Recently, I hosted a reception at Lambeth Palace for leaders of various faith traditions. We heard from the director of the British Museum, Neil MacGregor, the story of how, in 1756, Bishop Trevor, then Bishop of Durham, had bought a collection of paintings of Jacob and his sons by Francisco de Zurbaran. This was an act of political defiance connected with the Jewish Naturalisation Act which gave rights (however limited) to Jewish people.
Although the bishop had fought to get the Act through Parliament, it was repealed shortly afterwards and buying the paintings was a public gesture expressing his belief that Jews should have a respected place in England. That purchase was a mitzvah: a good deed that witnessed to that belief.
Mitzvah Day, a Jewish-led day of social action, gives us the opportunity not only to offer an act of kindness, but to do it with others — including those from other religious backgrounds. It allows us to demonstrate, in a thoroughly practical way, how we can together work for the common good of our local communities. The day has been inspirational and pioneering, a great idea, one which enthuses me greatly.
The success of Mitzvah Day has been in reminding us all how worthwhile it is to serve our local neighbourhoods. It has shown that relationships nurtured through grass-roots social action projects can become lasting partnerships that strengthen the fabric of local communities. Working side by side for the common good can be an excellent way to build bridges and get to know our neighbours.
This year, through Mitzvah Day, more than 50 inter-faith projects are taking place. There is real momentum here. Many projects are repeats, showing that valuable local community relationships are being built through hands-on social action. And let’s not forget another crucial ingredient, fun. If these partnerships weren’t such a great combination of meaningful engagement and shared joy, people wouldn’t be coming back for more.
Two strong themes for Mitzvah Day 2013 are homelessness and hunger, both of which are made even more real by the images of devastation we’re seeing in the Philippines.
Mitzvah Day is a key part of Inter Faith Week, an initiative led by the Inter Faith Network that is now growing all over the country. The network brings together religious communities and interfaith groups from across the UK, and I am grateful to Board of Deputies president Vivian Wineman for his dedicated work as co-chair. I’m pleased that the Church of England is also partnering a new structure called Inter Faith Mitzvah Day.
Back at the faith leaders’ reception at Lambeth Palace, Baroness Warsi spoke about an initiative she launched earlier this year aimed at inspiring new multi-faith volunteering projects. Together in Service is a three-year programme celebrating social action projects, which can be based around each of the faith communities’ religious festivals, or dedicated volunteering days. It is designed to motivate and inspire new work, especially around multi-faith volunteering projects between religions.
In all of these initiatives you can detect the spirit of a mitzvah – the act of kindness, however small, that helps transform our communities. Taken together, they point to the beginnings of a new movement in which there is room for all of us to share, motivated by what is distinct and precious in our beliefs and traditions. It’s one I hope we and our neighbours can join wherever we live.