South Florida Jews continue tradition of volunteering on Christmas Day

Christmas Day volunteering has become a tradition for South Florida Jews, who help feed the hungry and spread cheer among homeless children.

12/25/2012 3:39 PM

12/25/2012 6:16 PM

Why was Aaron Niskin, 26-year-old Florida International University student, playing “Jingle Bells’’ on an acoustic guitar for sick kids and their parents at Miami’s Ronald McDonald House on Christmas Day?

He shrugged like a Borscht Belt comic, then true to the stereotype, answered the question with a question.

“I’m Jewish. Why not?’’

It’s the same reason that a small army of men, women and kids signed up for the Greater Miami Jewish Federation’s increasingly popular Christmas Volunteer Day. They passed out toys at the Chapman Partnership’s downtown Miami shelter, served a lasagne, salad and brownies lunch to Ronald McDonald guests, and cooked a hot holiday meal at the Salvation Army.

Niskin volunteered with his mother, Debbie Niskin, of Miami Beach — mother of four, grandmother of seven — who thinks that for those who don’t celebrate Christmas, “It’s nice for you to take the place of someone who could be home with their families.’’

As Jews, added her friend, Rita Restler, “It’s in us to help.’’

Indeed, both faith and tradition dictate that Jews give charity — not just money, but time and effort — as a way to repair a troubled world.

Dozens of volunteers, including several entire families, arrived early Tuesday morning with hundreds of gifts at the Homeless Assistance Center, 1550 N. Miami Ave.

Among them: three generations of Rostons from Pinecrest. Dylan, 12, and Zachary, 14, piled a conference table high with new basketballs, footballs, soccer balls, models and stuffed animals that the family bought.

“I want everybody to enjoy themselves,’’ Dylan said.

His father, attorney Carl Roston, said the project “gives the kids a little perspective on how fortunate they are.’’

Added his wife, Wendy: “This teaches them about giving back, and the importance in seeing how giving puts a smile on their faces.’’

On the next table over, other volunteers set up a frost-your-own cookie station. Elsewhere, several “tweens’’ helped little girls make woven rubber-band bracelets on plastic looms.

“Giving back’’ seemed an almost universal motivation.

Wine buyer Melanie Uchin and husband Adam, brought son Benjamin, 15, down from Weston, even though Adam, 48, recently lost his job.

Even so, he said, he’s got so much more than the parents whose children have no homes.

“I still have a loving family and a roof over my head,’’ he said. “For us, this is one little setback.’’

Not so for many of the shelter residents.

Chantanell Williams, 36, said she moved into the shelter two months ago with her children, ages 4-17, who were happily playing with a Rubik’s Cube and a wooden peg game called Road Race.

A temporary school-bus driver, Williams said that when she doesn’t work, she can’t pay for an apartment.

She wasn’t sure why strangers had come to give her kids presents, but “we appreciate whatever they give.’’

When she learned that the volunteers didn’t observe Christmas, but wanted others to be able to, she broke into a grin.

“That’s real nice,’’ she said. “I like that.’’

Many volunteer parents said it wasn’t too early for their young children to learn the lesson of giving.

Amy Pinzur of Aventura, a third-year volunteer, brought daughter Maia, 8, who helped make rubber-band bracelets.

She was there, Maia said, “to make children feel good.’’

The bracelet looms belonged to Julia Bernstein, 12, whose mother, Nancy Bernstein, said it was Julia’s idea to bring them — and to leave some behind.

They were rewarded with a handwritten thank-you note, in crayon, from a little girl.

Michael Litel, a marketing-services company executive, said he was participating for the third year.

“In today’s world, with all that’s going on, we all have a responsibility to help out,’’ said Litel, 57, a Broward resident. “It’s the right thing to do.’’

“Not everyone gets to live in a gated community,’’ added lawyer Jeremy Ben-David, 33, acting as captain of the dining-room serving line. “There are other things going on in this world.’’

There were more volunteers than tasks, so he urged everyone to “try to stay busy,’’ putting up decorations, sprinkling wrapped candies on the tables, escorting diners to their seats.

“People are in need,’’ he said. “Whatever little I can do makes them happy.’’

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