Christmas volunteer effort ‘about helping each other’

Mark Hicks
The Detroit News

Maha Khan cannot recall the last time she stayed at home on Christmas Day.

As a Muslim, the 16-year-old from West Bloomfield Township typically doesn’t observe the holiday. Instead, she and relatives have often sought volunteer opportunities on Dec. 25, which dovetails with a pillar of Islam: charity and bettering the community.

This year is no different. On Friday, the International Academy student joins classmates — some Jewish — to participate in Mitzvah Day. Considered the single largest volunteer effort for Metro Detroit Jews, the longstanding initiative annually draws hundreds of helpers to partake in social service projects across the region normally performed by those who celebrate Christmas.

“They can take a break while we’re still helping them out, as well,” Khan said. “It’s a day off for the Christians, and they’re spending time with their families, so why can’t people of different religions help out on that day?”

Generosity and fruitfulness drive Mitzvah Day, which the Jewish Community Relations Council and Jewish Federation of Metropolitan Detroit present.

More than 850 volunteers are expected to descend on about 45 community sites, pursuing “mitzvahs” — which in Hebrew refers to good deeds and a commandment — such as unpacking and sorting items to benefit literacy projects, delivering Meals on Wheels and presenting gifts to struggling families.

The tradition has drawn Jewish regulars for more than 20 years. But after a chance connection between like-minded community leaders, Muslims have officially been involved since 2009, said Micki Grossman, a Jewish council board member and Mitzvah Day co-chair.

Such a link seems natural since both faiths emphasize charitable acts and helping others, she said. “It’s been a good working partnership because we have found out that they feel the same way we do: ‘You’re supposed to be doing this.’ ”

About 200 Muslims were expected to join this year’s effort, more than double the number who did so in 2014, said Sumaiya Ahmed, the Michigan Muslim Community Council communications director chairing its volunteer coordination.

Although “performing acts of service is a key part of our faith and we do it throughout the year in many different ways,” she said, the 2015 Mitzvah Day contribution might have greater significance because of the criticism surrounding Muslims after the recent terrorist attacks in Paris and San Bernardino, California.

Still, Ahmed and others are eager to help out for the gains.

“This day is just about helping each other and making sure everyone has a wonderful holiday,” she said. “Working together with different faith-based communities like the Jewish community just makes us stronger. It gives us a better understanding of each other, and it represents the Islamic tradition of working together. So, with that, together we can combat bigotry and send a message of unity to the world.”

That’s why Maisha Rahman, 21, a Wayne State University student from Troy, plans to help deliver Meals on Wheels and assist at a church warming center Friday.

“I know that this day is meaningful for many other people and just to be able to help them celebrate in the best way possible — it gives me a sense of comfort and solidarity with them,” she said. “I feel like even though it’s not a holiday I’m celebrating, for me to be able to make it more special for someone else that is, I think it’s much better than me spending a day at home.”

Mitzvah Day often attracts repeat participants. For several years, Pearlena Bodzin of West Bloomfield Township has spent part of Christmas Day visiting a Jewish-run senior residence in her city.

Assisting tenants during bingo games and connecting with them “just makes me feel so good,” she said. “If you can make one resident’s day a little happier, put a little smile on a face or connect with somebody in some way, that’s the best gift of all. You can’t buy that.”

William Antoun, who attends the Islamic Organization of North America mosque in Warren, intends to spend hours Friday helping serve meals to South Oakland Shelter guests hosted at Oak Park’s Congregation Beth Shalom. His fellow mosque members have already bonded with the synagogue attendees, he said, and Mitzvah Day further unites them.

“By getting together with these things, we really help to dispel misconceptions on both ends and we get to help those who are the downtrodden and in need, which is a good feeling,” Antoun said. “There’s nothing better than helping people on Christmas, even though it’s not our holiday.”

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