DETROIT — A Christmas Day service project that’s linked Michigan Muslims and Jews is fueling a broader mission of cooperation among them, and organizers say their efforts help to counter potential fear and mistrust among them as well from as from the outside.
More than 100 Jewish and Muslim volunteers are expected to return Sunday to a struggling Detroit elementary school for the second annual Mitzvah Makeover School Fix-Up. They will help Nolan Elementary-Middle School students and parents paint murals, clean debris, prepare classrooms and complete a reorganization of a long-neglected library.
The event grew out of the long-running Mitzvah Day, in which Muslims have joined Jews for several years on Christmas to serve food to the homeless or elderly, provide toys for needy children and take on other tasks while Christians celebrate their holiday. These days, about 1,000 volunteers take part at dozens of sites in southeastern Michigan.
Mitzvah means “commandment” in Hebrew and is generally translated as a good deed.
The Michigan Muslim Community Council and the Jewish Community Relations Council/American Jewish Committee organize the projects. Jewish council Executive Director David Kurzmann said it’s powerful to come together and break down stereotypes that the communities “don’t see eye to eye.”
Officials say relations are generally good between the Detroit-area’s Jewish and Muslim communities, both of which go back more than a century. While they can be at odds, such as over the Arab-Israeli conflict and other issues, they see serving the community as an overarching, “unifying force,” Kurzmann said, and a hedge against inflammatory rhetoric from the election season over immigrants and immigration, and calls to temporarily ban Muslims from entering the U.S.
“It’s a compelling story … especially at a time when rhetoric has been amplified as to who is central to American society,” Kurzmann said. “Jews and Muslims are both minorities who know very well the consequences of marginalizing groups.”
Muslim council spokeswoman Sumaiya Ahmed Sheikh said the ongoing school project developed from conversations with Mariam Fahs, a friend who teaches at Nolan. Sheikh sought a school that needed help, Fahs saw how a cadre of volunteers could benefit hers, which is part of the Educational Achievement Authority, a state-run district of low-performing schools.
Fahs, a hijab-wearing Muslim who grew up in the Detroit suburb of Bloomfield Hills among Jews, Christians and others, said the interfaith cooperation is noticed and appreciated by her students.
“They are African-American, most are Christian,” she said. “For them to see Jews and Muslims come together — even just seeing people of different ethnicities and races come for one thing — the kids feel it. The kids know that they care.”
Kurzmann said this is the first project undertaken since his council launched a joint venture this summer with the American Jewish Committee, a global advocacy organization that counts improving Muslim-Jewish relations among its goals. He believes the Detroit area can be a national model for that effort, underscored by the growing cooperation on community service.
“We recognize we’re in a unique position to pursue this kind of work,” he said. “The population is here, the history is here, and we are compelled to do something,” he said.