SPRING HILL - In Boston, it is common among those in the Jewish faith to volunteer to work at the local hospital to give their Christian friends the day off.
That was not happening here in 1997, when Dr. Sheldon Alter and his wife, Ruth, bought a house in Spring Hill.
Alter went to the board at Temple Beth David Jewish Center and suggested a volunteer program. It was green-lighted immediately.
"It's nice to give back," he said. "Christmas is such an important holiday for our Christian friends. We were happy to do it."
In all, 29 of the temple's 170-member congregation signed up to volunteer today and tomorrow at Spring Hill Regional Hospital. A few others also volunteer at the sister facility in Brooksville.
"There was an overflow of people who wanted to do it," Alter said. "So we're doing four-hour shifts ... That won't put a strain on those who do it."
Alter, who graduated from medical school in 1964 and spent much of his career working at a Catholic hospital in Boston, knew how much it meant for his Christian co-workers to spend the holiday with their families.
He joined the temple with his wife in 1996, two years after buying their first Florida home in Homosassa. They were snowbirds during their first eight years here and now make Spring Hill their permanent home.
"It's nice to see the Christmas babies and see babies going home for Christmas," said Ruth Alter, discussing what it is like to work at a hospital on Christmas Day. Fewer patients occupy the facility because most people - even those who are ailing - prefer to be with their families than anywhere else.
"They try to discharge as many as they can - at least those who can be home," Dr. Alter said. "It's quiet. I wouldn't say it's ghost-like ... The nurses have to be here. We can't replace the nurses."
The Spring Hill Regional Hospital Volunteer Auxiliary is headed by Mary Lou Hattabaugh, who also is a member of the local temple.
Alter praised her for the work she does.
"This lady needs an awful lot of credit," he said. "She's so good and so caring. It's a benefit to have her here."
Hattabaugh said she has seen more of her fellow worshipers volunteering at Spring Hill and Brooksville Regional. One of the reasons is because once they sign up to work Christmas Eve and Day, they realize it is something they could do year-round.
Finding volunteers was not a problem from the start. Their duties range from pushing people in wheelchairs to the X-ray rooms to working the reception desk. They are not permitted to do any computer work because of medical confidentiality laws.
"Some of my friends volunteered to do minor surgery, but I told them they can't do that," Alter joked. His wife then cackled.
"Most importantly, we walk around and talk to the people who are here," he continued. "That is a big plus for the patients."
Their assistance does not go unrecognized or unrewarded. The very same people they replace on Christmas Day are the ones who show up bringing gifts.
"Some of them will stop in with baked goods for us and leave them at the desk for us," Ruth Alter said. "They really do appreciate it."
Temple Beth David Jewish Center volunteers:
Sheldon and Ruth Alter
Gary and Eileen Beaman
Marty and Diane Cohen
Mike and Sue Cooperstein
Arnold and Roberta Karp
Arlette and Phyllis Levin
Stan and Pat Margulis
John and Mary Ellen Vogel
Joel and Hariann Zara
Howie and Sharon Ziskind