It was billed as the ultimate outsider event: A group of Jews and Muslims getting together on Christmas to meet people of another faith and to serve food to the needy.
But like any event built around the holidays and people you don’t know, unpredictability was a factor.
As about 15 people crammed into the Washington D.C. Jewish Community Center’s kitchen late Thursday afternoon to pack bags of food to give away, it became clear that only one Muslim — an organizer — had come and that the rest of the participants were Jewish. And about half of them weren’t affiliated with the Jewish-Muslim interfaith group that had planned the event — they simply had come to the JCC because it organizes dozens of service options on Christmas.
Regardless, for this group, Thursday’s event turned out to be the perfect way to celebrate a holiday they do not observe. For some who were in the kitchen, and then later in Franklin Square distributing food and other items, service is their Christmas tradition.
Ammar Zakiullah, 31, a Muslim from New Jersey, said he spends every Christmas serving through the JCC. He first heard of “JAMDC” five years ago when a Jewish friend sent him an e-mail inviting him to one of the group’s events, which are mostly movies and discussion sessions.
He thought that from the name — which stands for Jews and Muslims D.C. — that it was an offer to play music. He played drums and guitar, and he figured: Sure!
“I was like: ‘I can jam!’ ” Zakiullah said. Once he got to the event, he figured he’d try it. “At the time, I didn’t have many Jewish friends. It turned out we were a lot alike, and now some of my best friends are Jews in D.C.”
Brian Thompson, 30, joined JAMDC this year for a similar reason: He didn’t know many Muslims but wanted to. He’d spent Thursday morning at a prayer and scripture study — the focus was on ethics and how to accept criticism gracefully — but by the afternoon, he was at the JCC kitchen, ripping aluminum foil to cover cups of tuna and egg salad. He appreciates that JAMDC gets together socially without always having a specific agenda of religion or politics.
When the group got to Franklin Square on Christmas Day, the volunteers encountered many people working to overcome addiction or homelessness.
Among them was Edward T. Johnson, 51, who said he had in the past been incarcerated, fought addiction and last week lost his job as a computer technician. Years ago, he slept in the downtown square, and although he now has a home, he knew that if he visited the square on Christmas, he could find something to eat. Late in the afternoon, volunteers with JAMDC arrived with tuna salad, toiletry kits including socks and soap, and holiday cards.
“I’d like to be the one here giving things out to them, but now I’m the one on this side. I want to be an overcomer,” said Johnson. “I’m grateful for the thought, but it would do more to take one person in this park and say: ‘I want to help you do better, I’m going to help you do better.’ ”
As the sun sank, the JAMDC group was moving on — everyone at Franklin had been offered food, water, toiletries, cards, candy canes. The group left for McPherson Square to see whether there were people there who could use their items and warm wishes.
Sitting beside Johnson on a bench at Franklin Square was his 31-year-old son, Edward Johnson Jr., who also said he was down on his luck.
Dozens of people there appeared to be living in the park, with shopping carts and multiple bags, eating the JAMDC volunteers’ offerings.
As the Johnsons spoke, a fight broke out nearby.
“The spirit of Christmas is getting worse,” the elder Johnson said. “Do you see any lights around?”