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TEMPLE MEMBERS SPEND DAY SERVING MEALS TO THE NEEDY

About a dozen people who don't celebrate Christmas found a way to bring the holiday to life for those who do.

A team of Jewish volunteers from Temple Beth Am in Amherst spent four hours Thursday in the City Mission, preparing and serving a Christmas feast for homeless men.

"The work they're doing is helping out a lot of people who are less fortunate," a City Mission resident said before digging into three plates of food. "That's a blessing."

The spirit of sharing was present in other places Thursday, including the Erie County Home in Alden, where whole families took time off from their own celebrations to visit residents who have no families of their own, and at the Salvation Army on Main Street, where a Christmas party was held and about 400 meals were served.

At the City Mission, Adam Butensky-Bartlett, a senior at Amherst Central High School, made sandwiches and cut cakes with his parents and brother. "It's a rewarding experience," said Adam, who plans to study physics next year in college. "We have an opportunity to give other people a chance to be home with their families."

Sherry Altman, an Independent Health employee, said her stint at the City Mission was a chance to "get out and do something for others," become better acquainted with members of her synagogue and to learn more about the shelter.

Rather than staying home and watching television, Ron Cohen and his son, David, a sophomore at Williamsville East High School, took the opportunity to perform a "mitzvah" -- a divine commandment to do good deeds.

For the record, this was some mitzvah.

The menu included salad, fresh fruit, rolls, ham, cabbage, sweet potatoes, mashed potatoes, cold cuts, vegetables, pasta salad, fruit juice, three cakes and five huge trays of cookies.

Much of the food was donated by local businesses and charitable organizations.

"Let's be honest -- on a normal day we don't get this fancy," said Mike Burns, a City Mission resident who helped coordinate the meal. "It would be real hard to put out a meal like this if we didn't have volunteers. In fact, we couldn't do it without them."

A man who has been homeless for about four months said both the meal and the spirit of the day reminded him of better times, when he celebrated Christmas in the home of his grandparents.

"For those of us who are not home but are used to being around family, this brings it back," said the man, who asked not be identified by name.

Mike Hofbauer, who lived at the City Mission for about two years in the 1980s, said he can understand those feelings.

An assembler at an electronics firm, Hofbauer helps out at the mission about once a week and on Christmas joined in with the volunteers from Temple Beth Am.

"They were here for me when I needed it," he said of the City Mission staff. "If it weren't for this place, I don't know where I would be now."

The volunteers' presence allowed staff members to be home, relieved residents of kitchen duty and added a sense of excitement and fellowship to Christmas, said Richard Clark, the City Mission chaplain.

Gilda Raiken felt that spirit every time she dished out a serving of salad. "It's a good feeling to know you're doing something nice for other people," she said.

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