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PITTSBURGH: Jews and Episcopalians join in service on Mitzvah Day

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[Episcopal News Service] This Sunday (April 26), members of Calvary Episcopal Church and Rodef Shalom Congregation in Pittsburgh together will serve their community on what they call "Mitzvah Day." The Hebrew word "mitzvah" means "good deed or being obedient to the law."

The volunteers will weed and plant perennials in a city park, do some painting at two local Episcopal parishes, St. Stephen's and Holy Cross; and pack medical supplies to ship to developing nations. Other projects include reading to and making crafts with young children and nursing home residents and playing bingo and sharing ice cream at Family Houses, which serve those undergoing treatments at area hospitals.

"It makes us better Jews, better Episcopalians and better citizens," Rabbi Aaron Bisno, senior rabbi at Rodef Shalom said of the yearly event, which began in 2005.

According to Phil Parr, longtime Calvary parishioner and outreach committee member, in 2004, Calvary outreach committee members visited various houses of worship throughout the city. "Calvary folks were very impressed with the Rodef Shalom Mitzvah Day," a common tradition in Judaism, and asked to join efforts for a day of service. "From the beginning, we've been welcomed as full partners," Parr said in an interview.

"Both Rodef Shalom and Calvary were founded in the mid-19th century, both started life elsewhere and both, in the early 20th century, ended up in the Shadyside neighborhood of Pittsburgh," said the Rev. Canon Harold T. Lewis, rector of Calvary, in an interview. "There's a natural connection here, as many of our people know one another from other areas of their lives."

The Rev. Nathan Rugh, Calvary's curate (assistant priest), said, "Mitzvah Day gives people who are busy with the insanity of daily living an opportunity to take one day to serve the community. It's just a day, but it can inform how you live the rest of the year." A parishioner who served at a local women's shelter last year is now working to expand Calvary's ministries there, he noted.

As the tradition has unfolded, Mitzvah Day has grown into Mitzvah Weekend. Since 2006, there has been a worship exchange. Calvary parishioners are encouraged to attend Rodef Shalom's Friday evening service, when Lewis is invited to preach. This year, a Friday night potluck dinner following worship has been instituted, and a discussion of hunger issues from Jewish and Christian perspectives will follow.

On Sunday morning, Rodef Shalom congregants are especially welcome to attend Calvary, when Bisno preaches. "At both services, worshipers are asked to participate as much as they feel comfortable. We're not running away from our differences, but we're looking for commonalities," said Rugh.

"This is a wonderful example of interfaith cooperation extending into actual service together," commented Bishop Christopher Epting, deputy to the Presiding Bishop for ecumenical and interreligious relations. "Christians and Jews have a long history of working together around issues of civil rights, anti-discrimination and anti-poverty efforts. This effort should be an encouraging one for similar ones around the country."

--The Rev. Lisa B. Hamilton is correspondent for Provinces I, II, III and IV. She is based in Venice, Florida and Sandisfield, Massachusetts.

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