Building bridges, showing unity

Service projects are underway at United Hebrew Congregation during the sixth annual Jewish-Muslim Day of Service on Dec. 25. United Hebrew was one of 25 volunteer service sites. Photo courtesy UH

By David Baugher, Special to the Jewish Light

A very foggy Christmas Day didn’t deter participants in the annual Jewish-Muslim Day of Community Service as both communities marked the sixth year of the event.

“I think people really feel a need in these challenging times to show support from the Muslim community and the Jewish community and talk about why it is so important we do charity together,” said Gail Wechsler, director of domestic issues for the Jewish Community Relations Council, one of the initiative’s organizers.

In fact, this year’s effort attracted an all-time high of 900 volunteers to 25 sites spread across the St. Louis area from nursing homes to emergency shelters for youth. Multiple collaborative efforts were focused at the Jewish Community Center in Creve Coeur, United Hebrew and the Daar-Ul-Islam Mosque in West County. The mosque hosted a breakfast event for volunteers before they departed for their community service sites. 

 “Volunteers — Jews and Muslims — have a chance sometimes to meet each other for the first time,” said Roberta Gutwein, who headed up the morning meal, which she said attracted about 200 to 250 people.

 “It is just about working with different people and doing something good on a day where hopefully everyone is thinking of doing something good for someone else,” said Muslim participant Lamice El-Kholy, who went on to do her volunteer efforts at United Hebrew.

Political sentiments were more pronounced than usual for both participants and organizers in the wake of the recent presidential election. Dr. Bahar Bastani of Dar al-Zahra Mosque warned of “social and political uncertainties,” telling participants that he felt bigotry was on the rise.

“Each group of us alone is a small and weak minority but together we make a strong majority of all minorities,” he told the assembled volunteers during opening remarks at the mosque. “Injustice to any group and to any minority should be considered injustice to all of us and we should all react to it. Silence is not accepted.”

Rabbi Jonah Zinn of Congregation Shaare Emeth noted that while the world’s problems would not be solved by one day of service, that Jews and Muslims still could send a powerful message.

“[Hanukkah] is a powerful symbol for us all about the potential to bring light to the world, to take a place of darkness and illuminate it through our presence and our actions and our love and through our generosity,” he said.

Kol Rinah congregant Golda Cohen said she’s been involved with the day of service for four years now but this time her two adult children and husband David were joining her.

David said that the present climate in the nation was the motivating factor for him.

“I think it is important this year, more than probably any other year, that we show solidarity and community involvement with other minorities, other religions, other cultures,” he said. 

His daughter Rebecca said she thought the idea should be replicated as a model.

“I think the whole premise of this day is just really incredible,” said the 21-year-old. “A lot of other cities could look to St. Louis to do something like this.”

Anum Sameer manned a table piled with boxes of baked goods for first responders working on the holiday.

“They are there on Christmas Day for us, so I think we should also give back to the community,” said the Ladue Horton Watkins High School senior. 

Fellow Muslim Azra Ahmad said she always participates in the day of service unless she is out of town.

“I think our interfaith community is very strong and at this time and age where we are seeing so much racism come out of the closet we are able to maintain a certain level of civility,” she added. “What I really respect is our Jewish friends  — especially in St. Louis — always have our backs whenever something happens in the world.”

Recipients of the goodwill seemed appreciative of the morning’s efforts. As mother-daughter team Marti and Hannah Maurer dropped off cookies at the Creve Coeur fire station on Olive Boulevard, firefighter/paramedics Bob Smitt and Scot Heller were pleased to receive them.

“It is difficult to be away from family but you also understand this is what we do,” said Heller. “We’re here to help the community and that’s our job. We love it.”

A few blocks away at the Jewish Community Center, dozens of youngsters and adults were busying themselves with the “Little Projects, Little Hands” initiative designed to include children in service projects including everything from decorating lunch bags for the Gateway 180 homelessness organization to writing welcome letters for new immigrants at the International Institute. It was partnering with organizers for an afternoon event at the institute’s facility.

Isabel Erdmann, 12, was working with beads and brightly hued cords to make “fidget bracelets” for Walnut Grove Elementary students in Ferguson.

“It makes me feel thankful that we can help people who are in need and how lucky we are to get a chance to do this,” she added.

At another table, 18-year-old Mehreem Shafqat was helping with a project to make blankets for chemotherapy patients. She said she liked being able to celebrate the Christmas holiday in a non-religious way and has been a part of the day of service for three or four years.

“Going to the policemen and firefighters one year was kind of touching because a couple of the firefighters in particular commented on how nice it was that we as Muslims were doing something for first responders,” she recalled. “I think it can help change the public perception of Muslims a little bit.”

At Central Reform Congregation, Imam Eldin Susa was a newcomer to the day of service. A member of the Bosnian Muslim community, he is part of the St. Louis Islamic Center Nur in South County. He thinks Bosnians might become a bigger part of future events.

“Every gathering in which we show we are all united is great,” he said.