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Jewish and Muslim volunteers help make Christmas bright

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, Dec. 18, 2011 - Apart from the good food, time with family and watching children tear through wrapping paper, the holidays are also a season of volunteerism and charity. From the ringing of Salvation Army bells to delivering food for Meals on Wheels, many people take extra time during the season to do good in their communities.

One local effort has more than altruism as a goal. On Christmas Day, a Jewish and Muslim Day of Service will use volunteerism to bring people of different faiths and backgrounds together. These volunteers will work at various agencies so that their Christian staffers can stay home and celebrate Christmas with their families.

"There's always a beauty in seeing people from different backgrounds, cultures and faiths working together," said Gail Wechsler, director of domestic issues and social justice for the Jewish Community Relations Council of St. Louis. "This is a great example of people coming together."

The council, the Islamic Foundation of Greater St. Louis and the St. Louis section of the National Council of Jewish Women planned the event, but 22 other organizations are involved. Participating organizations include local Jewish and Muslim congregations, the American Civil Liberties Union of Eastern Missouri, Next Door St. Louis and the Young Muslim Community.

"We agree to differ, we promise to love, and we join to serve," volunteer Khalid Shah said.

According to Wechsler, about 300 volunteers from both faiths, of all ages, and from around the area -- West County to downtown -- have registered. People of any and all faiths are welcome to participate.

"We want to show St. Louis is not polarized," she said.

Volunteers will work at the Five Star Senior Center, St. Louis Crisis Nursery, Gateway 180: Homelessness Reversed, and several Delmar Gardens locations, among other sites. They hope to send volunteers to 21 different agencies.

"We feel strongly about doing something with Muslims because we want (people) to get the message that it isn't Muslims that are the enemy," said Linda D'Grosa, a volunteer for the Day of Service. "People are people, and we need to [send] that message."

Charity and tithe are common values shared by most faiths, which Day of Service volunteers hope to demonstrate. In Islam, charity, or "zakat," is one of the Five Pillars, or basic tenets, of Islam. Jews use the word "tzedakah" to describe living a spiritual life in part through altruism. And in the Christian tradition, the classical Greek word "agape" describes acting through God's love for all people.

"I think when we talk from a faith perspective, there is much more strength in unity. We have to be able to show that unity," said Shah, who participates in local Jewish-Muslim dialogue groups.

"We're serving our community," he added. "This is all our community." Shah will be volunteering with several close Jewish friends.

The JCRC and the Islamic Foundation hosted a similar event last year on Christmas Eve. After its success, the idea was expanded to what it is today, with the NCJW coming on board as a third co-sponsor.

"We definitely love volunteering, and we especially love volunteering as a family," said D'Grosa, who will be volunteering with her husband and four children. "It's a great message to give our kids. It's really important to do what we can to heal the world. So, we are doing this, and we have done other projects as a family, and we just thought this was a great opportunity."

Ryan Schuessler, a journalism student at the University of Missouri Columbia, was a summer intern at the Beacon. 

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