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Mitzvah Day volunteers have never made a bigger difference

PUBLISHED: 14:01 19 November 2020 | UPDATED: 15:33 19 November 2020

Laura Marks OBE, founder of Mitzvah Day. Picture: Yakir Zur

Laura Marks OBE, founder of Mitzvah Day. Picture: Yakir Zur

Yakir Zur

To my mind, religious communities are a force for good, both nationally and locally including here in north London.

Mitzvah Day at South Hampstead Synagogue. Picture: Yakir ZurMitzvah Day at South Hampstead Synagogue. Picture: Yakir Zur

As such, I read the report this week from the Woolf Institute with some sadness as it claimed that “religious prejudice, rather than racism or xenophobia, is the ‘final frontier’ for diversity, a place where individuals are willing to express negative attitudes”.

Clearly, we have a long way to go as a diverse and open society, so this weekend’s Mitzvah Day, part this year of a month of mitzvahs, can only help bringing people together from all faiths and backgrounds to do what we do best – giving back.

It wasn’t easy. Coming smack in the middle of the month of Lockdown Two, one option was to delay the annual interfaith day of social action. But in the midst of a pandemic, with so much pain and hardship, we couldn’t possibly justify doing less rather than more to help our neighbours.

Focussing this year on food poverty and isolation, two key crises exacerbated by the pandemic, we set to work, crafting projects together with our charity partners, which make a real difference but which don’t break the essential rules of lockdown.

Labour leader Sir Keir Starmer and Laura Marks OBE at South Hampstead Synagogue's foodbank for Mitzvah Day. Picture: Yakir ZurLabour leader Sir Keir Starmer and Laura Marks OBE at South Hampstead Synagogue's foodbank for Mitzvah Day. Picture: Yakir Zur

Visits to care homes were replaced with handmade cards or video messages of love. Collections outside supermarkets, deemed too risky based on guidelines carefully drawn up by civil servants, were replaced with collection boxes in front gardens, doorstop collections and drive-by donations of groceries and other essential items for our struggling foodbanks.

Visiting people who are alone or isolated, impossible right now, was replicated with Zoom chats, dropping off home cooked meals and the simple act of picking up the phone.

As ever, local communities found ever-creative ways to give, through car park drive-in contactless collections, virtual afternoon tea with performances for care home residents and thousands of street foodbank collections across the country, along with the usual blood and plasma donations.

As ever, people from the different faith communities gathered to help – from the bishop of Edmonton to women from the Jewish/Muslim Nisa-Nashim groups.

Local MPs and politicians stepped up too, supportive as ever. Mayor of Barnet Caroline Stock, with councillor Sara Conway, made doorstep visits to isolated residents, while Tulip Siddiq MP produced cards for residents of care homes with the staff of the Holocaust Memorial Day Trust, and facilitated by Cards for Humanity.

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Sir Keir Starmer, MP for Holborn and St Pancras, visited his local synagogue, South Hampstead, hauling boxes of groceries into cars to send to Castlehaven Community Association, Chalk Farm Foodbank, St Mary’s Church in Primrose Hill and the New Horizon Youth Centre in King’s Cross. He praised the local volunteers who had improvised a collection point in the damp yet cheerfully decorated car park.

My personal contribution was a small filmed family singalong, husband Dan on guitar, son Louis on harmony, and dogs Basel and Shuli getting in the way, which JW3 will send to a care home to entertain residents bereft of their normal visitors. I put on my vintage t-shirt and rolled up my sleeves to pile groceries into my trolly to take to the foodbank at the Baptist Church this week in Primrose Hill with my neighbour Nicola.

In doing so, I felt desperately sad that we need to give, yet privileged to be part of a community of givers.

These acts of kindness matter, in the pandemic and beyond, as do the relationships and friendships which they foster.

Indeed, the Woolf Institute report recommends: “Friendship should occupy a more prominent role in policymaking, with friendships between people from different backgrounds more actively encouraged and supported.”

Never was this truer than today and Mitzvah Day volunteers, this year with determination and collectively, have never made a bigger difference.

And with two more weeks of the month of mitzvahs, we invite everyone to get involved at www.mitzvahday.org.uk.

Laura Marks OBE is founder and chair of Mitzvah Day.


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