[Blog] How Mitzvah Day turns strangers into friends

24 November 2022 – 30 Heshvan 5783

Rabbi Rebecca Birk and Finchley Progressive Synagogue visited the Rainbow Centre, a community centre in Dollis Valley Estate, for a get to know you event - by Yakir Zur

By Rabbi Rebecca Birk

In the Shabbat weekend of Parashat Chayei Sarah, and the kindness we read of in Rebekah, how fitting that tens of thousands should turn out for Mitzvah Day activities.

Kindness, and the obligation to care has always been at the heart of Mitzvah Day. And all the more so towards strangers, who may become friends.

Since its creation more than a decade ago, by Laura Marks OBE, Mitzvah Day has become the largest faith led day of social action and kindness. It has much to be proud of.

The charity’s new CEO, Stuart Diamond, visited our Mitzvah Day project at Finchley Progressive Synagogue.

We spoke about the challenge for our Liberal communities – and indeed those of all denominations – of how to give Mitzvah Day a specific focus, as we have been committed to tikkun olam and gemilut hasadim for decades.

That is why we used this year’s Mitzvah Day to capture our synagogue’s desire to create supportive and long-term relationships with a local community centre that we also chose for our High Holy Days appeal.

The Rainbow Centre supports diverse families and households in the Dollis Valley estate. There is a food bank, after school clubs, and lunch and youth provision offered during holidays when families struggle without free school meals. There is a debt advisory service and community connection for older folk.

This was the perfect opportunity for us to meet together this past weekend and use the focus of Mitzvah Day to get to truly know one another (pictured).

Over face paints and book swaps we learned a new volunteer is needed to lead the debt advice; they also need mentors and tutors and retired teachers to help with homework. We have teenagers only too happy to share their experience of parents separating and the trials of school post-Covid.

Julie was there with one of her three autistic children. She had to stop working as a mental health practitioner because she’s enabling her children to manage better in the world. So now the food bank and holiday lunches are essential for her.

Christine is on her own with her 12-year-old daughter, Mia, who won’t go anywhere without her since Covid. Our shared day at the Rainbow Centre gave her hope that, with us, it might happen.

For me and our synagogue, the best part of the Mitzvah Day was to begin being in this relationship as partners.

This is not just charitable work for those who need it. This is the highest of Maimonides levels of tzedakah, strengthening the capacity of others and entering into partnership to alleviate the pressures of this cost of living crisis.

Ben Azzai insisted the most important Jewish value is that everyone is b’tzelem Elohim (created in the image of God) and Mitzvah Day encourages us all to play our part in this.

There was a lot of love on our Mitzvah Day, chesed was clearly present.

We look forward to that continuing.

  • Rabbi Rebecca Birk is Co-Chair of the Conference of Liberal Rabbis and Cantors and Rabbi of Finchley Progressive Synagogue. This piece originally ran in The Jewish Chronicle. Picture by Yakir Zur.