On March 13, members of Calgary’s Muslim community visited Congregation Beth Tzedec. Jewish community members had visited Green Dome Mosque the week prior. The events were part of the Our House is Your House program. (photo from Shaul Osadchey)
After a 2014 clash between Palestinian and Israeli supporters on the grounds of Calgary City Hall that ended violently, Imam Syed Soharwardy of Green Dome Mosque reached out to local rabbis and Jewish community leaders, and Rabbi Shaul Osadchey of Beth Tzedec responded by inviting Jewish and Muslim leaders to his synagogue for discussions.
The discussions helped make the next demonstrations peaceful. They also helped transform the general relationship between the Muslim and Jewish communities, which led to two unity events held this past March.
“From that conversation, we made a commitment to meet again and continue the conversation,” said Osadchey. “We continued to meet at Beth Tzedec monthly and, within about two months, we decided to form the Calgary Jewish Muslim Council.”
That council has been meeting for almost two years, discussing various issues that affect both communities. Through this, the rabbi proposed the concept of Our House is Your House, the program that hosted the recent unity events. The program’s purpose is to bring together lay members of the communities for table conversations – not for lectures about religion, but simply to come together to explore mutual commonalities.
On March 6, about 50 Jewish community members made their way to Green Dome Mosque in northeast Calgary for the first of two consecutive Sunday events, the second of which took place at Beth Tzedec.
“We had a very inspiring program in which the clergy spoke at the beginning and then a lot of people were then invited to ask questions and express how they felt about doing these kinds of programs and getting to know each other,” said Osadchey. “We had refreshments and people visited with each other. It was quite a significant day.”
According to Osadchey, those who attended were impressed, finding the imams forthright in explaining how they felt the use of certain quotes from the Quran, such as, “you shouldn’t make friends with Jews or Christians,” were often used out of context and not in the true spirit of Islam.
The plan is to expand Our House is Your House with the program My House is Your House, matching people up for dinners in community members’ homes. There is also another program, funded by a Beth Tzedec member, that will see Jewish and Muslim teens (15- to 16-year-olds) engage in philanthropy.
“We’ll have six to eight Jewish youth and six to eight Muslim youth meet for six sessions, alternating between the mosque and the synagogue,” said Osadchey. “They will focus on learning about charity in each other’s traditions. They’ll identify common values, and then will go through a process of selecting and then allocating funds that have been donated to organizations in Calgary that they think reflect the values that they’ve articulated. So, it’s going to be an opportunity for the teens to get together and build a relationship, and do something constructive and positive to influence the community.”
Another initiative between the communities involved the Soup Sisters, an organization that was started by two Beth Tzedec women and has grown to include chapters in many Canadian cities, as well as one in Los Angeles. (See jewishindependent.ca/soup-ladled-with-love.)
“They make soup that is then donated to abused women in shelters and other facilities,” said Osadchey. Wanting to do a soup project for Syrian refugees, “the women came to me and asked how to get halal meat. I sent an email to several imams, asking them if they knew anyone who’d be willing to donate 86 kilograms of halal meat. Within an hour or two, I got a response from an imam saying he has the name of an individual able and happy to do that and that he’s expecting my call. Again, things are working in ways that we’re able to accomplish wonderful goals to help people in the community.”
Soharwardy, who initiated the Jewish-Muslim unity talks, is also the founder of Muslims Against Terrorism and the Islamic Association of Canada. He is a Sunni Muslim who follows the Sufi tradition.
“About three months ago, Rabbi [Osadchey] and I were chatting,” said Soharwardy. “He said, ‘Let’s do something grassroots instead of a rabbi and an imam talking. Let’s involve our families, women, children, everybody.
“I think this was the first time in the history of, at least Canada, that such a large group from the Jewish community came to the mosque. They had a dialogue, they had food … we sat together for an informal discussion…. That inspired so many Muslims. It removed misunderstanding. People realized, Jewish people are not our enemies, we have so much in common.”
About 80 or 90 members of the Muslim community went to Beth Tzedec on March 13, he said. “We sat down, we saw the Torah, we heard three rabbis there. We were so amazed. I was happy to see we have so much in common. I’m so happy and I’m still, in my mind, still in that synagogue, listening to this rabbi and the way he was performing. I can’t call him anything except a person of faith, and his Jewish faith is very close to my faith. It’s just an amazing feeling. I don’t understand why we are enemies. I don’t think we are enemies.”
Soharwardy can hardly wait for the next step of inviting some new Jewish friends to his house to share food and conversation.
“I think, at the family level, we should start engaging ourselves,” he said. “That will build the relationship among adults as well as children … so our children will get the understanding that we are not enemies, we don’t hate each other. We are normal humans, Canadians, and neighbors.”
Osadchey added, “We recognize there’s still a lot of work to be done in both communities. There’s a lot of suspicion, a lot of stereotype and misinformation that exists in our communities about the other. To further break that down really takes people-to-people contact.
“There’s a lot of anxiety and a lot of cynicism and doubt about whether these efforts are really viable,” he continued. “I think the more that we’ve done together as two communities, the more the message is emerging that, yes, this is worth doing. We’re not under any illusion that we are going to change events in the Middle East, but we are creating an alternative model that will have a ripple effect beyond Calgary, that will say to people, having good relationships and learning about each other and respecting each other is definitely possible and desirable.
“We’re doing it with people in the Jewish community and Muslim community. We all have relatives in the Middle East. We have relatives elsewhere, too. So, to be able to model what we are doing and let people know about this will put the seed of change elsewhere … so that it goes beyond our local efforts.”
Rebeca Kuropatwa is a Winnipeg freelance writer.