TORONTO — If you take out the accents, the greetings of “shalom aleichem” in Hebrew and “salaam aleikum” in Arabic sound the same.
These expressions of welcome were repeated quite a few times on a sunny Sunday afternoon in North York to mark International Women’s Day. Nearly 200 Toronto-area Jews and Muslims came together March 8 at the Borochov Cultural Centre to meet each other and begin a dialogue about helping their communities.
The program, organized by Na’amat Canada and the Canadian Council of Muslim Women, marked the first step by the two organizations toward merging their networks of women.
“If we don’t talk to each other and we don’t come together… then Islamophobia and anti-Semitism will continue growing,” Gerry Anklewicz, president of Na’amat Canada’s Toronto chapter, told The CJN. “When you know about the other, then there is no other.”
For both Na’amat Canada in Toronto and CCMW’s local group, this convergence was the first interfaith event either organization had held in years.
Human rights activist Karen Mock helped Na’amat get in touch with Muslim community leaders, and both sides welcomed the idea to meet.
“If we are united and working together, we’re that much more powerful to fight hateful rhetoric and for the equality of women’s rights,” said Fathima Hussain, president of the CCMW in Toronto.
Aside from interfaith relations, with stories about sexual harassment frequently in the news and ongoing issues with equal wages for women, there were many hot-button topics on participants’ minds.
The event brought out girls as young as 10, as well as a few Na’amat volunteers in their 90s.
The program took months to plan, and many of the attendees said they were excited to get the chance to speak to women from other cultures.
Half an hour before the event’s start, most of the chairs were taken. Some community leaders and dignitaries, including York Centre MP Mark Adler, had to search for seats in the packed room. Not long into the program, it was standing room only.
Before the speeches began, some of the younger participants were taking selfies with new friends at their tables, and it wasn’t long before many of the women were leaning in to share stories across cultures.
The Canadian Association of Jews and Muslims also helped to plan the celebration, along with the Women’s Intercultural Network (WIN). WIN honoured Liberal Sen. Mobina Jaffer with an International Women’s Day award for her achievements.
WIN also acknowledged Na’amat Canada with the Vara P. Singh Award, a tribute to its volunteer efforts. The women’s organization turns 90 this year.
In her keynote address, Jaffer spoke about her dream for all women to be able to obtain education and be free from violence. She also told the women in the room that the value of this initial meeting would be lost if the same Jewish and Muslim women didn’t meet again until the next International Women’s Day.
“We either look out for each other, or we destroy each other,” she said. “We have to work together.”
Jaffer, born in Uganda and currently representing British Columbia, is the chair of the Senate standing committee of human rights. She was also Canada’s first Muslim senator when she was appointed in 2001 and has championed issues involving gender-based violence and security for women and girls.
Having served as Canada’s special envoy for peace in Sudan a decade ago, she spoke about how disheartened she felt with the lack of female voices in talks.
“I’ve always felt that I don’t want men to make decisions for me,” she told the crowd. “I need to be at the table.”
Jaffer urged the guests to engage in powerful discussion and to learn from each other’s stories and pain.
“I truly believe it will be the women who will bring peace between Israel and Palestine,” she told the rapt crowd. Many greeted that statement with applause.