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In the Press: Interfaith pride on Mitzvah Day

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A highlight of the Chief Rabbi’s tour of North West London Mitzvah Day projects was an interfaith cooking session at Edgware United that saw Jewish and Muslim youth come together to prepare a meal for residents of a local homeless shelter. The Guardian newspaper covered the story.

‘Mitzvah Day unites Jewish and Muslim leaders in kitchen’

By Harriet Sherwood

A rabbi and an imam walk into a kitchen and each picks up a knife. It sounds the like the start of a bad standup routine. In fact, it was leaders of British Jews and Muslims joining forces to help prepare a meal for the homeless and hungry as part of a nationwide day of social action on Sunday.

Up to 40,000 people took part in Mitzvah Day, organised by the Jewish community in hundreds of synagogues and schools around the country, and involving volunteers from neighbouring mosques and churches. Mitzvah literally means commandment, but is generally interpreted as good deed.

The chief rabbi, Ephraim Mirvis, and imam Ibrahim Mogra, assistant general secretary of the Muslim Council of Britain, peeled and chopped vegetables in the chaotic kitchen of Edgware United synagogue in north-west London. Amid vats of potatoes, piles of apple skin and eggshells, dozens of volunteers – including the Labour MP Luciana Berger – worked to create a three-course meal for the nearby Barnet Winter Shelter.

‘Up to 40,000 people took part in Mitzvah Day, organised by the Jewish community in hundreds of synagogues and schools’

The menu met kosher and halal requirements: vegetable soup, vegetarian cottage pie, apple crumble plus an assortment of cookies.

Mirvis, who acquired a dusting of flour on his customary black jacket, said he had “an enormous amount of pride in the generosity, selflessness and community engagement” of Mitzvah Day. The interfaith aspect of the day was crucial in “this challenged world”, he added. “We must strengthen links and build bridges for tolerance and harmony.”

Mogra, who showed impressive dedication to a pile of carrots, said both faiths taught the importance of common humanity. “Britain has become a multicultural and multifaith society. It’s very important to be cohesive, not just by talking but in action,” he said.

The imam said he was usually in his own kitchen on a Sunday morning, knocking up a halal version of a full English breakfast for his family, but he was delighted to be at the synagogue instead with “my Jewish brothers and sisters”.

Mitzvah Day has been been running in the UK for 10 years, and now involves around 350 Jewish communities. “Pretty much every mainstream synagogue, youth movement and school takes part,” said the founder, Laura Marks. “In terms of the Jewish community, it’s huge,” drawing in those who may not attend synagogue regularly “but still want to engage with their Jewish heritage,” she added.

Other events on Sunday included a Jewish primary school joining with a local Muslim school to collect for a south London food bank; and Northwood and Pinner Liberal Synagogue hosting a past-and-present refugee day, with Jewish refugees from the Holocaust and Syrians fleeing the current civil war.

In Edgware, 19-year-old Saha Habib had come to the synagogue from Stanmore mosque. Working on a batch of lemon biscuits, she said she was happy to be joining a community effort to help people. “There’s a lot in the Qur’an about taking care of the less fortunate,” she said.

Marks said bringing together different faiths – and those of no faith – in social action projects made it easier to have meaningful conversations about the state of the world. “It’s very hard for people to get to know one another in different communities. It rarely happens on its own – we have to make it happen.”