instead of to be asking for help – at such a young age meant that I have been given the chance to explore my own thoughts and ideas around justice and equality for decades longer than some of my volunteers who, up until today, may just never have been to these issues.

Remembering that fact during the last few months has changed my idea of social justice work in a profound way. It means that I don’t have to be constantly advocating for policy change or community organizing or holding rallies or even working with oppressed populations to make a difference. It means that incorporating just a little learning into our service work (aka creating a space for service learning) can make a huge difference to some of my volunteers, who may then act on their evolving perspective in new and special ways.

So today at our volunteer project, I talked about Judaism and social justice. Even though our clients, our volunteers, and even our staff aren’t entirely Jewish, it seemed like the right thing to do on the eve of a holiday built on shared tradition. Anyway, I mentioned the idea of kavanah, the Hebrew word for “intention,” and brought up the idea that focusing on and thinking about the consequences of our actions can greatly improve the way we treat one another and empower us to impact our communities in meaningful ways (I also may have mentioned trying to intentionally keep the paint off the floors). I also mentioned the fact that Judaism historically teaches that our family, or mishpachah, extends far beyond our blood relatives – to have suffering people in our community or even in our vicinity is akin to watching one of our own family members suffer; thus we should act with compassion and generosity towards all people. Lastly, I mentioned that while painting Unity Health was an important act of kindness and inspiration, Judaism teaches that doing and studying are of equal value; thus it’s important not only to act on our feelings about inequality but to also try and learn more about the issues, even if just little by little.

After the project I had more than a few volunteers approach me to tell me that they really appreciated the talks we had together and the mini-speeches I gave before and after the project. I got these comments from both men and women, from both children and their grandparents.  So while I didn’t march around with a megaphone like I might have in college (Go Bears), I think our project today was meaningful and impactful in lots of ways. The sheer fact that we had over 1,000 volunteers today at the JCC is a political statement and although my volunteers did something small, we came together as a community today to do something important – to think, learn, and act on issues of inequality, even if just a little bit at a time.

So whether you’re the type of person who volunteers once a year during the holidays or the type of person who works 80 hours a week trying to save the world (or somewhere in between, like me) remember that if nothing else, reflecting on issues of social justice and learning just a little bit more IS a big deal. And doing it with others can be even more special.

To all of my loved ones, friends, and random readers, I wish you a Merry Christmas, Happy Festivus, a belated Hanukkah Sameach, and a Happy New Year. I hope it’s inspiring, engaging, and of course, filled with all kinds of baked goods, kosher or otherwise.

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