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Harold Miller, president of the New Haven area B’nai B’rith International, a Jewish service organization, said Santa and 30 or so volunteers will spread cheer to patients through Christmas carols, handing out gifts and visiting those who served the country.
It’s a decades-old tradition begun in the mid-1950s, and Miller, who has been involved for more than 30 years, said it’s an amazingly uplifting night for all.
“A lot of these people have no visitors on the holiday,” Miller said. “For lots of them, we’re the only people they’ll see. ... I’ve seen some of them (moved to) tears.”
Miller, an Orange resident, recalls a nurse one year putting it this way: “I know why God made you the chosen people — it’s for all the good things you do.”
Volunteer and B’nai B’rith member Mike Romeo of West Haven — who looks a lot like Santa that night — and spent 30 years in the Navy, said that night is “Probably one of the most rewarding things you can do.”
Romeo said there is a special connection between Jews and veterans because so many rescued relatives from Nazi concentration camps, including his grandfather and his wife’s relatives.
“These guys are the guys that freed them from the camps. How much do I owe them?” Romeo said, adding that his wife, Faith Romeo, bought 250 meals for veterans at the hospital on Thanksgiving.
“There’s no possible way we can repay them,” Romeo said. “They stood between us and those who did us harm.”
VA recreation therapist Cheryl Cresta said the visit from B’nai B’rith volunteers is so uplifting that staff members volunteer to work Christmas Eve so they can be part of it and some veterans are moved to tears because “someone thought of them.”
Crespa, a veteran herself, is there on the big night and like Miller and many others, brings her family to join in the festivities.
“The veterans really enjoy it because to be stuck in the hospital on Christmas Eve is depressing,” she said. Crespa said the group takes their time, entertaining and mingling for about four hours. “It’s an amazing thing.”
Romeo recalled a touching moment on one of the Christmas Eves when, as Santa, he came across a veteran from Afghanistan who had lost both his legs and was visiting with his parents and younger sister. The sister asked her father, “Is that the real Santa Claus?” He said, “Yes,” and so Romeo visited with her and gave her a bag of little gifts. Romeo said the veteran who had lost his legs turned to his mom and said, “This is the best Christmas I’ve ever had.”
B’nai B’rith International is the largest Jewish service organization in the world and community service is at the heart of it, said Miller, who also serves on the national board.
During Passover, the organization’s Project H.O.P.E. provides Kosher food for Passover to needy families in their various communities and for the New Haven region that Miller leads, that translated into 380 families in the region being served last Passover.
The Christmas Eve gig lights up spirits throughout the hospital, including among staff, Miller said.
They pass out gift bags with items donated by various individuals and businesses. This year, among the goodies will be wallets, toothbrushes, crossword puzzle books, chocolate, pens, playing cards. Each nurses’ station will get a donated tray of goodies, as well.
Miller and Romeo said another great part of the night is that the B’nai B’rith youth group also participates, so they are learning to continue the tradition. Miller said on the rare occasions when Christmas Eve falls on Friday, they do their visit on Christmas Day.
Romeo said the night ends for he and some of the other volunteers with a prayer and a cry in the VA parking lot.