MONTREAL — A Hampstead synagogue and members of the Sikh community are showing goodwill in the midst of the acrimonious debate over values in Quebec by teaming up for a series of joint activities.
Congregation Dorshei Emet, better known as the Reconstructionist Synagogue, and Sikh community leaders Manjit Singh and Harjeet Singh Bhabra got things going with a friendly soccer match on Sept. 29 between young people from each community, held at Mackenzie King Park.
Most of the Sikh participants are from the Gurdwara Sahib Greater Montreal Temple in Dollard des Ormeaux.
Young men and women aged 16 to 22 took part in the program, dubbed the “Turbans vs. Kippot Face-off.”
The two communities have found common ground as two “Peoples of the Book,” whose traditional headgear as religious minorities is the target of the proposed Quebec charter of values.
The choice of soccer as the inaugural event is a reminder that this past spring, the Quebec Soccer Federation sought to ban the wearing of the Sikh turban on the pitch, which provoked a widespread outcry. The federation reversed the directive after FIFA, the international soccer body, confirmed that turbans were permitted.
Dorshei Emet executive director Robyn Bennett said, “Rather than following an increasingly worrisome trend of polarization and fear of the other, members of the two communities have chosen to get to know each other, their similarities and their differences.”
The soccer game was followed by a potluck picnic.
Later this fall, reciprocal presentations at the synagogue and a Sikh temple by Rabbi Ron Aigen and Manjit Singh, the Sikh chaplain at McGill University, are planned. Harjeet Singh Bhabra is a professor at Concordia University’s John Molson School of Business.
Manjit Singh, a past president of the Interfaith Council of Montreal, has been involved in dialogue for more than 25 years.
“There has not been until now any formal relationship between Jews and Sikhs. We have had contact among individuals, but this is the first time at the institutional level,” he said.
“We do have some things in common. Jews and Sikhs have a similar concept of God, as well as both being people of the book.”
Singh and other Sikh leaders have been actively reaching out to other faith groups in recent years to demystify their religion, and the charter controversy has made that effort more imperative.
On Nov. 3, at Le Mood, a Federation CJA-sponsored day of alternative Jewish learning aimed at young adults, there will be a session called “Holy Hair!” where Jewish and Sikh representatives will discuss the significance of hair in their respective traditions.
Dorshei Emet is sponsoring the events as part of its second annual Pierre Toth Memorial Series, named for a congregation member who was active in interfaith dialogue. Toth, who died in 2010, taught international business at HEC Montréal.
Bennett noted that work began on the Jewish-Sikh partnership this summer before the charter debate got underway, but it has since taken on deeper significance.
Meanwhile, Immigration and Cultural Communities Minister Diane De Courcy and Democratic Institutions Minister Bernard Drainville told members of the ethnic media on Sept. 23 that the charter is intended to “bring all Quebecers closer together.”
“These proposals are addressed to all Quebecers and are aimed at affirming the values that unite us: the equality of all citizens before the state and, in particular, the equality between women and men, the religious neutrality of the state, and respect for a common historic patrimony,” Drainville said.
These proposals, he contended, will reinforce “social cohesion and harmonious relations in a Quebec that is more and more multi-ethnic, more and more multi-religious.”
De Courcy emphasized that immigrants must respect these values and “adapt” to their new homeland.
“Difference must not be considered as a richness to preserve, but rather as the point of departure of an enriching cultural mixing,” she said.
Drainville added: “Throughout its history, Quebec has always found a balance between respect for the rights of each person and respect for our common values. These proposals fall within this profoundly democratic tradition.”
One Jewish group, B’nai Brith Canada, is not convinced. It’s readying legal arguments against the charter bill, which the government says it will table this fall.
“Should the charter be passed in its current form, B’nai Brith Canada, which has championed human rights for all Canadians, will seek to legally intervene, first and foremost on behalf of the Jewish community, as well as to protect the rights of all minority groups in the province of Quebec,” said the organization’s CEO, Frank Dimant.
B’nai Brith has communicated to federal government its support for a constitutional challenge if the charter, as proposed, is adopted by the National Assembly.