Communities brought together… by chicken soup?

Laura Marks OBE, Founder and Chair of Mitzvah Day, writes for us about Mitzvah Day 2018, which took place last month and marked the 10th anniversary of the event.

What could be more welcoming than a bowl of chicken soup?

The traditional dish, served as part of our Friday night Shabbat meal, is known as Jewish penicillin for good reason. For me it represents love, care and friendship all in one bowl.

This was especially true on this year’s Mitzvah Day.

This November we celebrated the 10th anniversary of Mitzvah Day, which since registering as a charity in 2008 has become the UK’s biggest faith-based day of social action.

To mark the occasion we wanted to find a project that everyone could take part in (if they wished to) which showed off the best of what we do while making a real difference to the society around us.

And that was when we thought of chicken soup.

We set up the #ChickenSoupChallenge – asking Jewish and other faith communities around the UK to try and make a record breaking 2,500 portions of soup to feed their local homeless and vulnerable.

This challenge was one of hundreds of projects that took place on Mitzvah Day, but it was the one that captured the public attention.

For our flagship cook – which took place at the East London Mosque in partnership with Muslim Aid – we were joined by film crews from the BBC, ITV, London Live and Al Jazeera, as well as reporters from the Guardian and Ha’aretz.

I attended and helped to chop vegetables and stir soup alongside Muslim Aid CEO Jehangir Malik OBE, Rabbi Roni Tabick and Imam Mohammed Mahmoud.

And while, of course, it was wonderful to have such high profile community leaders working together, the more impressive sight was the dozens of young Jews and Muslims side by side.

This was real people, who would never otherwise have met, doing real work together to help those most in need.

In between the tasks, they played ‘get to know you’ games and asked questions to further their understanding of the other faith. They bonded over everything from food and family to films and football. Harry Potter was a particular favourite topic of discussion throughout the day.

Facebook friendships and groups were set up and many of these youth will stay in touch and have vowed to work on future projects together.

And even for those who don’t do anything more in the future, they will remember this day cooking soup. The next time there is a negative story about the other faith in the press, or someone stirring up trouble on social media, they will not fall back on stereotypes but instead recall that what unites us is stronger than that which divides.

Similar events took place all over the country, and indeed globally. We saw more than 100 interfaith projects on Mitzvah Day with volunteers from nine faiths including Jews, Christians, Muslims, Hindus and Sikhs.

As well as cooking soup, interfaith projects included collections for refugees, tidies of cemeteries, teas for vulnerable local residents and even Bollywood dancing at a London care home.

As Mitzvah Day heads into its second decade, the role of such interfaith work is more important than ever.

Those who seek to sow division feel more empowered than before. We see that in the rise of the far left and far right nationally and internationally. But we are also seeing it on a more local level. We couldn’t even avoid the trolls and troublemakers while doing something as simple as cooking soup for the homeless.

That is why we will continue to work alongside partners such as Muslim Aid and FaithAction – all striving towards the same goal of breaking down barriers.

Mitzvah Day is just one day a year… we now need to use the other 364 to do more together and to build stronger local communities.