CELESTE HEADLEE, HOST:
Now we turn to a community in Detroit that's unexpectedly playing Santa Claus today. You may have heard the joke that Chinese restaurants get packed on Christmas Day with all the people who don't observe the holiday. About 20 years ago, the Detroit Jewish Community Relations Council decided to forgo the chop suey and instead spend the day serving the city.
The council now runs an annual Mitzvah Day that brings out close to a thousand people - mostly Jewish, but other faiths participate, as well. And they volunteer at homeless shelters, group homes and nearly 40 other projects around the city. We wanted to hear more about this service event, so we've called on two faith leaders in the Detroit area who've been involved for a number of years.
Micki Grossman is the co-chair of Mitzvah Day, which she's participated in for the past two decades. And Dr. Muzammil Ahmed has organized members of his Muslim community to pitch in, as well. He's head of the Michigan Muslim Community Council. Welcome to you both.
MICKI GROSSMAN: Thank you.
MUZAMMIL AHMED: Thank you.
HEADLEE: Micki, let's begin with you. We know about the Chinese food joke. That's been a long-running bit of humor. But how did this begin with the Jewish Community Relations Council? Why did the group decide to spend Christmas Day differently?
GROSSMAN: Well, first of all, I have to tell you that traditionally, in the Jewish community, synagogues and temples had independently picked up programs and would go into a soup kitchen and so forth on Christmas Day. They would have their men's club and sisterhood do something like that.
So there were a few congregations that did it. About 20-some years ago, it actually was a group of women who - Jewish women, who did volunteer work during the year who sat around and discussed the fact that: Why don't we do something big on Christmas Day? And see what we could do about it. And so we started out that way.
I didn't originate the plan, but I was on that steering committee. And we had about 200 volunteers that year, men and women.
HEADLEE: Well, for those of our listeners who are not Jewish, explain what mitzvah means and how a mitzvah is part of the Jewish faith.
GROSSMAN: Mitzvah is a commandment. It's become translated as a good deed, but it actually is a requirement that we have to do something to repair the world, to make life better for other people. Whether they're homeless, hungry, sick or poor, that's just one of the tenets of our faith. And so we use the word mitzvah. And so it became Mitzvah Day that we're going out and doing something good, and it's also a good way to spend the day or part of the day.
HEADLEE: So, Dr. Ahmed, does the Muslim faith have something like mitzvah? Is that also a commandment for Muslims?
AHMED: It certainly is. One of our five pillars of faith is giving zakat, which is charity. And as part of charity, we consider performing charitable acts and deeds something that is highly encouraged and very much an example that we want to set for ourselves and our families. So doing service work, doing small things and large things for the community is something that is an integral part of our faith.
HEADLEE: But why Christmas? How did the people in your Muslim community get involved, and why choose Christmas as the day for serving the community?
AHMED: That's an excellent question, and in some way, I think we're following the footsteps of the Jewish community in that many Muslims that have been in America have been doing a lot of charitable activities and functions over the years, but on Christmas Day, we don't necessarily celebrate Christmas, but we did want to recognize and respect the people around us that do have wonderful experiences on this day. And we wanted to share in that experience somehow, yet maintain our own independence and identity. And the Mitzvah Day seemed like a wonderful way to give back to the community at a time when they need it. And the community has always stepped forward to stand up for the Muslim community in recent months with different things that have happened. We thought this would be a great time to be able to give back.
GROSSMAN: Could I jump in for just a minute? Because...
HEADLEE: Of course.
GROSSMAN: ...about three years ago, the executive director of the Jewish Community Relations Council was having lunch with two leaders from the Muslim community, and they were just sitting around talking. And somehow, Robert told them about preparing for Mitzvah Day, and he had said, you know, this is something for us to do, because we don't celebrate Christmas the same way.
And so that's how it evolved. And it's ongoing. I mean, we have many partnerships that the Jewish and Muslim community do together, but this has become a spectacular event.
HEADLEE: If you're just joining us, we're talking about Mitzvah Day. It's a Christmas service event that's put on by the Jewish Community Relations Council of Detroit. And yet, Micki, some of the events, some of these service opportunities involve actually cooking Christmas dinner, or helping residents in group homes observe this Christian holiday. Do any of your members end up objecting?
GROSSMAN: If they did, they'd volunteer somewhere else. But they don't. I'll even tell you a funnier story that's received some attention. During Christmas week, SOS - which is the South Oakland Shelter - provides housing at different religious congregations for a week at a time.
This week, they're housed at Beth Shalom in Oak Park, Michigan. So here is a conservative, Jewish synagogue, and they will put up a Christmas tree away, from their sanctuary, because the guests are not Jewish. So that's part of welcoming the guests, making them comfortable so that they don't feel out of place. And Jews are going into Christian places, and they'll be serving Christmas dinner.
Some of them might even be singing some of the Christmas carols. We also do go into a few of the Jewish agencies, because they have non-Jewish employees who can then take off a few hours from work.
HEADLEE: So Dr. Ahmed, you have four kids, and you've told us that your whole family participates in Mitzvah Day all together. What do you think you're teaching your kids? What are they learning from this?
AHMED: Well, the first lesson is that of giving back to the community, providing a service to the community. And we hope a larger goal is also just to get to know people that you don't normally meet with. And a lot of the people in the Jewish community that are there with their children, you know, we carry our black bags and my kid says, wow, you guys, are we Santa Claus now?
AHMED: I think that sharing of experiences and to say that there are different cultures and different understandings of how we celebrate our diversity and our lives here, I think that's a great message that I want my kids, and I'm sure the other kids, to learn also.
HEADLEE: And so is there a particular project that you've participated in, or your kids have participated in that really struck you?
AHMED: I guess our funnest and most exciting project is a thing called Jimmy's Kids, where we take a lot of toys that have been packed over the last few weeks to different homes. And we knock on the doors. We have the addresses. We have a big bag filled with a whole bunch of toys.
Somebody's already screened the homes, and they know how many kids are there and what their ages are. And when the doors open, usually there are people that are surprised. You come in with all these gifts, and it's just awesome to see kids' eyes light up.
It brings tears to everybody's eyes. And so that's our most fun activity. Now, we also do Meals on Wheels. We've done different soup kitchens. There's a lot of great activities, but my favorite is walking around with that bag of toys and just being able to share it with the kids when they open the door.
HEADLEE: You are playing the Muslim Santa Claus.
HEADLEE: Micki, before this Mitzvah Day began, what would you have been doing on Christmas?
GROSSMAN: Probably getting together with the family, having dinner or something like that, going out to a movie. But as I said, I've been doing it since - you know, 20 years is a long time...
HEADLEE: It is.
GROSSMAN: ...to be doing the same thing over and over again. But I go to different places each year. And this year, I was supposed to go to Jimmy's Kids, too, but a new site requested us, so I had to give up my spot. We have over 80 people waiting to volunteer that we can't place, because we don't have a place for them to actually go out and give their time, as they want to do.
HEADLEE: So this is a callout to the charities of greater Detroit, that if you need someone on Christmas Day, to give you a call, right?
GROSSMAN: Well, it's a little bit late for that planning right now.
GROSSMAN: But think next year, because I've already come up with a couple of places that we didn't know about before that we're putting on the list for next year.
HEADLEE: Micki Grossman is the co-chair of Mitzvah Day, a service event that's put on by the Detroit Jewish Community Relations Council. And Dr. Muzammil Ahmed is head of the Michigan Muslim Community Council. He also participates in Mitzvah Day with members of his faith community. They both joined us from member station WDET in Detroit. Thanks so much to both of you. Happy Holidays, and happy Mitzvah Day, as well.
GROSSMAN: Thank you. You, too. Have a wonderful Christmas.
AHMED: Thank you very much. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.