Jewish, Muslim Volunteers Spread Joy of Giving with Christmas Gifts, Dinner

By Zlati Meyer


From left, Hameed Alomari, 11, of Sterling Heights and Zain Akeel, 11, of Rochester Hills help prepare lunch for homeless families as Detroit’s Jewish and Muslim communities get together on Christmas Day to take part in Mitzvah Day volunteering at Congregation Beth Shalom in Oak Park on Tuesday, Dec. 25, 2012.


More than 60 volunteers gathered at Congregation Beth Shalom in Oak Park in three shifts today to make sure 31 homeless people from South Oakland Shelter had a fun-filled holiday.

“Welcome, guests. Our home is your home,” read the sign outside. Inside, a Christmas tree stood in the synagogue library with wrapped presents and gift cards underneath. The aroma of a holiday feast, still cooking, wafted in from the kitchen.

Lisa Lanzkron-Tamarazo, the cantor’s wife, even led the guests in several rounds of Christmas carols.

The festivities were part of the annual Mitzvah Day program, organized by the Jewish Community Relations Council and the Jewish Federation of Metropolitan Detroit. More than three dozen volunteer activities were held for Jews and Muslims not celebrating Christmas, such as sorting food at Gleaners warehouses and delivering toys to children in southwest Detroit. Mitzvah Day — the word means “good deed” or “commandment” in Hebrew — is the local Jewish community’s largest day of volunteering.

“It gives me great joy to bring happiness to people who are less fortunate,” said Cookie Chimoff, 52, a caterer from Oak Park who was overseeing all the cooking.

More than 800 people participated in Mitzvah Day this year.

Among those who appreciated the outreach was Michelle Updike, 45, who lost her Farmington Hills home right after Thanksgiving and was in the shelter with her 2-year-year-old son, Craven Blach. The rambunctious boy got a truck, a police car and “Toy Story” figurines.

“I’ve never seen so many caring individuals,” said Updike. “Even though I’m homeless and don’t have a place to live, a lot of people open their hearts.”

Michael Ennis, 33, agreed. He lost his job as a cook after undergoing back surgery and was spending his first Christmas homeless and without his three children.
“It’s hard,” he said. “They make me feel welcome…I’m thankful they’re here to help us.”

Between lunch (tuna salad, macaroni and cheese) and dinner (roast, mashed potatoes, vegetables), the South Oakland Shelter clients enjoyed making bracelets with a volunteer instructor, using the Internet or simply watching television in the library.

Laundry service and showers were also available, while some people chose to look through the tables filled with clothing, toys and toiletries donated by Beth Shalom congregants over the last several days.

“These people have a lot of Christmas spirit, even though they’re Jewish,” said Claudia, who didn’t want to giver her last name.

The 60-year-old former school bus driver, who said she lost her job and then got sick, planned to use the Target gift card she got to buy socks and nail clippers. She kept busy making a bracelet that spelled out “Anthony,” her grandson’s name, in beads.

For first-time Mitzvah Day volunteer Eric Nissani, the idea of helping transcended religion. The 42-year-old Spanish interpreter from Farmington Hills spent the afternoon boiling potatoes for the holiday feast.

“Christmas is a time of sharing and giving and caring regardless of our faith,” he said.

Contact Zlati Meyer: 313-223-4439 or


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