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Jewish Santa makes rounds at Camden’s Ronald McDonald House

Jewish Santa brought bagels.

Joseph Hassman, a physician, visits Camden's Ronald McDonald House - here with Owen Tucker, 2, and his sister Allison, 9 months, of Watertown, N.J. (Alejandro A. Alvarez / Staff Photographer)
Joseph Hassman, a physician, visits Camden's Ronald McDonald House - here with Owen Tucker, 2, and his sister Allison, 9 months, of Watertown, N.J. (Alejandro A. Alvarez / Staff Photographer)Read more

Jewish Santa brought bagels.

Joseph Hassman arrived at the Ronald McDonald House of Southern New Jersey in Camden slightly after 9 Christmas morning, bells jingling on his head-to-toe St. Nicholas outfit.

Surrounding the family physician turned Santa were six family-member "elves," bringing food for guests in what has become a Hassman clan tradition.

"Ho, ho, ho. Merry Christmas!" Hassman, 77, said as he visited three floors of bedrooms, encouraging children and their parents to have "breakfast with Santa."

Some of the two dozen families were already out and about; others were awakened by the sound of bells and laughter. No matter how they first came across him, children's faces lighted up - some shyly hiding behind parents while others hugged Santa and posed for photos.

"Um, we already opened the present," Michael Diorio, 4, said apologetically before pulling out his double-sided light saber to show off.

Michael is one of more than two dozen children staying at the facility, which houses people from around the world who have a family member in treatment at area hospitals. Many of the young patients are being cared for at Children's Hospital of Philadelphia. They and their relatives stay in one of 28 free or low-cost rooms at the facility, all of which are themed and designed to be homey.

A range of diseases, conditions, and treatments brings the families: cancer, coma, congenital disorders. Celebrating the holidays away from home, while a loved one is seriously ill, is a hardship.

To help ease the strain and provide some normalcy, Hassman has been dressing up in white beard and plush red coat and matching pants for more than 10 years. But instead of traveling from the North Pole, he comes from Cherry Hill - and hears some touching requests.

"When the kids sit on your lap, they don't ask for typical presents like toys and dolls. They ask for their brother and sister to get better and come home," Hassman said. "That's what brings me back every year."

Volunteerism has long been a part of Hassman's life, as has his empathy for people in severe medical distress, he said.

The latter sparked controversy when he pleaded guilty in 1986 to third-degree manslaughter in the death of his 80-year-old mother-in-law, who had Alzheimer's disease. Hassman admitted injecting her intravenous feeding tube with a lethal dose of the narcotic Demerol, resulting in her death April 9, 1986.

Agreeing with the defense that Hassman's actions were born of compassion - an interest in limiting Esther Davis' suffering - prosecutors did not push for a prison sentence. Instead, Hassman was placed on two years' probation, fined $10,000, and ordered to perform 400 hours of community service.

His Christmas tradition began when Hassman and his wife were doing volunteer work in 2000 with Habitat for Humanity at a nearby house. Another volunteer mentioned the Ronald McDonald House, a nonprofit facility, and Hassman began to volunteer there. When someone was needed to play Jolly Old St. Nick, Hassman jumped in. Twelve years later, he continues his family's annual Christmas morning trips to the house.

"We plan our vacation around the Ronald McDonald House," said Hassman's son David, 47. "We get whoever we can bring to volunteer with us. He wanted his kids to be involved in the giving."

On Tuesday, Celia Oseguera, 31, sat at a breakfast table with her two daughters, Ashley, 4, and Jocelyn, 3. Oseguera's son, Adrian Jr., 16 days old, is in the hospital for surgical treatment of spina bifida, a congenital defect in which the backbone does not fully close around the spinal cord.

Oseguera was born in Mexico, but she said her children celebrate Christmas in the American tradition. Ashley and Jocelyn would normally open presents at midnight Christmas Eve after the family went to church.

This year, Oseguera's sister-in-law Myra, 25, and mother-in-law, Maria, 56, traveled from Chicago to be with the girls. Oseguera's husband had to stay in Chicago for the holidays, she said, so the other family members came to fill in.

That a Jewish man has stepped up year after year to fill a need in a Christian holiday celebration meant a lot to Myra Oseguera.

"I think that's very kind of him," she said. "It's not part of his culture and tradition."

Hassman's family members said they joked about crossing the cultures, but did not really think too much about it.

In fact, said Hassman's grandnephew, Ben Berk, not celebrating Christmas makes it easier for them to come out to the house.

Berk, 15, of Voorhees, plans to continue the tradition, maybe even one day becoming Santa Berk.

"It's cool to see the kids smile like that," he said. "We don't have a lot to do on Christmas, so we like to do something to help people."

Toy donations to the Ronald McDonald House had been sorted in large bags. Hassman sat on a couch distributing them with the help of Berk and grandson Corey Hassman. Before settling next to the Christmas tree, Santa Hassman took note of a small menorah on a nearby window ledge and turned on its eight lights.

Then, as he plans to continue doing for many years, Santa Hassman called out to the gathered children: "Ho, ho, ho!"