This Sunday is Mitzvah Day, the UK’s biggest faith-based day of social action.
What started as a small Jewish day of ‘good deeds’, has grown to the point where we now have more than 40,000 volunteers in 30 countries doing everything from collecting clothing for refugees to tidying local cemeteries to hosting intergenerational tea parties in care homes.
Most importantly, Mitzvah Day will see people of all religions, and none, coming together in more than 100 interfaith projects.
In a divided world, where we are increasingly suspicious and often fearful of our neighbours, events such as this are more vital than ever.
Many Mitzvah Day projects will feature our religious, political and social leaders.
Chief Rabbi Ephraim Mirvis and Archbishop of Westminster Vincent Nichols will come together to sort clothing in London, while Imam Ibrahim Moira, Assistant Secretary General of the Muslim Council of Britain, will join his local Jewish community in Leicester to bake bread for the homeless. Thirty MPs will take part and the event has even united Theresa May, Jeremy Corbyn, Nicola Sturgeon and Vince Cable, who have all put out messages of support.
For me, however, it’s at the grassroots where interfaith social action really make a difference.
Just today I heard two stories from early Jewish/Muslim Mitzvah Day projects - one which brought together schoolchildren to cook for a food bank and one aimed at helping vulnerable young people - where some participants said it was the first time they had held a conversation with a person of the other faith.
These conversations, whether while chopping onions or playing air hockey, are the key to transforming our society. They start to break down mistrust, show how much we have in coming and often lead to genuine friendships.
And it’s not just young people. The Jewish community in the UK is small, less than 300,000, and we tend to live in tight-knit communities – with our own schools, synagogues and shops.
Our strength is that we have a real sense of family and community, our weakness is that this often means we are isolated from wider society. We don’t know people who are different to us and therefore they don’t get to know us.
This can lead to prejudice and suspicion. The recent situation in Golders Green – where some Jewish people used Islamophobic language in complaining about a new Muslim cultural centre – is just one example. Recent surveys of the Muslim community have found some shocking opinions about Jews.
You don’t need to venture far – a coffee shop, an online message board, even sometimes a place of worship – to hear the most awful things said about ‘the other’.
But the big question is… how can we change this?
I believe the only way is by forming real friendships. And that won’t be done by men in suits in meetings, but on the ground – by regular people working side by side for a better society. And that is where social action comes in.
Social action and social justice have long been a hallmark of the Jewish community – in fact they were key in setting up the labour movement in the UK, in fighting apartheid in south Africa and in campaigning for black rights in the USA.
It’s in our blood, both as a people who have known injustice but, more importantly, as it is ingrained into both or religious and our community DNA.
And guess what? The same goes for other people of faith too. Anyone who has grown up in a faith community, where doing good deeds is a way of life passed down from one generation to the next, will recognise what I’ve just described.
That’s why the theme of this year’s Mitzvah Day is all about intergenerational, as well as interfaith, social action.
I’ve made many friends of other religions and we’ve swapped many tales of joy, and a few of woe, about our families. This year we will get to see them all up close, as we bring our parents and children along to volunteer with us.
I’m an optimist and I believe that most people want to leave the world a better place. But it’s also true that we live in our bubbles, ignore people of other faiths and often let ignorance and prejudice set in.
This cannot continue. There is a desperate need for people to come together, especially at this time.
On Sunday, join me and my family and we can make a start on building a better world.
To find out more about Mitzvah Day, please visit www.mitzvahday.org.uk