If you were on the streets of Britain on Sunday 16 November you may well have seen people in green t-shirts with balloons and flags bustling around together, covered in mud, flour, paint or carrying guitars. At Brent Cross Tesco, that mecca of Jewish life, members of Hendon Reform Synagogue, Hendon Mosque and Jesus House together collected food from shoppers for their local food bank. Maidenhead Synagogue invited the Islamic Society of Britain branch in Slough to join all of their Mitzvah Day projects. An ongoing relationship for three years, volunteers from both communities prepared food for a local soup kitchen, cleared leaves from the local area, planted a garden in a nearby care home and made challah cloths to be sent to Eastern Europe.
Fifty-four such community building, multi-faith partnerships this year — this was Mitzvah Day, a Jewish-led national day of social action where thousands of all faiths and backgrounds came together to help local charities with hands-on projects including taking food to those who are hungry and homeless or visiting people who are lonely or isolated. In Israel, Mitzvah Day enabled British gap year students to visit Israeli charities, learning about their work and hopefully as an important by-product, deepening their relationship with Israel over the year. Encouraged by HE British Ambassador Gould young adults from Bnei Akiva Lehava helped prepare and serve food at a Meir Panim soup kitchen whilst youth movements FZY and Netzer helped out at Wizo’s day centre.
Mitzvah Day’s purpose is to galvanize and inspire people to give their time, fully engaging with the currency of giving. Over 500 communities ran well over 1500 projects in the UK, Australia, Germany, the US and in 15 other countries world-wide including Israel.
2008 Mitzvah Day has grown exponentially partly as a manageable way into social action, partly as it is so collective and engaging but also, crucially, as it brings people together who have not otherwise found ways to bridge a divide.
The shock waves from the current violence in Israel are felt deeply by British Jews. And there is work to be done, rebuilding bridges and looking to the future. Whilst we can, and must do what we can for people affected directly by the conflict, and call for renewed peace efforts to our governments, and mourn for the tragic loss of life and weep with the families, actually, I believe that where we can be most effective is here, on the ground, in our own towns, neighbourhoods and on our streets. Creating and nurturing our local relationships, particularly with our Muslim neighbours, is a high priority and it is an area where Mitzvah Day has proved to be highly effective. This year 17 of our interfaith projects were solely between Jews and Muslims and the Synagogues involved represented all religious denominations.
The Muslim population of the UK, according to the latest census has doubled since 2001 to around 1.5 million. The vast majority have little exposure to Jews as they are living in their own communities whilst our tightly knit Jewish community of under 270,000 has little exposure to them. For many Muslims have become, the Other although they share our streets, our shops, our schools and our neighbourhoods. This is an area where we can do something active even though it’s not easy to build friendship and trust between Jews and Muslims particularly in the current climate both conceptually and practically.
Mitzvah Day’s real grass-roots approach offers a route in, finding individuals within communities who have the inclination, confidence and influence within their own communities (often, middle-aged ‘machers’ like me!) to bring us all along. And social action hands-on projects such as painting a room in a refuge and planting daffodil bulbs in the garden of a hospice, provide the shared context to meet, share ideas and of course eat, knowing that we are doing essential, meaningful work for a local charity.
Mitzvah Day’s Jewish roots are well-defined and cherished but to grow long-term relationships with our Muslim neighbours we need to be open-minded to learn about their traditions too, both old and indeed new.
A new initiative, the Big Iftar which ran through Ramadan, introduced community Iftars (the meal served daily at the end of fasting) where Muslims invited people of other faiths (and none) to share a meal, talk, and engage with one another. Two of these ‘Kosher Iftars’ were held at Synagogues and the dinner hosted at Alyth was one of the most meaningful inter faith events I’ve attended, bringing together Jews and Muslims both eager to establish that we have a responsibility to our communities and to stand together even in times which will inevitably tear us apart.
Social action, doing things together for others, is a powerful adhesive. It can create a platform for cohesion, for shared action and then discussion, debated and possibly even understanding. We have a long way to go but then again, who said anything important was ever easy?