As someone who is Jewish in America, Christmas can sometimes feel a bit complicated for me. When we – a Jewish organization – are closed and I post my weekly blog a day early, I’m deeply aware that Christmas is – in our “church and state separated” nation – the only federal holiday that is unique to one faith tradition. It is a poignant reminder of the majority culture of our nation and frankly I’m ok with that.
There are members of our staff who will observe Christmas, and many more in our community who will join in the celebration of the holiday with their Christian family members. Some of us will mark the holiday in the Jewish ‘tradition’ – Chinese food and a movie. Others embrace the cultural delights of this season, enjoying our egg nog and some delightful Christmas music, as one of our board members so aptly described in this Boston Magazine column (and for whatever it is worth, many of these songs were written by Jewish-American composers).
We also seek to connect with the broader spirit of the season.
In 2011 some of the young adults who volunteer year-round through JCRC’s ReachOut! felt ‘left out’ on Christmas. They decided that they wanted to have a positive impact on their day off so they began a project called VolunCHEER. They came together to meet the substantial need on a day when so many community organizations struggle to fill the gap as staffs have the day off, fewer programs are offered to communities in need, and other volunteers are at church or are at home with family celebrating the day.
That first year, twenty volunteers committed to give back of their time on Christmas Day. The number more than doubled the following year and VolunCHEER now has a steady at 50-60 volunteers each year.
Two years ago, a recently-married couple decided they wanted to volunteer on Christmas Day. Though volunteering was not a normal part of their routine, they felt the need to use their day off on Christmas to do something positive. Through VolunCHEER, they were able to deliver food to several homebound and isolated elderly people in a number of neighborhoods throughout Boston. They told us how much they enjoyed meeting the seniors, chatting with them often for longer than they expected and gaining further perspective on the diversity of our community. They have committed to volunteering with us each year since, and look forward to returning again this year.
Tomorrow, they and our other members will show up at St. Francis House in downtown Boston, the largest day shelter in New England, serving more than 600 poor and homeless men and women each day. They’ll be at Haley House in Dorchester, which uses food and the power of community to break down barriers between people, transfer new skills, and revitalize neighborhoods. At First Church Cambridge they’ll be preparing meals and sharing conversation and lunch with guests at the Friday Café, a neighborhood gathering place where housed and unhoused neighbors can mingle and get acquainted in a low-key, judgment-free setting.
Together with our partners at these sites, JCRC ReachOut! volunteers will help to ensure that those who need a hot meal can receive one on Christmas.
The holiday season can be particularly challenging for residents whose families aren’t close by and our volunteers’ friendly and engaging presence is much appreciated. Tomorrow our folks will be at Little Brothers Friends of the Elderly, Jamaica Plain and Center Communities of Brookline: Hebrew SeniorLife, connecting across generations and bringing company, conversation and community.
We don’t do this volunteering in isolation. While VolunCHEER is a one-time opportunity, it provides the opportunity for people to get involved in community service, understand the depth of the commitment of JCRC’s volunteers, and discover the range of options that are available so they can become involved in sustained community service, year around, with these partners and others who we work with.
In these times, so much toxic discourse characterizes various people and communities as being “other.” Too many leaders seek to divide us and focus on our differences. For JCRC and our volunteers, taking this day to reconnect across communities, to bring dignity and caring to others, and to be part of ensuring the human dignity of all Bostonians is our way of connecting to the broader spirit of this season, a spirit that is so needed and one that should be more deeply ingrained in our national culture beyond one day of the year.
Shabbat Shalom and Happy New Year!
P.S. Please join JCRC on Martin Luther King Jr. Day, Monday, January 18, 2016 as we team up with City Mission for the National Day of Service. Sign up here to be part of our team as we act on our commitment to community.