DETROIT – Many Jews consider Christmas Day an opportunity to serve their community while Christian neighbors celebrate their holiday. This year, what's also known as Mitzvah Day in southeast Michigan is getting an added boost from Muslims.
For the first time, about 40 Muslims are expected to join 900 Jews for what they call their largest annual day of volunteering. Leaders say it's a small but significant step in diffusing tensions and promoting good will between the religions — 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 "commandment" in Hebrew and is generally 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 — 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 Islamic council, said he was seeking a public way for the two faith communities to "build bridges of understanding and cooperation," which led to joining the Mitzvah Day effort.
"The general public is what we need to give the message to, our entire community," 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 "tzedakah." In Islam, it's called "zakat."
"It's an interesting parallel," said Robert Cohen, executive director of the Jewish Community Relations Council. "Both of our faiths predispose us to engaging in this sort of thing."
Muslim and Jewish volunteers will work together at the Gleaners Community Food Bank in Pontiac, about 25 miles north of Detroit.
"We 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 you're moving the boxes," Cohen said. "The grass-roots connection builds relationships on a personal level."
Cohen said the local bonds are important given global animosities. He said Muslims and Jews here "have serious differences about what happens in the Middle East," but that shouldn'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.
"Whatever happens in the Middle East, we have no control over it," Begg said. "But here, our kids go to the same school, we work together. ... We need to focus on building an inclusive community."
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.
"The bottom line is we really want to do it together," Begg said.