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Mitzvah Day volunteers find ways to help others

James David Dickson
The Detroit News

Detroit —Mitzvah Day, the single largest day of Jewish volunteering, launched decades ago as a way to let Christians enjoy Christmas while local volunteering needs are met.

Sunday was no different, with roughly 1,300 volunteers, including Muslims and others, mobilized to hit at least 50 sites for social service activities that ranged from meal service to sorting books that will be distributed later to stripping down weather-worn bikes that will help Detroiters navigate the city cheaply and safely.

Mitzvah Day is sponsored by the Jewish Community Relations Council/AJC; the Michigan Muslim Community Council also coordinates volunteers.

David Kurzmann, executive director of the Jewish Community Relations Council, which organizes the day of volunteering, said Mitzvah Day is the largest day of volunteering in the local Jewish community.

“We are enabling Christian employees, and Christian volunteers who are regulars, to take time to be with their families, be with friends,” Kurzmann said. “Our schedules are a little lighter today.”

Organizers say the goal always has been to volunteer so Christians can celebrate Christmas, but note that it’s important to unite in service amid increasing hate crimes and racist incidents.

The Southern Poverty Law Center and the Anti-Defamation League, which monitors white extremist organizations, has tracked an increase in reports of racist incidents since the election, and FBI statistics released last month show reported hate crimes against Muslims rose to their highest number since the aftermath of the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks.

“When we (invited) Muslims to partner with us, we didn’t look at it as anything more than, ‘We’re not doing anything on Christmas, you’re not doing anything on Christmas,’” Mitzvah Day co-chair Micki Grossman said. “With all the hateful talk and discrimination — whether it’s blacks, Muslims, Jews, immigrants from anywhere in the world — we have to show it doesn’t matter. Come and let’s live and work together.”

The Muslim council now brands the event Ihsan Day after several years of going by the more prosaic Muslim Volunteer Day. Ihsan means “excellence” in Arabic and refers to putting faith into action. It also aligns with “Mitzvah.”

“During this time more than ever we need to stand united — show people can work together regardless of race of background,” said Muslim council spokeswoman Sumaiya Ahmed Sheikh.

This year Mitzvah Day falls on the second of eight days of Hanukkah. That the holidays coincide didn’t stop a dozen volunteers at Back Alley Bikes on Cass Avenue from wondering how they could help.

The bottom floor of the shop is a for-profit bike-seller called the “Hub of Detroit.” Up top, at Back Alley Bikes, donors can drop off old bikes, cycling enthusiasts can learn bicycle repair and youth volunteers who are willing to put the work in can wheel away on a refurbished bike of their own with a limit of one per year.

The bikes stripped on Sunday were volunteered by the University of Michigan — old bikes left behind and locked up on campus before being cut away and sent to Detroit, where volunteers were tasked with saving anything salvageable.

A painted area above the door to the shop refers to bikes as “a tool of transportation and liberation.” They are not the preferred mode of travel in a city that prides itself for putting the world on wheels, but unlike cars, anyone of most any age can ride a bike.

The bicycles are free for children 10 and under; for older kids must repair a bike to get it for free.

This was a different type of volunteer experience than someone might expect on Christmas, different from the Meals on Wheels assistance volunteers at other sites provided in southwest Detroit, delivering gifts or a dinner for veterans at Piquette Square in Detroit.

Sarah Abunada, of West Bloomfield, carries a donated bicycle that will be disassembled at Back Alley Bikes in Detroit on Sunday.

For Alan Erlick, 24, of Farmington Hills, volunteering at Back Alley Bikes was a perfect fit.

“This was the best place I felt I could help out at,” said the carpenter. He heard about the opportunity through the Jewish Federation of Metro Detroit, one of the many groups that funnels its volunteers into Mitzvah Day. Had he not been volunteering or at work on a normal Sunday, he’d be “doing nothing, sitting at home.”

Zachariah Wahid, co-instructor for the volunteers along with Meg Marrone, encouraged Metro Detroiters to ride a bike to try cycling.

“If you have a bike that fits you, getting around Detroit is a cinch,” Wahid said. “A lot of people underestimate their capability on a bike.”

The Associated Press contributed to this report.