The Jewish community has a long history of public service. It is central to the core beliefs of the Jewish faith — Tzedek, Tzdek, Tirdof (Justice, Justice, Shall you pursue). Indeed, the Torah itself is, in its entirety, the DIY guide to making the world a healthier, wholer and saner place.
Today we are seeing more and more examples of interfaith work within the Jewish community. For example, Project Muso, an integrated primary health-care programme running in a predominantly Muslim Mali community, was founded by Jewish medical students. Then there is World Jewish Relief’s street kids programme in Rwanda — their Streets Ahead Children’s Centre Association was set up to help the thousands of orphaned children who continue to suffer the effects of genocide. Or take Tzedek at the Jewish Social Action Hub. It works closely with organisations which serve the international community, and focuses on fair trade and development issues — that is where two of my Faiths Act Fellows are hosted, sponsored by the Pears Foundation.
One of the newest examples of this multi-faith action is Mitzvah Day. Mitzvah Day started as a US Jewish social action day but has now become more interfaith and international in scope. On Mitzvah Day people are asked to make a difference to their local community in a practical way, by donating their time rather than money.
This is its fifth year in the UK and it is here that it has really developed a clear identity. That’s because, unlike in the US, in Britain, every synagogue, school and Jewish institution holds their Mitzvah Day simultaneously. This year, Mitzvah Day is this Sunday, November 15. The organisers tell me that over 150 partners have now signed up to perform a staggering 250 different projects or mitzvahs on behalf of over 100 good causes and charities, Jewish and non-Jewish alike.
This in itself would be more than sufficient grounds to congratulate the Jewish community. But, in particular, I want to acknowledge the effort that has been made by these partners to engage with those of other faiths, especially as, this year, Mitzvah Day coincides with the beginning of the first ever national Interfaith Week. Whether it’s the local Hindu temple in Borehamwood, the Roman Catholic church in Northwood, the Interfaith Council in Nottingham or the Anglican Parish church in Prestwich, I congratulate both them and their Jewish partners for recognizing that the opportunity to do a “good deed” should never be selective or exclusive.
For me this is what faith is about: meaningful, tangible, collective action. When I began my Faith Foundation, I did not want it to be based on discussions about religious doctrine. I wanted the focus to be on action — faiths working together towards common goals and achieving concrete results.
Faiths Act is our social-action programme which aims to mobilise people of faith across the world to help realise the Millennium Development Goals. Our initial focus is on ending malaria deaths, which kills almost one million people a year, mainly women and children.
This campaign is being spearheaded by our Faiths Act Fellows, who are 30 outstanding young people of diverse faiths from the UK, US and Canada. In interfaith pairs, they are raising awareness and motivating their local faith communities to act together to help fight this entirely preventable disease.
I often use the analogy “hands to heart to head” to describe this process of interfaith engagement. We start by working together — hands-on work in the fight against malaria. This builds up interfaith friendships. Then friends start discussing their faiths, discover their differences, begin to handle spiritually and intellectually the diversity of religious life and the culture they are discovering in friendship. We believe this is an important way, particularly amongst young adults, to win respect and understanding between the faiths.
Starting just before UK interfaith week begins, Mitzvah Day is a fitting time to embrace joint action. I and my staff at the Foundation are donating our time to make hospital gowns for children having cleft palate operations in India as part of Blue Peter’s Operation Smile Appeal. There are many ways you can take part — big and small, in your local community or abroad.