On a wintry Tuesday night in Toronto, a group of women are engrossed in talk about mourning rites.
Tucked in a room at the University of Toronto’s Multi-Faith Centre, they listen to a recording of a woman formerly part of Calgary’s chevra kadisha (Jewish burial society) describe the customary Jewish procedure for preparing a body for burial.
Next, Hayat Mabrouk comes to the front of the room and uses a doll to demonstrate the method used in the Muslim tradition to clean and shroud a body.
The several dozen or so women assembled are students of a seven-week, Jewish-Muslim women’s text study course called “Blood, Milk and Tears: Menstruating, Nursing and Mourning in Islamic and Jewish Sources.”
After the presentations, they remark on the similarities between the two religions’ burial customs, particularly the shared reverence for the deceased.
The course, comprising both Jewish and Muslim women ranging in age from their 20s to their 60s, was created and taught by Shari Golberg, an academic who’s been leading Jewish-Muslim text study groups since 2003.
Before that, she was involved in Jewish-Palestinian dialogue of a political nature, but found religiosity to be conspicuously missing from these conversations.
She grew frustrated, she said, with how the talks “often degenerated into screaming matches.”
Shifting to Jewish-Muslim dialogue that uses “classical religious texts as a springboard” has been a way to “start from a place of common ground, not one of conflict,” Golberg explained.
While strife between Israelis and Palestinians has put enormous strain on Jewish-Muslim relations globally, there are Canadians from both faiths who are quietly and persistently working to foster mutual understanding between the two communities.
Among those at the forefront of these efforts, a consensus appears to have emerged on how to best build bridges between Canadian Jews and Muslims. They maintain that friendship and trust must first be established at a grassroots, person-to-person level, and that without it, the prospect of broaching contentious issues like Israeli-Palestinian relations is a non-starter.
One group leading the charge is the Canadian Association of Jews and Muslims (CAJM), established in 1996 with an objective to promote good relations between the two communities in Canada.
Barbara Landau, who co-chairs the organization with Shahid Akhtar, said the CAJM has been meeting with a renewed sense of purpose since 9/11, seeking to counter the inevitable rise of Islamaphobia by creating a strong model for Jewish-Muslim co-operation.
Landau and Akhtar composed a joint statement calling for peace that was read at a Toronto City Hall rally, and by Rabbi Debra Landsberg to her congregation at Toronto’s Temple Emanu-El.
The statement stressed that “Muslims are about to face what Jews have faced for decades, if not centuries,” Landau said.
CAJM also began convening Jewish and Muslim leaders and community members for regular dialogue programs, shared celebrations for holidays such as Eid al-Fitr, Chanukah and Passover, and, in Toronto and Montreal, an annual Weekend of Twinning, part of an international initiative led by the New York-based Foundation for Ethnic Understanding, which co-ordinates partnerships between local synagogues and mosques.
If Canadian Jews and Muslims get to know each other on a personal basis and come to more deeply understand the values of the other, people from both communities will actually care about what happens to one another, Landau stressed.
“It’s so much easier to make friends than enemies when you’re looking at the humanity of the other,” she said.
CAJM doesn’t typically address the subject of Israel, Landau said, but she noted it’s “definitely the elephant in the room for Jewish-Muslim relations.”
“Nobody’s asking us to solve the Middle East,” she said, “though, if given the chance, we probably could do so more effectively [than those holding power in the region] right now, because we actually care about what happens to each other’s families… We’ve built the feeling we’re in a community together… We all care about the loss of lives and vulnerable people. That’s our common ground.”
Human rights consultant and CAJM member Karen Mock, a co-founder of the left-leaning Zionist group JSpace Canada, said the key to the CAJM’s effectiveness is the fact it operates on a grassroots level.
“The leadership never wanted it to be a formal political organization. It’s about people meeting with people,” she stressed.
The key to Jewish-Muslim interfaith work is understanding each others’ histories and the persecution faced by others, said Shahina Siddiqui, president of the Canadian branch of the Islamic Social Services Association (ISSA), located in Winnipeg.
“We know that Jews and Muslims have always worked together historically and that Jews have, historically, sought refuge among Muslims,” she said.
Developed in 2003 as an offshoot of the Washington, D.C.-based non-profit, ISSA Canada provides health and social services to members of the Muslim community and does interfaith work.
In collaboration with Jewish groups, ISSA has held forums on issues like anti-Semitism and Islamaphobia, and worked with Winnipeg’s Congregation Shaarey Zedek, the Jewish Federation of Winnipeg and the Winnipeg chapter of Independent Jewish Voices, which has been outspoken in its criticism of Israel and supports boycotting the Jewish state.
Several years ago, ISSA Canada collaborated with local Jewish groups to organize a protest against Quebec’s proposed charter of values, which would have prohibited public sector employees from wearing religious symbols.
“Winnipeg is a small community… We may not do huge [interfaith] conferences, but on a person-to-person, community-to-community level, there’s constant outreach between [groups]… I find it’s important not to always talk through the lens of Israel and Palestine. That becomes a barrier,” Siddiqui said.
While Israel can’t always be excluded from the conversation, she said, it’s important that the issue not define the Jewish-Muslim relationship in Canada.
“My Jewish friends and I are like family to each other, and we look at how to build our communities here rather than looking to an issue we may have different political views on… Interpersonal relationships – that’s how you build understanding,” she stressed.
Alia Hogben lives near Kingston and is executive director of the Canadian Council of Muslim Women (CCMW).
Founded in 1982, the CCMW is committed to promoting equality and empowerment for Canadian Muslim women, and is also active in interfaith dialogue.
With chapters across Canada, CCMW has worked with, for example, Holy Blossom Temple in Toronto and groups such as Na’amat Canada, which seeks to enhance the lives of women and children in Canada and Israel.
Hogben said CCMW deliberately takes no political stance on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
“We’re very sorry about the whole thing, but we feel we can’t resolve it… We keep it aside because there are many areas of common ground we can work on,” she said.
Last summer in Montreal, representatives from the Jewish and Muslim communities met to discuss establishing greater contact and collaboration.
In December, the communities met again to talk about responses to the Syrian refugee crisis.
Rabbi Lisa Gruschow of Montreal’s Temple Emanu-El Beth Sholom, who was involved in both meetings, said she hasn’t been aware of much Jewish-Muslim dialogue in the city since, speculating that it’s because the refugee crisis seems to be “the area that’s mobilizing people right now… this will hopefully lead to deeper relationships between our communities.”
Noting that, “the challenge will be taking the leap from positive feeling to organization,” Rabbi Gruschow said that undertaking shared projects seems to be an optimal way to foster trust.
“At the summer meeting, we spoke about the importance of, as a minority community, feeling like other minority communities have your back,” she said.
Several years ago, after violence broke out between Israel and Palestinian supporters at a pro-Palestinian rally in Calgary, local imam Syed Soharwardy reached out to Rabbi Shaul Osadchey of Calgary’s Beth Tzedec Congregation, and the two founded what they call the Calgary Jewish-Muslim Council.
The group, which Imam Soharwardy said draws Muslims of varying backgrounds, meets monthly, and seeks to work at the grassroots level to bring Jewish and Muslim families together.
Last month, the group held what it said were milestone events: at the first one about 100 Jewish and Muslim families met at Calgary’s Green Dome Mosque to learn about religious Muslim practices and share a meal. The following week, many of the participants attended a similar gathering at Beth Tzedec.
“It was eye-opening for those who previously thought Jews hate Muslims,” Soharwardy said, noting that an initiative to get Jewish and Muslim families meeting in each other’s homes is in the works.
“We think that having rabbis and imams talking to each other isn’t nearly as effective as a Jewish girl talking to a Muslim girl, a Jewish family talking to a Muslim family, their children playing together. That’s what will create friendship,” he said.
This group also believes that it’s not up to them to solve the conflict between Israelis and Palestinians.
“We wish and pray for it to be resolved, but we don’t want animosity in our local community,” Soharwardy said.
While the issue of Israel clearly lurks beneath the surface of Jewish-Muslim dialogue, many of those leading these activities maintain it can’t be addressed before Canadian Jews and Muslims forge strong personal bonds – something that can be achieved by learning about other’s customs and commonalities.
But are the grassroots Jewish-Muslim initiatives across Canada really laying the foundation for constructive dialogue of a more political nature?
And how do those at the forefront of these efforts envision a shift from friendship to serious political dialogue, and are there people who argue that the latter is simply not feasible?
It’s a subject we’ll examine next week in part two of our series.