Detroit–December 25–Many Jews consider Christmas Day an opportunity to serve their community while Christian neighbors celebrate their holiday. This year, whatâ€™s also known as Mitzvah Day in southeast Michigan is getting an added boost from Muslims.
For the first time, about 40 Muslims joined 900 Jews for what they call their largest annual day of volunteering. Leaders say itâ€™s a small but significant step in defusing tensions and promoting good will between the religions â€” particularly on a day that is sacred to Christianity, the third Abrahamic faith.
Mitzvah Day, a nearly 20-year tradition in the Detroit area also practiced in other communities, is so named because Mitzvah means â€œcommandmentâ€ in Hebrew and is colloquially translated as a good deed.
The new partnership stemmed from a recent meeting between members of the Council of Islamic Organizations of Michigan, the Jewish Community Relations Council and the Jewish Federation of Metropolitan Detroit â€” which said it was unaware of any similar Mitzvah Day alliances.
The Jewish groups organize Mitzvah Day, which consists of volunteers helping 48 local social service agencies with tasks such as feeding the hungry and delivering toys to children in need.
Victor Begg, chairman of the Council of Islamic Organizations of Michigan, said he was seeking a public way for the two faith communities to â€œbuild bridges of understanding and cooperation,â€ which led to joining the Mitzvah Day effort.
â€œThese guys are really organized,â€ he explained to TMO, saying really there was no need for Muslim organizations to try to put together their own event when the event has already been sustained over a long period of time by the Jewish organizations.
â€œThe general public is what we need to give the message to, our entire community,â€ he said.
Not only are most Muslims and Jews available to serve on Christmas Day, but leaders also recognized a shared commitment to community service. Charity in Judaism is known as â€œtzedakah.â€ Actually this Hebrew word is pronounced the same as sadaqa, which is an analogous Islamic term of doing charity.
â€œItâ€™s an interesting parallel,â€ said Robert Cohen, executive director of the Jewish Community Relations Council. â€œBoth of our faiths predispose us to engaging in this sort of thing.â€
Muslim and Jewish volunteers will work together at the Gleaners Community Food Bank in Pontiac, about 25 miles north of Detroit.
â€œWe felt it was a perfect activity for people to be getting together like this because you work side by side with one or two other people as youâ€™re moving the boxes,â€ Cohen said. â€œThe grass-roots connection builds relationships on a personal level.â€
Cohen said the local bonds are important given global animosities. He said Muslims and Jews here â€œhave serious differences about what happens in the Middle East,â€ but that shouldnâ€™t be the only dynamic defining their relationship.
Begg added the two faiths can set an example in the Detroit area, which has historically large Jewish and Muslim populations.
â€œWhatever happens in the Middle East, we have no control over it,â€ Begg said. â€œBut here, our kids go to the same school, we work together. … We need to focus on building an inclusive community.â€
Mitzvah Day is planned months in advance, so the number of Muslim participants is modest to start, but both groups expect it will grow. Next year proves challenging for Jewish volunteers because Christmas falls on a Saturday, the Jewish Sabbath.
Details have yet to be worked out, though Cohen and others are considering moving Mitzvah Day. That would give Muslims the opportunity to try a solo run on Christmas, join Jewish groups on another day, or both.
Both Mr. Begg and Mitzvah Day organizers explained that next year it will be impossible for the Jewish organizations to do Mitzvah Day on Christmas Day because it falls on their Sabbath, Saturday, therefore 2010 might be an opportunity for CIOM and area mosques to do a similar event on their own.
The Muslim volunteers this year came mainly from two mosques, the Islamic Center of America, whose Eide Alawan has for decades been involved in community and interfaith outreach work, and Cantonâ€™s MCWS mosque, from which about 20 volunteers came.
â€œThe bottom line is we really want to do it together,â€ Begg said.