Holiday brings Muslims, Jews Together to Volunteer

By Niraj Warikoo for The Detroit Free Press

Detroit, Michigan– For the past 20 years, hundreds of local Jews have volunteered on Christmas to help needy people on a day when many Christians are busy celebrating the holiday.

But because Dec. 25 falls on a Saturday this year — a day of rest for observant Jews — the Muslim community will be filling in on Christmas, helping at soup kitchens, senior citizen homes and in impoverished neighborhoods.

The Council of Islamic Organizations of Michigan hopes to get 400 volunteers.

The Jewish community will move its volunteer efforts to today, Christmas Eve, as part of Mitzvah Month, which refers to good deeds. Last year, the Jewish community invited the Muslim community to help out on Christmas for the first time. That partnership continues this year, with some Muslims helping on Christmas Eve, too.

“The more contact we have, the more understanding,” said Freya Weberman, 51, of Huntington Woods, who will be delivering toys in Detroit today with the Jewish Community Relations Council of Metro Detroit. “There is fear of the unknown. By bringing people together and having shared experiences, we see our commonalities.”

When Micki Grossman of Farmington Hills read journalist Helen Thomas’ comments about Zionists earlier this month, the Jewish woman was hurt. “It caused a lot of pain for me,” she said.

“I also wish that we could have had more of our Muslim friends stand up and say, ‘This was not appropriate.’ ”

But some Muslims and Arab Americans were upset that Jewish leaders pressured Wayne State University to remove an award in her name.

At the annual banquet this month of the local chapter of the American-Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee, people wore buttons reading “Defender of Thomas,” said regional director Imad Hamad.

“You can’t punish someone for the right of freedom of expression,” Hamad said, referring to Thomas, who is of Lebanese descent.

Despite the differences of opinion, about 200 Jewish volunteers — along with 40 Muslim ones — will work together today to help serve poor people across metro Detroit.

Grossman will be among them, glad to help people in need while bringing two communities together.

Gigi Salka, 41, a Muslim from Bloomfield Township whose children attend bar mitzvahs, also will be volunteering — one of dozens of Muslims helping on Christmas.

It is one way in which local Jews and Muslims are trying to build ties despite their differences on politics and foreign affairs. Last month, a health fair run by Jews and Muslims was held in a Detroit mosque. And Muslim leaders spoke earlier this year before the board of the Jewish Community Relations Council of Metro Detroit.

The council organizes the event, which is usually held Christmas Day, but this year that is on the Jewish Sabbath, a day of rest for observant Jews.

Last year, the Jewish community invited Muslims to help them volunteer on Christmas. The partnership was a historic first, with about 60 Muslims helping 900 Jewish volunteers. This year, up to 400 Muslims led by the Council of Islamic Organizations of Michigan will take the lead on Christmas.

“We have many similarities,” Grossman said. “Let’s look for the sameness rather than the differences.”

Such partnerships are playing out across metro Detroit.

Victor Begg of Bloomfield Hills, a co-founder of the Islamic council who is helping to lead the volunteer effort with Muslims this week, said they “are part of an ongoing effort by our communities to bridge the gap.” He had no comment on the Thomas controversy.

Hamad said he was upset over the Jewish community’s pressure on WSU to drop the award in Thomas’ name, but he maintains contact with Jewish leaders such as Betsy Kellman, head of the Michigan branch of the Anti-Defamation League, a civil rights group.

“We are Americans first,” Hamad said. “We should not see ourselves as an extension of the external conflict abroad.”

Ismael Ahmed, a longtime Arab-American leader who is the director of the state Department of Human Services, spoke to the board of the Jewish council this month about poverty issues.

“The Jewish and Arab communities have a huge amount in common — a sense of family, a sense of community,” Ahmed said. “But we have different views on the Middle East.” At the same time, “I think that isn’t a major divide” because “we’re very much alike.”

Salka will be volunteering on Christmas because it is important to give back, she said. To her, interacting and forging ties with people of various backgrounds is part of her everyday life.

“My friends are from all different faith traditions,” Salka said. It’s on an individual level, “how you change hearts and minds, the personal connections.”

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