Women from the Okanagan Jewish and Muslim communities at a Feb. 9 event, which is the first of hopefully many bringing the communities together. (photo by Steven Finkleman)
The Jewish and Muslim communities of Kelowna and its surrounding areas have started celebrating their similarities with neighbourly get-togethers.
Coming from a mixed religious background, Okanagan Jewish Community member Philippe Richer-Lafleche knows well how upsetting it can be to be labeled or misunderstood. Yet, he has consciously chosen to look beyond his negative experiences.
“I feel that we’re not called to religion. God doesn’t call us to religion. He calls us to relationships,” said Richer-Lafleche. “We talk about the covenant as a relationship. We have communities, and out of communities come tradition, and out of tradition and culture comes religion. When you get hung up on the religious thing and the symbolism, and forget about the relationship, that’s when we get into trouble…. For me, what’s important is how I relate to myself, the world around me and the people I live with.”
Last summer, OJC president Steven Finkleman asked Richer-Lafleche if he would consider being part of the board and Richer-Lafleche agreed. A few months later, Finkleman and Richer-Lafleche began talking about connecting with the growing Muslim community in hopes it would provide a blueprint for connecting with the other local communities, including First Nation, Sikh, Christian, Hindu, Buddhist and others.
“We began by approaching the mosque,” Richer-Lafleche told the Independent. “Steven knew somebody who’s on their council, got in touch, and we had a meeting. We thought that the two of us would go to the mosque and meet with one or two people. We met with the entire board for the mosque – about eight people, three women, five men, I think. They said they’ve wanted to do this, too, and had been talking about how.”
The Muslim community appointed Rehan Sadiq as their lead in the initiative, and Richer-Lafleche and Sadiq began meeting at the local Tim Hortons almost every weekend for coffee and conversation, becoming friends in the process.
The first event bringing together the communities took place Feb. 9 at the Kelowna Islamic Centre, and the next one is being planned for this spring at Kelowna’s Beth Shalom Congregation.
“The concern I had was just how many people at the synagogue would be interested,” said Richer-Lafleche. “But, it worked out very well, with about two dozen people from both sides, open to families and people of all ages.
“It started with a 10-minute talk – somebody from the mosque, somebody from the synagogue, talking about the community, how the community in Kelowna or in the Okanagan developed, where the Jews or Muslims here came from … some of the challenges in the community…. There was a little bit of talk about some of the shared values, and I think a lot of the people from the synagogue were astounded that there weren’t a lot of differences, that a lot of the values were the same.”
Once the formal part of the event took place, participants had lunch together and mingled, then took a tour of the newly built mosque, which included a call to prayer.
“There was a young fellow who calls to prayer, beautiful voices in Arabic, from my perspective it was absolutely beautiful, moving,” said Richer-Lafleche. “People from both sides said this was the beginning of a relationship between the two communities, but also core for interfaith connection with other communities.”
Both Richer-Lafleche and Sadiq are working on other ways for their communities to connect with, learn about and support each other.
“I know, in the Islamic world, Jews living in the Islamic world throughout our history, there was this interchange between Muslims and Jews, with science, literature, philosophy, and even spirituality,” said Richer-Lafleche. “It’s unfortunate that, in the 20th century, it seems to have broken down. Maybe, in a small way, in a small part of the world, with a very small group of people, we can start to do something like that … and maybe peace in the world.
“I know there may be a few people at the synagogue that may be very uncomfortable with the fact that there’s this connection with Muslims … and that’s just simply fear,” he added. “We’re stepping outside that comfort zone and you progress slowly.”
“We had a very small Jewish community,” said Sadiq, referring to Pakistan, where he was born. “When I came here [in 2008], there was a very small mosque, housed in an old church. We recently built a large mosque and wanted to find ways to connect with the Jewish community.
“My children go to public school and have friends of all different faiths. I don’t want my kids to be biased. I want them to explore and appreciate. I want them to get to know our neighbours.
“I’m glad that our story is newsworthy and very important. One-on-one interaction is the best way to move forward, instead of relying on what we hear in the news.”
“There’s a saying,” added Richer-Lafleche. “‘When you look into the face of another human being, it’s wonderful when you realize you’re actually looking into yourself.’ And it’s that connection that we need in this world. I think that’s what’s important.”
For more information about the OJC, call 250-862-2305 or visit ojcc.ca.
Rebeca Kuropatwa is a Winnipeg freelance writer.