LONDON — Knitting needles, blood and bras have, on the face of it, nothing in common. But this year’s Mitzvah Day, an annual Jewish-led day of social action, embraced all of these elements and more. And this year, a record 40,000 people took part.
Now in its 10th year, Mitzvah Day has spread from a small enterprise with 100 volunteers to a national and even international event, with participants this November 22 from Australia, Germany, Poland, Spain, Switzerland and even Ghana, all running projects which have the same aim – to strengthen local communities, help a variety of charities and good causes.
Kitchen utensils were flashing in earnest at London’s Edgware Synagogue in an interfaith cooking project led by Britain’s Chief Rabbi Ephraim Mirvis, and the assistant secretary general of the Muslim Council of Britain, Sheikh Ibrahim Mogra. Both men are accomplished cooks and Sheikh Mogra, with four sons at home, would normally have been performing his “duty” – Sunday lunch. But both he and the chief rabbi were soon slicing and dicing with a raft of Jewish and Muslim volunteers, as the cooks labored to produce a three-course meal – conforming to both kashrut and halal standards – destined for homeless people at the local authority Barnet Winter Shelter.
The rabbi and the imam were joined by Liverpool MP Luciana Berger, a former director of Labour Friends of Israel, and one of a number of parliamentarians who took time out to take part in the projects. The former communities minister MP Sadiq Khan was one: now running for Mayor of London next May, Khan took part in three Mitzvah Day projects – packing parcels for older people at Belsize Square Synagogue, cooking lunch for local residents alongside members of West London Synagogue and St. Paul’s Church, and collecting goods in Oxford Street for the shelter at King’s Cross Methodist Church.
In keeping with the interfaith theme, Conservative peer and Department for Communities and Local Government Minister, Baroness Williams, cooked with the Labour MP Tulip Siddiq and a team of Muslim and Jewish women in JW3, with all the food going to a local homeless shelter.
Now the knitting: in Leeds, Sinai Synagogue held a knitathon for refugees, and collection of toys and books for women and children at a local refuge. This was named as Mitzvah Day’s Biggest Impact Project.
Among the record 550 projects was an imaginative event at Manchester’s Yeshurun Synagogue which collected bras to go to Third World countries, where there is a bra shortage. What you might call being supportive.
And in Israel, in a joint project with Magen David Adom, British teens took part in a blood drive. Because of fears about mad cow disease, blood has not been accepted from Britons in Israel since 1997. But together with the UK Ambassador to Israel, David Quarrey, British, South African and Australian students donated blood, making the event the first Commonwealth Mitzvah Day. Blood was given, too, at York University, where Jewish and Muslim students donated blood side-by-side.
Mirvis spent his Sunday giving support and encouragement to Mitzvah Day projects at five different synagogues, and told The Times of Israel of his genuine delight at the “phenomenon” which Mitzvah Day has become. He said he was particularly pleased at the number of interfaith projects and felt it was “a great opportunity” for the different communities to meet each other.
Chair Laura Marks, who founded Mitzvah Day in the UK and has been honored by the Queen for her work, said, “The opportunities to engage both with charities which need us, and also with people who we, as Jews, don’t normally engage with are endless.
“This year I was particularly impressed with the number of interfaith projects, particularly with Muslims, showing that fundamentally we are all citizens of the world with shared values and a burning desire to bring harmony, friendship and active giving to our local communities.”
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