Berman: Unlikely friends form bond for Christmas effort

Laura Berman
The Detroit News

This unlikely Christmas story features a 73-year-old Jew, a Muslim physician and a 26-foot-long semi-trailer filled with toys.

Jim Tuman, the Jewish guy, is an advocate for children, a motivational speaker whose answering machine message is a reminder of what matters in the end: “the quality of the relationships we’ve formed with those we love.” He was born in New York City.

Dr. Muzammil Ahmed is a 40-something urologist who chairs the Michigan Muslim Community Council. He’s lived in Michigan since he was 10, by way of England and India.

And the semi-trailer, filled with packages of toys for children and marked with names, ages and addresses of Detroit families, parks at St. Stephen Lutheran Church at 9 a.m. Christmas day, awaiting hundreds of volunteers, most from the Jewish Federation of Metropolitan Detroit and the Michigan Muslim Community Council.

“I saw in him a sense of hope for the planet. In our time of history, hope is at a premium,” says Tuman, the founder of Jimmy’s Kids, the charity that will give toys to 25,000 children today.

“At 73, my hourglass is coming down but I see him as a young visionary who can lead.”

“Jim Tuman is a great friend, a mentor, and a source of inspiration to me,” says Ahmed. “He’s always giving me ideas and suggestions for acts of kindness.”

One of those ideas turned out to be involving the Muslim community in “Mitzvah Day,” a longstanding Jewish Federation volunteer event on Christmas, enabling Christians to be at home with their families. (Mitzvah is a Hebrew word that means good deed.)

The two men met seven years ago, not long after Tuman was honored as a Michiganian of the Year. Their connection was Victor Begg, another Michiganian alum and founder of the group now known as the Michigan Muslim Community Council.

The first year Ahmed met Tuman and volunteered for Mitzvah Day with Jimmy’s Kids, Tuman was in the hospital. “He was in terrible shape, with pneumonia and all kinds of problems.” But the charity founder couldn’t bear to be away from the event. “He said, ‘Guys, I know you can do this but I have to be there. He signed himself out of the hospital.’”

Ahmed pushed for his group to sign on as partners with the Jewish group, he says, because he saw value in working with what was already a substantial, organized Christmas outreach. Despite 2014 being a terrible year for the peace process in the Middle East, Ahmed says the Mitzvah Day effort is gaining volunteers among Muslims.

“We have to do more to show people that Muslims are good community members,” says Ahmed. “Every time some horrible, extremist thing happens, Jimmy calls me up and says, ‘Muz, are you OK? I heard what happened. You’ve just got to get out there and show people the other side.’

“He always goes out of his way to look after the Muslim community.”

The men get together for dinner or telephone calls. Ahmed says that Tuman doesn’t text and tends to live life on a face-to-face basis. “He’s worth making time for,” he says.

The Mitzvah Day volunteers at the St. Stephens parking lot today are one part of an effort that includes 1,000 volunteers.

At 73, Tuman sees a shortening timeline and a need for people like Muzammil Ahmed. “He’s the kind of person who gives me hope. We have a relationship that’s growing.”

Their friendship, cemented every Christmas Day, is about a common passion: Striving to improve the world, one kindness at a time.