This article originally appeared in The Inquirer on Dec. 26, 1987.
Rowland Rosenfeld has the catechism of Christmas dishwashing memorized.
By 9 a.m. yesterday, he faced the familiar litany: a seemingly interminable stack of brown trays filled with breakfast scraps to clean by the time lunch is served.
Between the steam tables and stoves, head cook Moses “Ham” Mack was smiling as the soap 'n' suds veteran cleaned with mechanical efficiency. This kind of help makes life easy.
“I see him 6:30 in the morning and then not again until 6:30 at night,” Mack, the hospital’s head chef, said of Rosenfeld’s annual habit. "You turn 'em loose and show 'em what to do, and then you can go out and party. "
For the retired Rosenfeld, 71, there is no greater dignity than scraping food scraps from dirty dishes into the trash on Christmas Day. Rosenfeld and a faithful legion of other volunteers have been doing the kitchen tasks for the past 20 Yuletides at Holy Redeemer Hospital in Huntingdon Valley.
They have exactly 613 reasons.
That is the number of commandments in the Pentateuch, the first five books of the Old Testament, that compel Rosenfeld and the 30 other contributors he has mustered from Keneseth Israel, his Elkins Park synagogue, to fulfill their Jewish faith.
Many groups of Jews from synagogues and organizations around the Philadelphia area were performing similar deeds yesterday, in hospitals and elsewhere, so that Christians who usually work the shifts could be home for Christmas.
For the employees at Holy Redeemer, it’s a timely Christmas gift. Like any other workplace, the hospital’s kitchen works with a skeleton crew during the holiday, and the extra hands are a welcome relief. In fact, some volunteers insist on doing the bulk of the work.
The volunteer program has been a resounding success since its inception in 1967. That was the year Rosenfeld was looking for mitzvah ideas, good-deed projects, and found one no farther away than the manager of his apartment complex, Maxwell Fried, who was a past president of his B’nai B’rith lodge.
Rosenfeld said Fried, who had worked in the restaurant industry, told him that he volunteered to work on Christmas in the Abington Memorial Hospital kitchen.
“We thought it was a terrific idea,” said Rosenfeld.
The following year, Rosenfeld proposed the idea to the members of his now- defunct synagogue, Temple Judea. They decided to give it a go at Holy Redeemer.
“In those days, the wage [for the regular workers] wasn’t high — money was not an incentive to bring people to work on Christmas, because they could be home with their families,” said Rosenfeld. "It’s been a love affair ever since. "
The idea was contagious. Since the day of the conversation with Fried, Rosenfeld has pitched the idea to the Delaware Federation of Reformed Temple Brotherhoods, then the National Federation of Reformed Temple Brotherhoods.
Within five years, not only were Abington Memorial, Holy Redeemer, Lower Bucks County, St. Mary, Delaware Valley, Norristown General, and Sacred Heart Hospitals deluged with offers from Reformed synagogues in the area, but hospitals throughout the nation became beneficiaries of the charitable program.
As the volunteers tell it, it’s a reciprocal benefit. Yesterday, the mundane tasks became good fun after Moses Mack pointed the way.
“Last year, I was breakfast trays and cleanup — I think I’m moving up,” said David Rodoff, a food broker from Torresdale who helped Leon Bell slice the Christmas ham. “This is definitely an improvement,” he said, holding up the plastic gloves stretched over his hand. "See? Dr. Kildare! "
Bell, busy pushing the slicing machine back and forth, happily explained the rigors of his duty.
“Ham is my majordomo,” said Bell, a packaging-design engineer the other 364 days of the year. “And I’ll tell you what. If you don’t have a shoulder you can’t do this. Twenty turkey breasts. A half-dozen hams. And I hope that’s the end of the slicing.”