By Laura Marks, founder of Mitzvah day
If you had stepped inside the JW3 demo kitchen this past summer, you would have found a group of chatty, laughing people chopping carrots and stirring rich tomato sauce preparing, ostensibly, a communal meal.
In fact, these groups of Jews, Muslims, Christians and others had come together to cook a meal to deliver to a homeless shelter, but equally to meet, to share anecdotes, to learn about each others customs and recipes and, crucially, to break down barriers in our local neighbourhoods.
Mitzvah Day’s Inter Faith Cooking for the Homeless has been a most resounding success as an example of grassroots social action, bringing people of different backgrounds together to participate in hands-on projects that serve the community, but also encourage and develop real, meaningful human relationships. We can define ‘interfaith’ as engagement with people from a diverse range of traditions; religious, non-religious, spiritual and even philosophical with a view to bringing about closer, safer, more inclusive and tolerant societies where we can all live and thrive.
As Kofi Annan stated: “We may have different religions, different languages, different coloured skin, but we all belong to one human race.”
The need for interfaith connections has never been clearer. Following on from a traumatic summer of conflict in Gaza, the growth of Isis, Trojan Horse, renewed levels of anti-Semitism, anti-Muslim hatred and the rise of UKIP, we applaud the launch of the Jewish News’ interfaith channel.
There is work to be done here, on British streets, in our towns, villages, our schools and institutions.While dialogue between powerful, influential faith leaders is essential, it doesn’t directly grow healthy local neighbourhoods.
Interfaith social action on a grassroots level fosters understanding, respect and love between peoples who are different and is all about co-operation and common action for the common good through advancing shared core values.
It’s all about the long-term investment and has been proven to transform local community relations, especially in the multicultural world that is now the UK.
Hendon Reform Synagogue has built a year-round relationship with the Hendon Mosque and Jesus House based on a mutual emphasis on local community issues.
Together, members collect food outside Tesco, delivering it to Colindale Food Bank and through this focus on others, they have, under the diligent stewardship of their volunteer, Valerie Boyd, and their faith leaders, begun to exchange ideas, aspirations, fears and dreams for the future together. Interfaith isn’t about people trying to be the same, it’s about respecting difference.
On Mitzvah Day last year Orthodox Jewish, Muslim and Catholic Sixth Form girls came together at Spitalfields City Farm in East London. The girls ate lunch together chatting with remarkable ease, listened together and then, significantly, dug, swept, planted, watered and sweated together to begin a process of bringing about positive change. These young women saw the similarities in their lives and also began to explore some of the differences.
Working together, on an equal basis, is a key part of interfaith social action. We say Mitzvah Day is ‘democratising’. Our projects are for volunteers, not experts (this is not pro bono week) and we are all equally welcome. Similarly, we all have different amounts of money to donate, but no matter how busy, we all have time to give. We can choose to give substantially of our time if we engage with projects that are meaningful and useful. This level playing field is essential to build partnerships between faiths – we have to be a team, not a leader and a follower.
For this reason primarily, interfaith work must be continual throughout the year. Mitzvah Day 365 recognises relationships can be kick-started on our big day but that only by investing time and energy, by sharing, by reciprocating invitations and visits, can we make real progress.
To build these essential local relationships, to ensure we know our neighbours, to have safer streets, to break down barriers and prejudice, we need to invest.
Not just money (that would be too easy!) but our precious time. Our dynamic volunteer interfaith chair, Daniela Pears, works literally on the ground and in the community to bring people of different faiths together.
This takes commitment. We can’t get to know the ‘other’ without meeting them on an equal footing and sharing something meaningful to both sides.
Mitzvah Day offers an easy way in – but it’s a long road ahead if we are to really make a difference.