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Muslims and Jews work together to give Christians Christmas off

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, Dec. 21, 2012 - Christmas Day in the morning Ismail Hacking, 10, and his brother Yusuf Hacking, 7, will play the piano for residents of a Creve Coeur nursing home. Last year the brothers sat at a keyboard at Creve Coeur Manor and played their recital pieces for about seven residents. Their parents Amany Ragab Hacking and Jim Hacking added support.

Across the region, in South City’s Bevo neighborhood that Dec. 25, 2011, morning Blake Silverman, 10, his brother Brett, 7, bounded up the stairs of about a dozen apartment houses with their parents Karen and Gary Silverman delivering meals to shut-ins who are clients of the Five Star Senior Center. The Silverman family will deliver meals again this Christmas Day.The Hackings are Muslim. The Silvermans are Jewish.

The two families are among more than 350 individuals who will participate in the second annual St. Louis Muslim Jewish Day of Service on Dec. 25. For about two hours that morning they’ll help at more than 20 sites across the region.

Members of these two faiths respect Jesus as a wise first-century Jew who taught in Palestine under Roman occupation. Neither faith observes Christianity’s great holy Feast of the Incarnation (Christmas). For Christians, the day marks beliefs much deeper than the birth of a great man. They celebrate the Gospel statements that God became flesh and “dwelt among us” on earth that day.

All three faiths call themselves the Children of Abraham. All three have religious mandates to serve the poor, the rejected and the marginalized.

Freeing Christians to worship

The Dec. 25 Service Day volunteers are aware that they are helping the needy and showing good will to Christians who regularly volunteer at agencies on Tuesdays. With Muslims and Jews stepping in on Christmas Day, agencies that provide essential services can meet those needs with slightly trimmer staff.

The Juvenile Detention Center in mid-town regularly offers its youth motivational talks from successful people and other educational events, but not on Christmas.

Nathan Graves, the center’s program coordinator, said nothing is planned that day. Family visitation is limited at the detention center. Little children are not allowed.

Philip Deitch, one of the Jewish volunteers who joined Muslims there last year, said, “Kids on that day feel lonelier; there was some family visiting that day but not while we were there.”

This year he plans to again play board games with juveniles. Others may shoot hoops on the basketball court, play other games in the gym or listen simply to the residents.

Another place that never closes is The St. Louis Crisis Nursery, which “is open 24 hours a day, every day of the year,” according to Sara Nelson, director of volunteers for the past 23 years at the 26-year old nursery. “In the middle of the night, every night of the year, a staff member is awake, a critical time when many children are brought to us.”

The Crisis Center depends on volunteers to help provide individual attention to the children. Last year St. Louis volunteers gave more than 37,600 hours to the agency’s five homelike sites. Because regular Tuesday volunteers will want to worship at church and be with families, Nelson is enthusiastic about the Muslim Jewish Day of Service.

“It’s wonderful,” she said, noting that some might become regulars. Depending on the ages of the children in residence that day, the Muslim and Jewish volunteers might read to them, help with art projects or play such games as Candyland or Chutes and Ladders, she said. Those who prefer working behind the scenes, might fold and store freshly laundered clothing in the older boys’ bright blue dorm decorated with baseballs, footballs and soccer balls, or in the white and light blue fairy princess dorm.

Staff will supervise at all time and no one will be left alone with the children, Nelson said.

More than half of the children – from newborns to 12 year olds -- are dropped off at the Crisis Nursery because parents are under stress: utilities have been turned off, health or legal issues arise, homes are lost. Most stay for just 24 hours, while parents are helped by social workers to help them find a path to settle their troubles.

“Now, the economy, unemployment, is the main cause children are brought to us,” Nelson said. About 12 percent of the children are left with the professional staff because of domestic violence, Val Joyner the center’s public relations manager said. “We only wish more knew about us. Two babies were murdered in this region last week,” Nelson said.

Helping their Own

Volunteers in last year’s Day of Service members of their own faiths among those who were helped. Volunteers cheered many Jewish residents at nursing homes who were celebrating Hanukkah. Volunteers listened to storytelling of their past holidays.

Nearly all African refugees who showed up for tea and snacks last year at the African Mutual Assistance Association, near Tower Grove Park, were Muslim.

“We collected tons of coats, gloves scarves, hats, filled three mini-vans and took them there, (a few days) ahead,” Asma Raza, a member of the Muslim community, said. Clients accustomed to warm climates, had such critical needs that the African Mutual Assistance staff distributed many coats to Sudanese and Trinidadian Christians immediately, likely so they might comfortably attend Christmas services. When Raza and 11 other volunteers arrived to distribute the remaining coats, most of those they helped Muslims from Somalia and Eritrea, she said.

“The African women were very shy but thankful pointing to the coats; and a few men spoke to us,” Raza said. “The director made a short talk and said he was Christian but didn’t mind opening up on Christmas, missing family, because he appreciated what we were doing.”

Those Dec, 25 volunteers who work behind the scenes at sites will have a chance to relate more to one another across faith lines than to the needy.

“The morning was very nice, Muslim and Jewish volunteers were very friendly, with an easy camaraderie,” said Donald Meissner describing volunteers making soup mixes last year in lower level of Dar ul Islam mosque on Weidman Road, the largest of the region’s nearly 20 mosques. Side by side again this Christmas, members of the two faiths will measure beans, rice and spice packs for the Harvey Kornblum Jewish Food Pantry Food pantry in Olivette, where Meissner is community outreach coordinator. It will distribute the custom-made soup mixes to their needy clientele of all faiths.

“Last year a few days afterward, (the pantry) got good donation of dried fruit from Palestine, figs maybe. I thought that was nice. Palestine fruit at our food pantry.”

The day was conducive to making new acquaintances. “The day of service brought out new people who don’t usually work on interfaith dialogue,” Deitch, a long-time interfaith catalyst, said.

Raza said that recruiting volunteers has gone well, especially when they realize the commitment is short and one time only.

“It’s only a couple hours,” said Raza. “Not like when we build houses with Habitat for Humanity and spend the whole day.”

Others agree.

“I was excited, glad to do something that took me out of my comfort zone, glad for the opportunity to give back to the community,” said Linda Kram who will volunteer with her husband, Richard, as they did last year. If the weather is fine, like last Dec. 25, the couple will have plenty of time to go hiking in Queeny Park afterward, she said.

“It was nice to have something to do with lots of nice people, beyond our Dec. 25 regular movie and Chinese food.”

Some volunteers said they appreciate Christian employees at their own workplaces who help take on their duties or shifts so they can worship and be with family on their own important holy days, such as Passover and Eid al-Fitr, which marks the end of the Ramadan fast.

For decades several area synagogues have dispatched volunteers on Christmas. In the 1970s the Brotherhood at Temple Israel Congregation under the leadership of Martin Goldman sent volunteers to hospitals to replace regular volunteers.

Muslim and Jews working together on this national holiday is a newer idea but it goes back to late in the last century in Detroit, Salt Lake City and other areas.

In 2005, the Jewish Community Relations Council began JAM, a Jewish and Muslim teen group. The following year, an adult Muslim-Jewish dialogue group began meeting. They knew Dec. 25 social justice days in other cities, and it seemed a logical outgrowth of each faith’s commandments to helping the less fortunate, Gail Wechsler, JCRC Domestic Issues-Social Justice director, said. Two years ago, The Islamic Foundation of Greater Saint Louis and the Milford and Lee Bohm Social Justice Center of the Jewish Community Relations Council of St. Louis organized a one-site, Dec. 25 pilot project.

“By then, we knew each other,” Wechsler said.

Then, last Dec. 25 the two organizations rallied more than 200 volunteers from the two faiths to help.

“This year as they sign up many families are writing that they are making this a holiday tradition,” Wechsler said. Roughly 30 percent of those volunteering are children going with their parents, she said. Volunteers are invited mingle at 9 a.m. for breakfast at the Jewish Community Center in Creve Coeur before they go to  assigned sites.

Reaping blessings

Like so many volunteers the participants may get more out of the day than they give, several said.

Last year the Hacking brothers saw that long-term care residents were pleased with their impromptu piano concert. However, the boys also saw other residents nodding in their wheelchairs and appeared lost.

“The boys had never been to a nursing home, never seen frail, elderly people,” their mother said. “Their grandparents are vigorous.” When given a choice of venues for this year’s Day of Service, the boys said they wanted to entertain the frail elderly again.

The Silverman brothers live in Chesterfield and had never seen urban poverty until three years ago when they were part of a pilot project. They too were somewhat surprised by elderly people with limited mobility, their mother said. The boys were touched that the elderly were so grateful to see children. Some told them that they had missed seeing children close. At one home, a neighborhood cat added drama when it slid pass the family carrying in the food.

“The woman had trouble breathing and could not have run after the intrusive cat,” Karen Silverman, a Parkway School teacher said. The resident was delighted that the brothers quickly caught the cat and shooed it back.

“I want to model for my children, as my parents did for me, that it is important to give of yourself,” Silverman said. “It makes you appreciate others’ struggles and makes you feel good about doing good. I want my children to know that the world is not all middle class like what they know in Chesterfield.”

She’s also pleased they have the chance to met Muslims. “I think it is good for them to understand that (Jewish people) are not the only people who don’t celebrate Christmas.”

The children also get a chance to learn a bit about Christian theology far beyond the commercial ideas on television.

“Our boys know that Christians marks the birth of Jesus Christ,” Hacking said. “We (Muslims) don’t celebrate any prophets’ birthdays, not even Mohammed. The boys do understand celebrating George Washington’s birthday.”

On this second annual day of service, young and old will learn that Jews and Muslims can work together cordially, Kram said. “There is a common history, we can both look at things with a different interpretation of that history but we can work together. Not all Muslims hate Jews and not all Jews hate Muslims.”

On Christmas, Christians hear again Luke’s Gospel 2:14 describing “a host of angels” appearing to Jewish shepherds in the hills overlooking Bethlehem and announcing the birth of the Messiah. Luke wrote that the angels praised God and wished “on earth peace, toward men of good will"

This Christmas Day, 350 St. Louis Muslim and Jewish men and women will demonstrate that people of good will can make peace in our corner of the world.

Patricia Rice is a freelance writer based in St. Louis who has covered religion for many years. She also writes about cultural issues, including opera.