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Switch Day at Beth Sholom 

Seven "Switchers" Schvitzing

Some businesses can't ever close, even on Christmas Day. Hospitals, clinics, nursing homes and other residential programs have to put patients above all else, no matter what day it may be. Sure, these employees know there's no place like home for the holidays, and they'd like to have a merry little Christmas as much as the next guy. But they can't just abandon their posts.

Or can they? Thanks to a clever and heartfelt holiday tradition carried out yearly by the Congregation Or Atid, when workers at the Beth Sholom Home of Central Virginia say, "I'll be home for Christmas, you can count on me," they mean it.

When Rabbi Richard Smith started at Or Atid about eight years ago, he heard that Beth Sholom, a local nursing home, needed assistance in giving employees Christmas Day off. The rabbi appealed to his congregation to take part in "Switch Day" — when Jewish volunteers fill in for non-Jewish workers, so the workers can spend Christmas with their families. "I think it's only fair and right to be able to do that for them," says Smith.

Karen Smith, director of activities at Beth Sholom, and, coincidentally, Rabbi Smith's wife, is thrilled with the turnout. "Last year, we had 122 volunteers between 7 a.m. and 7 p.m.," she says. "We have doctors, lawyers .... We have doctors who are vacuuming the lobby, pulling the trash. ... It's really a dedication to the residents and the staff," she says. "And the best thing is [that] the volunteers leave feeling so fulfilled."

On Switch Day, nearly all services besides medical ones are performed by volunteers. "Volunteers will do reading group, trivia time, games ... whatever the scheduled activity is," explains Karen. They also prepare and serve meals, make beds and help transport residents. Sometimes concerts are planned, as was the case a few years back. What kind of band performed? Klezmer, of course. "Who else are ya' gonna hire on Christmas?" Karen quips.

Rabbi Smith says easily 100 members of his congregation participate in Switch Day, and many bring their children along with them. Or Atid member Dan Heller is a Switch Day veteran along with his two children Erin, 10, and Benjamin, 6. The children's grandfather is a resident at Beth Sholom, so the family helps out at other times of year, too. Ben is currently the youngest volunteer at Beth Sholom, a title formerly claimed by his big sister. She has moved on to other achievements: "I've been volunteering for almost 150 hours since kindergarten," she says. "I like helping the people. It makes me feel good, like I'm doing a good deed."

"The children — to their credit — know a lot of the residents," says their dad. "So they're very comfortable doing most anything that's asked of them."

Erin does have her favorite activities, though. "I enjoy helping people with bingo and serving them their food and playing checkers with them," she says. "We give them chicken and potatoes and stuff. ... I know most of the residents. My grandfather has been there ... He just had his 80th birthday. ... One of my friends is Meredith. He's a black man and he's in a wheelchair. I think he had a stroke. ... He's really good at checkers. I play with him a
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