Editor’s Note: Southeast Michigan’s religiously diverse community provides lots of opportunities for interfaith cooperation that is rare—and inspiring—in our world, today. One of the most dramatic occurs this week: Mitzvah Day. Readers may be aware of another similarly named occasion, promoted by the United Nations and especially in the UK, usually held earlier in the year. That “international” Mitzvah Day also calls for religiously diverse volunteers to tackle community projects. However, the Michigan Mitzvah Day has a special twist. It is especially focused on bringing large numbers of Jewish and Muslim volunteers together on Christmas to free up time for workers who want to celebrate with their families. This an especially thoughtful effort in 2016, since Christmas is also the first full day of Hanukkah. This week, GodSigns author Suzy Farbmn tells the story of one Jewish volunteer. Enjoy!
By SUZY FARBMAN
Valeri is one busy lady.
She’s a mom. A volunteer. And a full time legal assistant. She merges those roles with grace.
Judaism is important to Valeri. So important that she sent daughters Carley and Alyssa to Hillel in Farmington Hills, MI. So important that both girls were bat mitzvahed in Israel. (The day also had an ecumenical aspect. After Carley’s service on Mt. Masada, the family hired an Arab cab driver to drive them through Bethlehem.)
In 9th grade Carley announced she’d make aliyah (move to Israel) when she grew up.
“I don’t think so,” her mom said. She wondered if she’d overdone the Israel zeal, figured her daughter would outgrow the notion.
But in 10th grade, Carley hadn’t changed her mind. Nor by 11th. Nor 12th. Meanwhile, she learned to speak Hebrew and Japanese. After graduating from Andover High School, she announced she was moving to Israel.
“I had to take the high road,” Valeri says. “I told her, ‘If you’re determined to proceed, I’m coming with you.’”
The Jewish commandment of tikkun olam (helping others) runs strong in Valeri’s life. She’s been a devoted community volunteer for years. Among her favorite causes is Mitzvah Day. On Christmas in southeast Michigan, Jewish and Muslim men, women and children volunteer in more than 40 charitable sites around Detroit, enabling Christian staff and volunteers to celebrate at home with their families. Sites include churches, nursing homes, soup kitchens.
One site staffed by Mitzvah Day volunteers is the Friendship Circle. This privately funded organization for special needs kids features Safety Town. With a model of a bank, pet store, post office, beauty shop, etc., Safety Town teaches special needs individuals to function in the outside world.
Another of Valeri’s favorite Mitzvah Day sites is the Detroit Rescue Mission. Volunteers plate food, distribute it and bus tables for homeless diners. “It’s a big dose of reality,” Valeri says. “I had no idea how many homeless people there are in Detroit. We bring them warm socks, blankets—whatever they need. You can see them on TV, but until you’re up close and personal, you don’t know them. Most aren’t bad people; they’ve just fallen on hard times. The people we serve are incredibly grateful. The women always hug me. The men smile and shake my hand.”
Valeri began taking her daughters to Mitzvah Day when they were about 10 and 12. Each of them said, “Mom, I never knew. We’re so lucky to have a home and 2 parents.” Both girls are now grown. Valeri’s example of helping others has taken hold. After 8 years in Israel, Carley now lives in LA and works at Emak Hebrew Academy. Alyssa lives in Chicago where she’s a medical technician at Northwestern Hospital.
“Mitzvah Day helps keep our lives in perspective. It’s important to remember where we came from and to appreciate what we have.”
The tradition of standing in for Christians on Christmas began with the Jewish War Veterans in the 1970s. About 20 years ago, it was taken over and named by the Jewish Community Relations Council. 8 years ago it gained a new dimension when the Michigan Muslim Community Council joined in and it became Mitzvah/Muslim Day. Last year’s event had over 900 volunteers, of which about 150 were Muslim. Jews and Muslims work side by side at a variety of sites. This year, even more volunteers are expected to participate.
Valeri, divorced for 13 years, has traveled to Israel 14 times. “For me, Israel symbolizes a love for our people.” Valeri was there on 9/11 on a Jewish Welfare Federation sponsored mission. “We couldn’t call the U.S. We couldn’t get a plane for 2 days.” To remember that day, she incorporated her room number and the name of the town she was visiting into a new email address.
She also wears a symbol of what Israel means to her. “Israel is in my heart,” she says. It’s also on her wrists. She buys a handmade silver bracelet on each visit. “These bracelets are my way of remembering. From Eilat to Haifa, each trip has been special. Visiting Israel is walking through history. It strengthens my commitment.”
Thanks, Valeri, for sharing your experience. And thanks to all Mitzvah/Muslim Day volunteers, for helping make Detroit a more humane place to live. For everyone.