Eric Pickles praises Mitzvah Day

By Eric Pickles, November 21, 2011

On being awarded an MBE for services to the community in her adopted home of Leeds, that great Yorkshirewoman Marjorie Ziff said: "Leeds is a wonderful city. It has given us our bread-and-butter and you have to give something back."

Now in her 80s, she along with her late husband Arnold, have served the city for almost 60 years. The Jewish Community Centre that bears their name is now the centre for all major Jewish activities in the city and their charitable donations have also supported everything from Leeds Metropolitan University and the Royal College of Music to the restoration of Leeds Parish Church.

A similar commitment to giving something back, a similar sense of attachment to the place we call home, is at the heart of every successful village, town or neighbourhood. It is never more needed, nor more in evidence, than when times are tough. Like everyone else, I was shocked and saddened by the disgraceful acts of violence seen on our streets this summer. But I took heart from the many stories of communities and councils, residents and shopkeepers refusing to be bowed, putting things right and getting on with life. The people who came out with mops and brushes to join in the clear-up outnumbered the rioters by dozens to one.

As Raymond Simonson, the director of Limmud UK - who called on followers to donate clothes, blankets and towels to aid the victims of violence - has said in these pages: "We want to show those people who have suffered and have lost much of their stuff that they are not aloneā€¦ London is not made up of just those who break things, but those who try and repair a damaged world - tikkun olam in a pure sense."

My hope is that 'mitzvah' will make its way into English

The Hebrew phrase is telling. The fact is that Jewish communities have a strong and distinguished tradition of philanthropy and social action. It stems from a recognition that it is not down to someone else to help others - we all of us as individuals have a responsibility and a part to play.

And it is a sense of responsibility not just towards other members of Jewish communities but to community in the widest sense - towards neighbours of every faith, and those of none. Tikkun olam: repairing the world.

The idea goes to the very heart of Mitzvah Day. As readers of the JC will well know, Mitzvah Day isn't just about putting coins in a collection box and then quietly forgetting. It's about sharing time, knowledge and compassion to bring some joy to someone else.

On Mitzvah Day, Jewish individuals and communities take the lead and inspire people of all ages, faiths, and backgrounds to contribute to their local communities. What's remarkable is how a single day or week of action can build ties that last the whole year through. Last year, for example, the Alyth Synagogue, St Albans Church and the Shree Swaminarayan Temple in Golders Green got together to collect food for Homeless Action Barnet. It went so well that the different groups have kept on working together on other projects; including collecting food for the Harvest festival, and organising a blood-donation drive.

For this Inter-Faith Week, then, I have two great hopes. The first is a hope that Mitzvah Day goes superbly - and I wish every success to the Jewish individuals and groups, and indeed the many others of different faiths or none who take part, who set out to do good in their neighbourhood and to strengthen their ties with other communities.

My second hope is that "Mitzvah" will soon follow in the path of other terms that have made their way into common English usage. An act of charity, expecting no reward? A kind deed? Translations don't quite cut the mustard: and if the word, and the practice, find their way into national life, I hope JC readers will see it not as a cheeky appropriation but as a respectful tribute: and, of course, merely the latest in a long line of Jewish contributions to national life.

The Rt Hon Eric Pickles MP is the secretary of state for Communities & Local Government

Last updated: 12:19pm, November 21 2011