Transcript from NPR:
Now we turn to a community in Detroit that's unexpectedly playing Santa Claus today. You may have heard the joke that Chinese restaurants get packed on Christmas Day with all the people who don't observe the holiday. About 20 years ago, the Detroit Jewish Community Relations Council decided to forgo the chop suey and instead spend the day serving the city.
The council now runs an annual Mitzvah Day that brings out close to a thousand people - mostly Jewish, but other faiths participate, as well. And they volunteer at homeless shelters, group homes and nearly 40 other projects around the city. We wanted to hear more about this service event, so we've called on two faith leaders in the Detroit area who've been involved for a number of years.
Micki Grossman is the co-chair of Mitzvah Day, which she's participated in for the past two decades. And Dr. Muzammil Ahmed has organized members of his Muslim community to pitch in, as well. He's head of the Michigan Muslim Community Council. Welcome to you both.
MICKI GROSSMAN: Thank you.
MUZAMMIL AHMED: Thank you.
HEADLEE: Micki, let's begin with you. We know about the Chinese food joke. That's been a long-running bit of humor. But how did this begin with the Jewish Community Relations Council? Why did the group decide to spend Christmas Day differently?
GROSSMAN: Well, first of all, I have to tell you that traditionally, in the Jewish community, synagogues and temples had independently picked up programs and would go into a soup kitchen and so forth on Christmas Day. They would have their men's club and sisterhood do something like that.
So there were a few congregations that did it. About 20-some years ago, it actually was a group of women who - Jewish women, who did volunteer work during the year who sat around and discussed the fact that: Why don't we do something big on Christmas Day? And see what we could do about it. And so we started out that way.
I didn't originate the plan, but I was on that steering committee. And we had about 200 volunteers that year, men and women.
HEADLEE: Well, for those of our listeners who are not Jewish, explain what mitzvah means and how a mitzvah is part of the Jewish faith.
GROSSMAN: Mitzvah is a commandment. It's become translated as a good deed, but it actually is a requirement that we have to do something to repair the world, to make life better for other people. Whether they're homeless, hungry, sick or poor, that's just one of the tenets of our faith. And so we use the word mitzvah. And so it became Mitzvah Day that we're going out and doing something good, and it's also a good way to spend the day or part of the day.
HEADLEE: So, Dr. Ahmed, does the Muslim faith have something like mitzvah? Is that also a commandment for Muslims?
AHMED: It certainly is. One of our five pillars of faith is giving zakat, which is charity. And as part of charity, we consider performing charitable acts and deeds something that is highly encouraged and very much an example that we want to set for ourselves and our families. So doing service work, doing small things and large things for the community is something that is an integral part of our faith.
HEADLEE: But why Christmas? How did the people in your Muslim community get involved, and why choose Christmas as the day for serving the community?
AHMED: That's an excellent question, and in some way, I think we're following the footsteps of the Jewish community in that many Muslims that have been in America have been doing a lot of charitable activities and functions over the years, but on Christmas Day, we don't necessarily celebrate Christmas, but we did want to recognize and respect the people around us that do have wonderful experiences on this day. And we wanted to share in that experience somehow, yet maintain our own independence and identity. And the Mitzvah Day seemed like a wonderful way to give back to the community at a time when they need it. And the community has always stepped forward to stand up for the Muslim community in recent months with different things that have happened. We thought this would be a great time to be able to give back.
GROSSMAN: Could I jump in for just a minute? Because...
HEADLEE: Of course.
GROSSMAN: ...about three years ago, the executive director of the Jewish Community Relations Council was having lunch with two leaders from the Muslim community, and they were just sitting around talking. And somehow, Robert told them about preparing for Mitzvah Day, and he had said, you know, this is something for us to do, because we don't celebrate Christmas the same way.
And so that's how it evolved. And it's ongoing. I mean, we have many partnerships that the Jewish and Muslim community do together, but this has become a spectacular event.