The real deal

Liz Marshall, left, and Meredith Lair, far right, in their elf costumes, prepare for their day of service, with Gerson Panitch as Santa and his children, Nadiz and Dahlia, in 2013.
Photos courtesy of the Edlavitch DC Jewish Community Center

Two children arguing in front of Santa Claus might be worried about being added to the Naughty List. But these two were arguing about Santa — specifically, whether the one in front of them was the real deal.

He couldn’t be, they decided, because the real Santa is black. This Santa wasn’t black.

The Santa in question, Gerson Panitch, is an observant Jew. He’s also the Edlavitch DC Jewish Community Center’s go-to Santa Claus.

The Edlavitch JCC needs its Santa every Dec. 25, when about 1,000 volunteers come for a day of service to the Christmas-celebrating community. Among those: a coterie of Santas and elves who are deployed around the city to places where a bit of holiday spirit is needed — places like homeless shelters, low income neighborhood community centers and nursing homes.

Panitch is the longtime reigning Santa, having started somewhere around 1990. He hasn’t been able to volunteer for the past couple of years, but it’s clear that, while he’s all Jew, he’s also part Santa.

“I love making people smile, touching people,” he said. “A lot of the people I see are down on their luck. These are people who are experiencing difficulty and don’t have the opportunity or reason to smile most days.”

He didn’t seek out his Santa status. It was thrust upon him when, after volunteering with the day of service in other roles for a couple years, the JCC found itself with presents to hand out, but no Santa. Panitch agreed to walk a mile in Santa’s shoes.

“The first few years we had a rented Santa suit, but after that I bought my own,” he said. “It hangs in the closet next to my business suits.”

The day of service is now 31 years old. The Edlavitch JCC joins with local organizations to provide extra support on Christmas, when many might be understaffed or stretched thin, said Sonya Weisburd, director of social justice and volunteer programs. Volunteers sign up to prepare and serve meals, sing carols, visit home-bound seniors, paint buildings, donate blood and throw holiday parties, for a total of more than 50 projects.

But it’s not only Jews who come to volunteer at the center, Weisburd said. Many non-Jews have incorporated the day of service into their Christmas celebrations. Like Liz Marshall and her husband, Jerry Burgess, an elf and Santa.

Marshall has been elfing since 2009 when she was searching online for a way to volunteer on Christmas and came across the day of service. Being a little late to the game that year, there weren’t many open spots left and she was assigned the job of elf to Panitch’s Santa.

“It’s a really great feeling to help people be excited on Christmas,” she said. “It’s been a whole new meaning to Christmas for me and the holiday spirit. I can’t imagine Christmas without it.”

This will be the couple’s third year as a team. In 2015, the center was in dire need of another Santa. Marshall knew just who to turn to.

“He’s very into the role,” she said of Burgess. “It did not take much convincing. It’s just such a great role, I’m surprised we aren’t rolling in Santas.”

Marshall and Burgess have also taken on packaging presents to be given out by Santa. They recruit friends and family to listen to Christmas carols and watch terrible Christmas movies while wrapping, Marshall said. It gets them in the mood.

One reason Marshall and Panitch come back is the spectacle, the way faces light up when they arrive. From the kids to the adults, everyone loves Santa.

“People, no matter how old they are, just turn into little kids,” Marshall said.

And Panitch really tries to sell it.

“Oh, I just ham it up,” he said. “If I need to stand on a table and yell, ‘Ho ho ho!’ to get their attention, I will.”

People honk and wave when Panitch drives by, and he’ll hop out of the car whenever he sees kids — or anyone who looks like they could use a pick-me-up.

He used to find he was followed by large groups of kids when he stopped in low-income Washington neighborhoods with his bag of presents. But gentrification has pushed these families to the edges of the city, he said, and he is rarely followed anymore.

Unlike Santa’s garb, elf outfits aren’t quite so distinctive, which means Marshall gets to add on. Her costume, once fairly perfunctory, has gotten increasingly elaborate over the years, she said. She has a contest with her best friend, Meredith Lair, whom she also recruited to the elfing role, where they each try to one up each other every year.

Panitch’s Santa suit is rather traditional, but he has his own way of turning himself into jolly old Saint Nick. To get the Santa girth, he stuffs pillows into some stretched long johns, both in front and behind.

When he dons the red suit, the transformation is complete.

“You can’t help but automatically get in the mood,” he said.

By the time he reached the Edlavitch JCC, he was totally in character. The volunteers were his first audience as he bursts through the doors.

“Ho ho ho, chag sameach!”

To register for the day of service, go to

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