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Mitzvah Day at 10: Women behind annual ‘kindness’ event reflect on its success

PUBLISHED: 15:50 08 November 2018 | UPDATED: 15:50 08 November 2018

Mitzvah Day ambassador Mark Regev and Laura Marks at Clara Nehab House. Picture: Yakir Zur

Mitzvah Day ambassador Mark Regev and Laura Marks at Clara Nehab House. Picture: Yakir Zur

Yakir Zur - YZ Photography

Mitzvah Day is celebrating 10 years of helping good causes, as it prepares to launch the campaign for another year.

London mayor Sadiq Khan and Laura Marks. Picture: Yakir ZurLondon mayor Sadiq Khan and Laura Marks. Picture: Yakir Zur

The charity, based in Hampstead’s JW3, was the brainchild of Laura Marks in 2005 after she came back from living in California.

She had taken part in a Mitzvah Day at her local synagogue with her young children, and went to sing to members of a Korean care home in the city.

“I realised how much of an impact it was having on not just the residents, but the staff, and my children. I came back to London and wanted to do something similar.”

After an initial low-key event at the Britannia Hotel in England’s Lane in 2005, the charity was registered in 2008. The name comes from the word Mitzvah, meaning an act of kindness, which provides the basis for the day.

Servicemen entertained residents at Spring Grove in Swiss Cottage as part of Mitzvah Day. Picture: Yakir ZurServicemen entertained residents at Spring Grove in Swiss Cottage as part of Mitzvah Day. Picture: Yakir Zur

“People do really want to give back and do something, and Mitzvah Day gives them that opportunity,” said Laura.

Since then thousands of volunteers have turned out, giving countless hours of service for causes across London and the UK.

Lady Daniela Pears has been involved with the campaign for the whole of its 10 years.

A resident of Camden, she initially started volunteering at her synagogue in South Hampstead.

Tulip Siddiq MP with daughter Azalea and Mitzvah Day's Daniela Pears at JW3 interfaith cooking in 2016. Picture: Yakir ZurTulip Siddiq MP with daughter Azalea and Mitzvah Day's Daniela Pears at JW3 interfaith cooking in 2016. Picture: Yakir Zur

Two years later Laura asked her to become interfaith chair.

“When we started I was very excited to find out the other charities nearby that aren’t Jewish charities,” she said, “and asking them how could we help?

“A lot of faith communities in Camden are pretty isolated and live separately. Part of what I do is reaching out to them, and Mitzvah Day gives people the opportunity to meet others from different faiths.”

Initially they started small, with food tin collections and getting clothes for the homeless.

Keir Starmer MP, bishop of Edmonton Cardinal Nichols, Daniela Pears, chief rabbi and South Hampstead schoolchildren sorting clothes for the homeless. Picture: Yakir ZurKeir Starmer MP, bishop of Edmonton Cardinal Nichols, Daniela Pears, chief rabbi and South Hampstead schoolchildren sorting clothes for the homeless. Picture: Yakir Zur

Noeleen Cohen, from Hampstead, was one of the original organising members. Along with Laura, she went around London and the UK trying to get the campaign off the ground.

“We’re talking about a time where Mitzvah Day was very new,” she said. “We would go around creating awareness for the day. I went off on the train to Birmingham, Bristol, Manchester, speaking to people and trying to get them involved.”

The 55-year-old, from South Africa, said the key was getting influencers in the Jewish community onside. “The initial place to start was the synagogues, and then start on people who believed in it and had the power and influence in the church to say: ‘We will just try this and see what happens.’”

One of the people who has helped out is Hampstead and Kilburn MP and former councillor Tulip Siddiq. She has sung at care homes, made cards for children in hospital and cooked for the homeless.

She said:“I clearly remember the first time I took part in Mitzvah Day. I was a Labour councillor and chair of the Camden Faiths Forum and was invited to attend by Daniela Pears.

“So I joined one of those early projects and was wowed from the start.”

Daniela, who turned 50 this year, said a large part of her job is networking with other faith groups, and seeing where their needs overlap.

As well as the thousands of hours given by people to support causes across London and the UK, she believes it has helped community cohesion. In a survey after Mitzvah Day in 2017, 74 per cent of people taking part meant they met someone they wouldn’t otherwise meet.

She said: “I feel that we’re all British and while we have different faiths and we have different cultures we all share the same values.”

Last year, with 40,000 people around the world helping others under the Mitzvah Day banner, and the day growing still, Noeleen, looks back on her role fondly.

“I feel proud to be part of it. I am still involved, but I never thought it would be as big as it is,” she said.

“We realised by year three and four of it running that we could really do it well.”

Looking back Laura says she is pleased with the impact it has, but says the tens-of-thousands people helping isn’t what she sees as success.

“Even now I don’t see success in those terms,” she said. “It’s about helping to create a culture and engage people in issues, and change people’s lives.

“Many things started through Mitzvah Day and carry on outside of it. That’s what is important.”

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