Whenever Laurie Bershad takes off from work during a Jewish holiday, she finds herself thinking about her non-Jewish colleagues whose day is spent in the workplace. On Dec. 25, the West Windsor resident, her husband Dan, her eight-year-old daughter Rebecca, and more than 120 others in the Princeton Mercer Bucks Jewish community went to work while those who celebrate Christmas were able to enjoy their holiday.
The occasion was Mitzvah Day, during which the JCC of Princeton Mercer Bucks joined forces with area synagogues, agencies, and social action committees to deploy volunteers in venues across the region. It marked the second consecutive year in which Christmas Day also was Mitzvah Day in the community.
Volunteers had four locations to choose from: Greenwood House, a residence for seniors in Ewing; Enable, through which volunteers spent time with individuals with disabilities in a group home in Hamilton; Bear Creek Assisted Living in West Windsor; and Dress for Success, a small Hamilton shop whose aim is to help disadvantaged women succeed in the workplace.
For the second time in as many years, the Bershads were among the 10 or so volunteers at Dress for Success. They spent their day organizing the inventory by item, color, and size.
“It’s such a great organization that you can’t help but be impressed,” said Laurie Bershad, a member of the Mitzvah Day committee. “A lot of our volunteers actually expressed an interest in becoming involved throughout the year.
“Our goal is to organize everything in a way that people will feel as if they’re coming to a boutique rather than a thrift shop environment. We want to make sure shoppers have a positive experience.”
Bershad added that her daughter, who helped out by organizing handbags by size, was among those eager to return after her experience in 2008. “Rebecca had a great time this year as well,” she said. “As a family, we’ll keep coming back as long as they’ll continue to have us.”
Carey Bloom of Princeton Junction, another committee member, expressed similar sentiments about Enable, for which she volunteered for the second straight year. Bloom and a dozen fellow volunteers, ranging from preteens to grandparents, entertained nine residents from a variety of group homes and staff members. There were arts and crafts, refreshments, and other activities. Perhaps the highlight came when Mitzvah Day volunteer Gail Sokoloff led the entire group in a spirited sing-along that included Christmas tunes.
“These were residents who didn’t go home to be with their families, so we did what we could to make it a festive day for them,” Bloom said. “They seemed to be pretty excited by our visit.”
An Enable staff member told the volunteers “how gratified they were to know that we could have been anywhere we wanted to be that day, yet we chose to be with them,” said Bloom. “The thing is, we enjoyed being there as much as they enjoyed having us.”
Members of the Eland family of Princeton Junction — Holly, Richard, and their children Ariel, 17, and Jeremy, eight — were part of a large contingent at Greenwood House, where volunteers helped residents decorate cookies, play Bingo, and even polish their nails.
“We put icing, sprinkles and a little piece of chocolate gelt on each of the cookies,” Holly Eland said. “After lunch, we played Bingo, which was something that my family absolutely loved. My husband was the person calling out the numbers, and my daughter was helping a resident who was more than 100 years old.
“Afterward, we talked about what a wonderful feeling it is to be able to make a positive difference in the lives of the residents for a few hours,” said Bloom. “It could have been a solitary day for them, but instead, it was a day full of activity.”
The other Mitzvah Day committee members were Jerri Blitzer, Beth Brenman, Carol Brugger, Stephanie Chorney, Rita Cohen, and Neil Wise.
Marnie and Barry Dratch of Newtown, Pa., accompanied by sons Brian, 17, and Michael, 12, had planned to spend about two hours at Greenwood but ended up staying more than four.
Along with other activities, Michael Dratch played guitar, while his brother sang for the residents. The volunteers also talked to the residents about their life experiences.
“I’m not sure who was enjoying themselves more — the residents or the volunteers,” Marnie Dratch said. “I definitely would do it again. In fact, I’m looking forward to it.”
JCC program director Sue Weiner said she has every expectation volunteers will indeed have Mitzvah Day opportunities in the future. She watched as her seven-year-old daughter Lara read to Greenwood House residents, so she has a first-hand understanding of the value of the Mitzvah Day concept.
“Any time you can bring the community together for positive reasons, it is worth pursuing,” Weiner said. “Mitzvah Day puts smiles on so many faces. It’s a feel-good day for everyone involved.”