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 defusing 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.
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.
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."
Cohen said the local bonds are important given global animosities.