CHAPEL HILL, N.C. – On Christmas Day, 350 volunteers from the Jewish community in Chapel Hill and Durham will fill in for employees at roughly two-dozen local nonprofits, letting them take the day off for the holiday.
They also will deliver meals to local police stations, visit nursing homes and feed homeless people staying at local shelters.
Known as “Mitzvah Day,” from the Hebrew word meaning “good deed,” the annual event has grown from 200 volunteers three years ago, says Susan Springer, who is chairing the effort for the fourth straight year.
Springer, who recently was honored for her volunteer efforts with the Durham Literacy Center, says she got involved in volunteering soon after moving to the Triangle in 2000 with her husband and then six-month-old daughter.
Springer grew up just outside Buffalo, N.Y., and then lived in the Washington, D.C., both of which have large Jewish populations and are regions where it was easy to be anonymous, she says.
But she and her husband Matt found the Triangle’s “small but growing” Jewish community a welcoming one that made them want to get involved in charitable causes, she says.
Matt Springer, a lawyer who is executive vice president for corporate development at Connexions Technology in Cary, chairs the board of the Durham-Chapel Hill Jewish Federation.
And Susan Springer served for six years on the board at Lerner Jewish Community Day School, which their two daughters, now 10 and seven, have attended starting with pre-school.
As a board member, including a term as vice chair, Springer mainly was responsible for student recruitment and also served on the strategic-planning committee, chaired the search for a new head of school, and has overseen the book fair for six years.
And in November, she was a recipient of the Woman of Valor/Spirit Award presented by the Jewish Federation, recognizing her “substantial contribution to tikkun olam,” the Hebrew term for “repairing the world.”
She was nominated for the award for her volunteer work at the Literacy Center, where she serves on the board, recently stepped down as board chair and is chairing the 25th anniversary activities the nonprofit will celebrate in 2010.
Soon after she and her husband moved to the Triangle, she says, her husband showed her a newspaper ad for volunteers at the Literacy Center, and she went through the group’s tutor training.
Springer says her first volunteer job at the Literacy Center was tutoring an Arabic-speaking Lebanese woman who spoke English well and was looking to improve her reading, writing and math skills.
To try to bridge their ethnic and cultural differences – the woman is a practicing Muslim who is married to a Palestinian – she and Springer talked to one another about who they are, says Springer, who earned an undergraduate degree in business administration and psychology from American University, worked for a bank, got a master’s degree in education from Johns Hopkins University and taught at an elementary school.
“We learned so much from each other about each other’s cultures and faiths,” she says. “It was beautiful.”
Now, she says, the woman “is like a sister to me,” and the two families are close friends.
Springer worked for three years with the woman, who eventually became a U.S. citizen.
Springer later volunteered as a tutor at Threshold, a Durham clubhouse for adults with mental illness.
At the Literacy Center, which contracts with Threshold to teach reading and writing classes once a week, Springer served on the search committee that led to the hiring of the nonprofit’s executive director in 2004.
And now she is heading up a fundraising effort for the anniversary year.
Working for the Literacy Center is the “most enriching part of my life, besides my family,” Springer says.
“You can see the difference you are making,” she says, “when you are working with a student and you see that light bulb go off and you know they are going to be able to balance their checkbook or write a check or fill out a job application or even read a prescription label.”