Jews volunteering on Christmas

Whether it’s dressing up as Santa Claus and posing for photographs with low-income kids or serving turkey and ham to the homeless, many Jews volunteer to break out of their element at this time of year in order to bring Christmas joy to families in need.

Among them is Rabbi Mark Diamond, director of the American Jewish Committee’s Los Angeles chapter, who spends every Christmas serving hot meals.

“Jewish people volunteering on Christmas has been a family tradition for the Diamonds since I was a kid,” he said.

He won’t be the only one spending Dec. 25 volunteering. Synagogues across Los Angeles are taking part in Christmas dinners that feed the less fortunate. 

Members of Temple Israel of Hollywood, IKAR in West Los Angeles, Temple Ahavat Shalom in Northridge, Temple Adat Elohim in Thousand Oaks and Temple Aliyah in Woodland Hills are all planning to serve Christmas meals to the needy. Members of the young professionals group ATID at Sinai Temple in Westwood will take part in a similar effort.

Organizing one of the larger events — a free Christmas dinner for the hungry and homeless at Hollywood United Methodist Church — Temple Israel of Hollywood feeds more than 1,000 people each year, said William Shpall, the synagogue’s executive director.

Leaders of the annual dinner, coming up on its 27th consecutive year, are prepping 160 turkeys and other traditional holiday dishes, including stuffing, sweet potatoes and pies. Attendees also will receive gift bags of toiletry items and other supplies; there will be presents of toys for the kids, and Santa will be on hand to pose in photographs with the little ones. Additionally, a live band will play holiday music. 

The goal is to create an experience that feels more like a restaurant than a soup kitchen, with volunteers serving as hosts and waiters, Shpall explained. 

Synagogue congregant and event chair Ken Ostrove spends the days leading up to the dinner hustling around the city to coordinate donations from vendors, and the operation is so grand that it requires a full day with hundreds of volunteers to set up on Dec. 24. When Christmas comes, hundreds more turn out to volunteer, Shpall said. 

Other Angelenos fan all out all over the city. 

Ever year, Diamond, along with his wife and two children, have made a family tradition of volunteering at a dinner-in-the-park in Pasadena that draws the homeless and hungry. Organized by Union Station Homeless Services, a San Gabriel Valley-based social services agency that assists the homeless and low-income, the event draws a large number of Jewish volunteers. 

The progressive congregation IKAR plans to hold a “Christmas Tikkun,” during which volunteers will serve breakfast and dinner to clients of  the nonprofit agency People Assisting the Homeless, and Temple Ahavat Shalom will provide meals for residents of transitional-living shelters in North Hollywood. 

Meanwhile, ATID’s young professionals are working with the Greater West Hollywood Food Coalition to provide meals for the homeless, who will gather on Dec. 25 at CBS Television Studios.

Volunteering on Christmas enhances a day that is typically reserved for less meaningful fare for many Jews, such as Chinese food and a movie, Diamond said.

“I don’t want to disparage that tradition … I think it’s nice to combine those kinds of fun activities with a serious effort to help our community at large,” he said.