Belle Jarniewski (fifth from the left) is one of the co-founders, with Sumera Sahar (fourth from the left), Perry Kimelman and Dr. Rory Dickson of the Muslim-Jewish Dialogue Group of Winnipeg. (photo from Belle Jarniewski)
Started in Winnipeg last year after a visit from Rabbi Shaul Osadchey of Calgary’s Beth Tzedec, Belle Jarniewski and Perry Kimelman believe that a local dialogue group with Muslims and Jews will do a lot of good for both communities.
Jarniewski is chair of the Freeman Family Foundation Holocaust Education Centre, a position she has held since 2008. And, just recently, she began a two-year term as president of the Manitoba Multifaith Council, the first woman and the first Jewish person to hold that position.
“The Manitoba Multifaith Council had brought in Rabbi Shaul Osadchey of Calgary for its Multifaith Leadership Breakfast in 2015 and I was intrigued to hear how successful he had been in his own interfaith dialogue work and to hear how well he had reached out to the Muslim community there,” she told the Independent.
Jarniewski approached her synagogue with the idea of seeing if she could work with them to hold the kinds of events with which Osadchey had seen success, but received little interest. So, she decided to start a group independently of an institution.
“Perry and I are also members of the Arab-Jewish Dialogue Group, which discusses (primarily) the Arab-Israeli conflict, but seems to eschew any real discussion of religion,” she explained. “Both of us have been active in interfaith work for quite some time and have many connections to wonderful people. We felt that was something that was missing. Once we realized that both of us had long been interested in starting just such a group, we put our heads together to see what would be the best way forward.”
Of course, to get the idea off the ground, they needed a Muslim partner or two. They found a perfect match in Sumera Sahar, a member of the Canadian Council of Muslim Women (CCMW). The second Muslim co-convener they found was Dr. Rory Dickson of the University of Winnipeg’s department of religion and culture. And, with that, the four set out to build membership, which is now a balanced mix of almost 40 Jews and Muslims (by invitation only). Members have been proposed by other members, as well as by the conveners.
“It is important that those who join are interested in dialogue with each other, are interested in religion and culture – our own and each other’s – and accept the very few rules we have imposed upon ourselves,” said Jarniewski.
These rules, she said, include “no discussion of politics – there is already another group established for that very reason – and, as well, both groups decided early on that we preferred not to involve clergy. If someone wishes to join, they must be referred through a member.
“We also have a closed group discussion through our private Facebook page, which seems to work very well. The ages of our members are from university through … well, I don’t ask … I would say in the 60s.
“The diversity of religion streams and origins of both Jewish and Muslim members contributes to some wonderfully rich discussions,” she continued. “The group is all about learning about each other’s religion and culture and each other, and getting to know one another. For far too long, Muslims and Jews have had, at best, a polite relationship with each other, but haven’t really gotten to know one another and learned just how much our two religions have in common.”
The group has held a number of evening get-togethers, learning about Sharia and halachah side by side. “The word Sharia evokes, for most Westerners, the most extreme form of Islamic law,” said Jarniewski, “but we learned that Sharia is far more complex than this simplistic interpretation.
“One night, we had Dr. Ruth Ashrafi talk about the role of women in Jewish law and Drs. Rory Dickson and Ahmet Seyhun lecturing on family law in Islam. On another night, we had a great discussion about halal and kashrut.
“At our very first meeting, one of our Jewish members, who hails from Iran, recited a Muslim prayer in flawless Arabic. What an icebreaker that was!”
Sahar told the Independent this group “is an important initiative and much needed, given the popular and often-unchallenged notion that somehow Jews and Muslims are historical and natural adversaries.”
Sahar is an executive member of CCMW’s Winnipeg chapter, the co-coordinator of a community food bank serving Arabic-speaking refugees and has recently been invited to sit on the board of the Manitoba Multifaith Council.
The core objective of the Muslim-Jewish dialogue group is that Muslims and Jews get to know one another directly without the filter of religious or political organizations. Sahar contends that most, if not all, group members believe that the group is a crucial step toward countering antisemitism and Islamophobia and, most importantly, to bridging communities.
Like Jarniewski, Sahar has made good friends and formed a much better understanding of the similarities both religions share, not just religiously, but also as minority religious communities.
“Being a minority community has its challenges, and both Jews and Muslims share similar anxieties and concerns,” said Sahar. “We share the struggle of gaining acceptance and inclusion without losing our religious values and identity. We are also subject to the question of representation – who speaks for us?
“Both communities are pluralistic and diverse but, as is the case with most minority groups, we are often represented in the media and popular discourse as a single voice. I was struck to learn that this issue is as much a source of frustration for the Jewish members of the group as it is for the Muslim members.”
The dialogue group has provided a platform to discuss such issues and suggest some strategies to overcome them. The convenors are pleased to see the sincerity with which group members have engaged with one another and are hopeful in their potential to build understanding.
“I feel that it is more important than ever to speak up when unfortunate statements are made in these rather difficult times that attack Muslims and Islam,” said Jarniewski. “These statements are generally mired in stereotypes and ignorance. It is important that our community realize they are received in the Muslim community in the very same way that the Jewish community is hurt by antisemitic comments.”
Jarniewski is well aware that, across Canada, there are Jewish-Muslim groups such as the one in Winnipeg who are coming together to engage in dialogue. “Little by little, groups such as ours will have a very positive effect,” she said.
Jarniewski quoted Catholic priest and Swiss theologian Hans Küng: “No peace among the nations without peace among the religions. No peace among the religions without dialogue between the religions. No dialogue between the religions without investigation of the foundation of the religions.”
Rebeca Kuropatwa is a Winnipeg freelance writer.