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Mitzvah Day 2018 aims to 'focus on the common good'

Mark Hicks
The Detroit News
From left, Aadam Ahmed, 12, Matt Bailey, Issa Saadiq (cq), 13, Bilal Kawsara, 21, and Safwan Ahmed, 16, all of Detroit, serve juices and coffee. Muslim volunteers organized by the Michigan Muslim Community Council serve food and drink at the NSO Tumaini Center in Detroit on Dec. 23, 2018.  
(Robin Buckson / The Detroit News)

It’s a Christmas tradition as welcome as fresh snow: hundreds of volunteers, both Muslim and Jewish, flocking to area nonprofits and social service groups to brighten the holiday for those in need.

Mitzvah Day is set to draw nearly 1,000 participants to about 40 sites across southeast Michigan this year. And to many who join each Dec. 25, the interfaith initiative has become the best way to not only give back but embrace a bond that has yielded another kind of gift. 

“It’s just a beautiful experience,” said event co-chair Illana Stern, a board member with the Jewish Community Relations Council/AJC. “This is a day to focus on the common goals: just being good people.”

With help from the Michigan Muslim Community Council, her group and the Jewish Federation of Metropolitan Detroit present the daylong effort founded in 1996 and named after a Hebrew term that also commonly refers to performing a good deed. 

From left, Mahjaein Manik, 17, and Malaikan Saadiq, 16, both of Detroit, give food to fellow volunteer Siham Azom, 15, to serve at the NSO Tumaini Center. Muslim volunteers organized by the Michigan Muslim Community Council serve food and drink at the NSO Tumaini Center in Detroit on Sunday.

Volunteers had several weeks to pre-register for a specific site, such as Detroit’s John D. Dingell VA Medical Center or Sanctum House in Royal Oak, which helps survivors of human trafficking. Activities include meal and toy delivery, visiting seniors and cleaning out storage closets.

Coordinators consider the program the single largest day of volunteering by Metro Detroit’s Jewish community.

“It’s truly special to see returning and new individuals, groups and multi-generational families come together to perform meaningful acts on Christmas Day,” said David Kurzmann, executive director of the JCRC/AJC.  “This year, giving to others will take on a special meaning to many of our volunteers, given recent events. Members of our community are eager to reciprocate the good deeds we experienced following the Tree of Life Synagogue shooting in Pittsburgh.”

Among this year’s Jewish participants is Jennifer LoPatin of West Bloomfield Township, who has long served with her husband, Mark. The pair had spent years volunteering and inspiring their three adult children to pursue charitable causes. On Tuesday, the plan to help out at the Pope Francis Center in downtown Detroit.

“Having the privilege to give back is really important,” she said. “You never know when it could be you.”

That has motivated regional Muslims, who link the event to their “Days of Ihsan” initiative. Named after a word meaning excellence and believed to be the highest level of faith Muslims can attain, it involves numerous volunteer opportunities across southeast Michigan between Thanksgiving and year’s end.

“People really want to do something positive, so there’s been no shortage of volunteers,” said Muzammil Ahmed, a Michigan Muslim Community Council member and Mitzvah Day coordinator.

The support also coincides with a need to dispel the current sociopolitical climate, he added. “This was a very tough year because we had the tragedy of the Jewish community being attacked in Pittsburgh and the ongoing problems that Muslims face with bullying and Islamophobia. This is a good opportunity to focus on the positive and what we can do to help the community. …Helping with our friends of other faiths is something that builds our sense of togetherness and we hope will break down some of the dangerous rhetoric.”

It’s also about lifting spirits. Nina Brahmbhatt, a Wayne State University student from Canton Township, plans to help deliver presents with her brother, parents, and friends through Jimmy’s Kids.

“My favorite part is seeing the reaction of everyone. The kids are so excited,” the 21-year-old said. “It’s just a special moment to share with them. …The simplest action can have a profound impact.”

That idea is not lost on Nadia Khan, 18, a college student from Rochester Hills who plans to join the same site.

“It’s my duty to help those around me,” she said. “The essence of giving isn’t confined to one faith. It’s something all of humanity can do. As a people we can come together for a greater good.”