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For fifth year, Jews and Muslims join to spread cheer on Christmas Day

The word for charity in Hebrew is Tzedakah. The word for charity in Arabic is Sadaqah. Their pronunciation is similar. An emphasis on charity is just one of the similarities the two religions — and Christianity — share, said Gail Wechsler, one of the Jewish co-chairs for the Jewish and Muslim Day of Community Service taking place Christmas Day.

Now in its fifth year, the project brings together Jewish and Muslim volunteers for different service projects throughout St. Louis, strengthening bonds between the two communities and offering helping hands to their Christian counterparts. While the project is run by the two faith communities, volunteers of all faiths and all age ranges are welcome, Muslim co-chair Sophie Malik said. This is her second year as a co-chair and her fourth year as a volunteer.

“With this project, you realize how much you have in common with other people and you get to know them one-on-one,” she said. “Not only do you get to do a great thing for the community, but you also walk away with new friends.”

Sophie Malik, Jerry Hochsztein and Gail Wechsler joined "St. Louis on the Air" host Don Marsh to discuss the Jewish and Muslim Day of Community Service, in which people of both faiths and others come together to provide needed services to allow those who regularly provide them to celebrate Christmas Day with their families.

This year sets two records: 800 volunteers are expected to show up for 23 projects that include playing bingo with nursing home residents, delivering gifts to children in low-income households and making and serving soup at food pantries.

Attendees will begin the day with a 9 a.m. welcome breakfast, this year at the Jewish Community Center at 2 Millstone Campus Drive, where they’ll find ice-breaker cards and games to help people socialize. Then leaders from both the communities will send volunteers off with encouragement about what each religion says about charity and helping others. New projects for this year include sharing meals with homeless pregnant women and single mothers and with women recovering from substance abuse.

While registration has closed for most of the day’s projects, anyone is welcome to attend the welcome breakfast and volunteer at three walk-in sites – at the Central Reform Congregation, Jewish Community Center and United Hebrew - from 10 a.m. to noon, Malik said.

The first Day of Community Service was held on Christmas Eve in 2010. Despite less than preferable weather that night, each of the 30 volunteers who signed up showed up.

“We got terrific feedback,” Wechsler said. “We thought if we got that kind of turnout and that kind of response on a terrible weather day at one site, then it was worth expanding.”

But this year’s Day of Community Service is also an opportunity to show that both communities are made of giving, loving people.

“One of our big themes is that what unites us is bigger than what divides us,” Wechsler said. “It’s no secret that there’s been a lot of unrest in the world, and sadly there are some people exploiting the recent terrorist attacks and saying hurtful things about a faith. Jews, Muslims and Christians, we have a lot of similarities, including charity. We are all a giving people, a loving people, a charitable people, and what better way to show that than by giving back and helping those in need.”

Credit Credit: Gail Wechsler, Jewish Community Relations Council

Malik said members of the Jewish community have expressed support for their Muslim counterparts.

“Because of what some of their families went through in the past, they feel that we’re repeating history when it comes to some political rhetoric about refugees and the Muslim community,” she said. "I think that’s one thing people of the Jewish faith really understand, what Muslims today are going through.”  

Trudy Wellen, who is Jewish, has volunteered for the Day of Service every year. When she first volunteered in 2010, she didn’t know anyone who was Muslim, and she wanted to learn more about the Islamic religion and community. She asked to deliver cookies to fire and police department stations with a mother and son who were Muslim.

“I went with this lovely woman and her little boy,” she said. “He wanted to see every fire truck; and I thought that was just so cute. We had the time of our life.”

She said she came away with a very full, rich feeling that she did something good.

“I felt like I served my religion by helping to heal the world, in my own small way, and I felt that I learned about another culture,” she said. “I also got to share my background with her. We got to know each other and show each other that we’re willing to learn and work with each other. And the people we helped got to see that, too. It’s a win-win.”

Wellen looks forward to the event every year. She teaches toddlers at the Jewish Community Center’s Early Childhood Center who come from different backgrounds, and she wanted to learn about different people and ways of life.  

“My kids – I feel like it’s my mission to teach them about the cultures they come from, and the cultures that are in the room, and to respect each other, and to celebrate each other’s differences,” she said. “We all have different cultures but everybody is the same, we want to live and to celebrate life and that’s all there is to it.”

The Jewish and Muslim Day of Community Service is a joint project by the Jewish Community Relations Council and the Islamic Foundation of Greater St. Louis.

Online registration for the event is now closed, but there are still walk-in volunteer opportunities. For more information and a full list of events visit www.jewishmuslimdayofservicestl.org/

Copyright 2015 St. Louis Public Radio

University of Missouri student. Intern for St. Louis Public Radio, fall 2015
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