Each year for the past six years, people of Jewish and Muslim faiths have joined together on Christmas for a day of community service.
Last year, more than 500 people, including Christians and Buddhists, volunteered on the day. This year, more than 800 people are expected to volunteer.
In the past, the effort has focused on forging ties between the two communities in the aid of a variety of different services and non-profits in the St. Louis area.
This year, the group has joined together to also serve recent immigrants at the International Institute, the agency in town that is responsible for resettling refugees and providing services to recent immigrants.
On Friday’s St. Louis on the Air, representatives from the service day joined host Don Marsh to discuss their focus this year. Sophie Malik, a co-chair of the day of service representing the Islamic Foundation of Greater St. Louis, Roberta Gutwein, a member of the planning committee representing the Jewish Community Relations Council, and Anna Crosslin, the president and CEO of the International Institute of St. Louis joined the program.
“It started actually seven years ago, when a small group of Jews and Muslims decided to go out on Christmas and deliver blankets to the elderly,” said Gutwein. “It was snowing, it was terrible weather, but there was something about doing this that ignited something. … We do acts of love and kindness, which are a big deal both in the Jewish and Muslim community, and to help Christians out so they don’t have to work on Christmas Day.”
This year, the group has selected a new volunteer site: the International Institute. Volunteers will help with story time, games and hand out hygiene kits. Malik said that this year, working at the Institute just made sense.
“There has been such rhetoric against immigrants, especially refugees, that we want them to feel welcome,” Malik said. “This city is a great example, because the Bosnian community really revitalized south city. And I think St. Louis is a great city to show that we welcome immigrants. Hopefully the rhetoric going on right now will not change that.”
Crosslin said this type of work is essential to making the immigrant community feel welcome here.
“It is my firm belief that multiculturalism, that embracing everyone of all faiths and backgrounds is very important to the community itself, both in terms of current peaceful operations but in terms of us all having a safe and productive future,” Crosslin said.
This year, the International Institute has seen a 40 percent increase in refugee arrivals , moving from accepting 600 refugees to more than 1,000. A significant portion of those refugees are Muslims. There were 271 Syrian arrivals, but the Institute saw large numbers of Somalis and Iraqis also arrive to the area. Congolese refugees were the largest group to settle in St. Louis.
“They arrive shell-shocked because they've experienced so much hardship and what we see on the news in terms of the devastation,” Crosslin said. “They also arrive frightened now, because they don’t know if they will be welcome in the community, what kind of subtle, but also overt, anti-immigrant/anti-refugee rhetoric they’ll have to face … so opportunities like this one are really important for the community to say ‘you are welcome,’ regardless of your background.”
In addition to the International Institute, the group will also volunteer at nursing homes, food pantries, "make it" craft sites for making blankets, nurseries, prisons and cookie deliveries to police and fire stations in St. Louis and St. Louis County.
Early reservations for specific sights are full for this year’s event. However, you can visit the day of service’s website to find a list of “open sites,” where all are welcome to volunteer, regardless of pre-registration. You can find information on that here.
St. Louis on the Air brings you the stories of St. Louis and the people who live, work and create in our region. St. Louis on the Air host Don Marsh and producers Mary Edwards, Alex Heuer and Kelly Moffitt give you the information you need to make informed decisions and stay in touch with our diverse and vibrant St. Louis region.