Jewish-Muslim day of service helps heal community after ‘rough year’

Jewish and Muslim volunteers lend a hand at the Harvey Kornblum Jewish Food Pantry — one of more than 20 volunteer sites organized for the day of service.  

By David Baugher, Special to the Jewish Light

This year’s Jewish and Muslim Day of Community Service may have been more necessary than ever after a “rough year” for the St. Louis area, says Gail Wechsler, director of domestic issues and social justice at the Jewish Community Relations Council (JCRC).

“We think it is important for people to come together across lines, different religions, different races, all ages and interests, to help others in need,” Wechsler said.  “We’ve been through a lot, and this is an event that really brings people together and is more about what we have in common than what divides us. We all work side-by-side to help people in need today.”

That’s been the idea behind the Christmas Day event over its four-year existence. Sponsored by the JCRC’s Milford and Lee Bohm Social Justice Center and the Islamic Foundation of St. Louis, the gathering attracts hundreds of people from both faiths and others to mark Christianity’s biggest day with acts of community service. Organizers estimate that more than 700 people participated this year in almost two dozen activities, from sorting food pantry donations to passing out holiday presents in nursing homes.

“This is an important event for both communities to get together and bring out a common bond, share our best religious and community-related activities,” said Tony Mughal, a Muslim co-chair of the event. “This allows us to meet each other and do good in a common cause.”

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Karen Silverman, a co-chair of the event, said she was doing volunteer work on Christmas even before the event began in 2011.

“Personally, I like the opportunity that it gives my own kids, so that they can see that since we’re not doing anything at Christmastime anyway, why not help out others who are in need?” the Shaare Emeth congregant said. “I want to be a really good role model for my kids because I would love for them to carry on the traditions that myself and my parents have. I think my kids really enjoy it, too.”

Silverman said it’s also a good way to get to know other people and discover shared values.

“We were just talking the other day about how you hear so much negative on TV about all of the violence and opposition that’s going on between various groups,” she said. “It is just so nice to have something positive going on.”

Jewish and Muslim Day this year was held in the shadow of racial tensions and demonstrations that erupted after the August shooting of an unarmed black teenager in Ferguson by a white police officer. Just two days before the day of service, police in nearby Berkeley fatally shot a young black man who, police say, pointed a gun at them, sparking more violence.

Volunteer Arlene Ernst, 63, of Ballwin, said she hoped the day of service might help build bridges and remove fear that some groups feel toward others.

That’s why I think it is important,” she said. “I think it is the beginning of healing our community.”

During a bagel breakfast at West County’s Daar Ul Islam Mosque, kicking off the day of service, Muslim volunteer and local interfaith leader Dr. Ghazala Hayat spoke about violence in the Mideast, where the murder of three Jewish teenagers and Israeli military action in Gaza had inflamed tensions.

“The issues will always be there, critical issues, sometimes religious issues will arise,” said Hayat, who enjoyed visiting nursing homes during the day of service. “But the bottom line is that both faiths believe in serving the community, and that’s a big uniting factor. The other issues we can discuss separately.”

Out in the field, some of the volunteers mused about the situation in Ferguson.

“I think by and large most everybody wants peace,” said Golda Cohen, 52, as she delivered baked goods to emergency services personnel at a Dorsett Road firehouse. “They want justice, and violence is never going to solve a single thing.”

Cohen said performing one mitzvah can lead to others. Her daughter Rebecca, 19, agreed.

“Maybe this can pick up and spread throughout the whole community and be something that brings everything together and does end the violence,” she said.

Seventeen miles east at Central Reform Congregation, dozens of volunteers assembled packets of toiletry products for families at the Ronald McDonald House. Rabbi Susan Talve expressed hope that the day of service would break down walls and represent a step in erasing disparities in education, housing and resources.

“Symbolically, a program like this that lifts people out of poverty is what we need,” Talve said. “It gives people a level playing field. It gives people the basics that allow people to have dignity. Then they can have a better opportunity to be productive members of the community.”

Back at the mosque, Jewish co-chair Jerry Hochsztein said that he felt that the day of service could reduce tensions.

“That’s one of the reasons why we do this,” he said. “In light of a year of conflict both locally and internationally, we do this because we know that we have common interests to help others. Both religions have traditions of helping people.”