Full Marks for Mitzvah Day ambition


In a further expansion of Mitzvah Day volunteering and bridge-building, a major focus of the 2011 event on November 20 will be forging bonds with Muslims, which founder Laura Marks hopes will be long-lasting.

Ms Marks sees Mitzvah Day as the "push" organisations need to get involved in interfaith activities - and the day coincides with the start of Interfaith Week.

"Obviously, anything possible we can do to improve Muslim-Jewish relationships on a local level, the better it is," she said. Over the past year Ms Marks has devoted considerable time to visiting mosques and meeting Muslim activists who are keen to develop relations.

"We've been pairing up Jewish and Muslim communities. Palmers Green Mosque has been paired with Sha'arei Tsedek Synagogue in Whetstone to collect food for the homeless. The Al Khoei Centre in Brent is partnering with Brondesbury Park Synagogue, as are St Albans Masorti and St Albans Mosque. There's at least 10 projects."

Ms Marks reports a general willingness to co-operate. "I've found that communities want to do interfaith, but don't really know how to get it going. But all it takes is something really simple, a project you can do together. And hopefully that relationship continues. Mitzvah Day is most successful on a local level."

In numbers

25,000 worldwide participants
400 UK volunteer co-ordinators
20 non-Jewish secondary schools involved
130 synagogues taking part
40 office-based Mitzvah Day events
15 countries holding Mitzvah Day activities

The hope she has for all Mitzvah Day schemes is that people get hooked on volunteering, form relationships and change their attitude for life. More than 20,000 participated in 2010, visiting care homes, collecting food for the homeless, planting trees and clearing rubbish. "We do achieve a lot in one day, there's no question," she reflected.

An individual new to volunteering might not continue to stand outside supermarkets on food collections. "But maybe that person becomes involved in fundraising. I don't want there to be too narrow a criteria for the effect Mitzvah Day has.

"We do know synagogues have built up long relationships with Hindu and Christian organisations since the last few Mitzvah Days." Members of her Alyth Synagogue in Golders Green "just visited the Hindu temple they worked with and spent Diwali with them. People return to the hospice and old people's homes where they volunteered."

Also head of the Jewish Leadership Council's Women's Commission, Ms Marks has an evident emotional attachment and personal commitment to the success of Mitzvah Day, working on it all-year round.

"If we did all these events and spread them over the year we'd have a full programme," she pointed out. "But they all happen on one day. Mitzvah Day needs handling properly, otherwise it's just chaos."

Delegation does not come particularly easy. "I am integrally involved in everything, shall we say," she added laughing. "And although Mitzvah Day is not all about me, it does need driving. If I don't have the passion for it, then who will?"

This year, she is overseeing a diverse range of activities including distributing grow-your-own Mitzvah Day mint to communal organisations, in conjunction with environmental campaign Big Green Jewish. There will also be volunteering opportunities for mothers with babies and Mitzvah Day Active for young professionals.

"Young people are often not affiliated with synagogues, but they still can give their time. So we ask them to turn up in a group and we find them a project."

As well as expanding nationally, there is a growing global dimension. "This year there are 14 projects in Melbourne alone. We're also in tiny communities from Krakow to Namibia, Zimbabwe to Mauritius."

But she stressed that a higher priority was "to connect small communities in this country.

"We have projects in Sheffield, Kent, Cheltenham and Lincoln, for example. These communities are often ageing and very isolated. But they can do a Mitzvah Day project as well as anyone can. I'm not aware of any similar project that sets out to engage those communities like we do."

One community Ms Marks is endeavouring to connect with is the strictly Orthodox.

"We have worked so hard to try and include them and they can do it on their own terms. Many point out that they already do so much charity and good work. But I've been working on perhaps trying to start an environmental project there. And we do have many Chabad communities involved already.

"Honestly, there's not as much participation there as I would like, but I'm really positive about the relationship developing."

On the day itself, Ms Marks hopes to visit as many schemes as possible. Among them will be "an old people's home with my family - I always do - as that really makes me remember why I do it and why it matters so much. That is the best part of my day. Husband plays guitar, the kids all sing and we realise what it is all about.

"I may well also go to St Albans to a tree-planting. It takes you out of your comfort zone to see how you can really do something for the environment

"Finally, it will be on to the Mitzvah Day party to thank everyone who makes this happen - staff and volunteers alike."

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