למעלה משלושים אלף איש צעדו בדאון טאון טורונטו לאחרונה בפרוייקט השנתי: “ללכת עם ישראל”. זאת הפגנת עמדת כוח לתמיכה במדינת ישראל. מדובר באחד מאירועי התמיכה בישראל מהבולטים ביותר עולם, כמובן אחרי קהילת היהודים של ניו יורק.
לפי הערכה למעלה מארבע מאות אלף יהודים חיים כיום בקנדה. מדובר בעצם באחת מקהילות היהודים הגדולות בעולם מחוץ לישראל. במקום השני ארה”ב, אחרי כן עדיין צרפת ואולי גם רוסיה ולאחר מכן במקום המכובד קנדה.
קהילת היהודים בקנדה נחשבת לתומכת בישראל לפי מחקרים של אוניברסיטאות טורונטו ויורק, ואפילו אולי יותר מיהדות ארה”ב? לא בטוח שהנתונים נכונים, אך בוודאי בכל קהילה של יהודים בעולם רוצים לחשוב ולקוות שהם התומכים הגדולים ביותר של ישראל.
הקהילה היהודית בקנדה היא קהילה חזקה ומבוססת ובעלת השפעה בקנדה, בתחומים הפוליטיים, הכלכליים ועוד. זאת בעיקר ערים הגדולות של קנדה בהם מרוכזים מרבית היהודים: טורונטו ומונטריאול. בערים מרכזיות אחרות בקנדה מספר היהודים נחשב לקטן ויש להם פחות משמעות. מדובר בערים כמו: ונקובר, אוטווה, קלגרי, אדמונטון וויניפג.
שגריר ישראל בקנדה, נמרוד ברקן, מסר לעיתון ידיעות אחרונות כי אם גורמים בישראל ימשיכו לדחוק את היהודים הקונסרבטיבים והרפורמים, ישראל תשלם מחיר על כך בקנדה. ליהודי קנדה הפלורליזם היהודי מאוד חשוב יש לזכור.
לפי נתוני שגרירות ישראל בקנדה: כארבעים אחוז מהיהודים במדינה הם אורתודוכסים, כארבעים אחוז מהיהודים הם קונסרבטיבים וכעשרים אחוז מיהודים הם רפורמים. למעלה ממחצית היהודים בקנדה (כחמישים וחמישה אחוז) שולחים את ילדיהם למערכת החינוך היהודית. על סדר יומה של הקהילה היהודית בקנדה, בדומה לקהילות יהודיות אחרות בעולם: אנטישמיות הגואה, ביטחון, הדור המזדקן, הגברת המעורבות של דור העתיד, הקמת הנהגה חדשה והקשר עם ישראל.
בממשלה הפדרלית הקנדית של המפלגה הליברלית בראשות ג’סטין טרודו, מכהנים כיום שני שרים יהודים: השר לגיוון סחר חוץ, ג’ים קאר והשרה למוסדות הדמוקרטים, קרינה גולד. בבית הפרלמט הקנדי יש שישה חברי פרלמנט יהודים (בהם יו”ר ועדת החוץ ויו”ר האגודה הפרלמנטרית קנדה-ישראל, מייקל לוויט). בבית המשפט העליון שמכיל תשעה שופטים מכהנים שני שופטים יהודים.
ראש הממשלה, ג’סטין טרודו, נחשב לידיד הקהילה אם כי הוא רחוק מאוד מראש הממשלה הקודם, סטיבן הרפר, שנחשב בשעתו למנהיג התומך ביותר בישראל מקרב כל מנהיגי העולם. הרפר בנסיעתו לישראל העמיס על מטוס הממשלה משלחת גדולה של כמאתיים איש ומרביתם יהודים. טרודו השתתף לאחרונה באירוע ההצדעה לישראל שנערך בטורונטו, במלאת שבעים שנה לקשרי קנדה וישראל. באירוע טרודו נאם ויצא בחריפות נגד האנטישמיות וכן גינה את תופעת הבי.די.אס הגואה בקנדה בשנים האחרונות. במהלך ביקורו בקנדה של נשיא המדינה, ראובן ריבלין, נפגש עמו טרודו לא פחות מארבע פעמים. לפי הערכות טרודו מחפש את הקול היהודי לקראת הבחירות הפדרליות שיערכו בעשרים ואחד באוקטובר.
לפי הערכת שגרירות ישראל בקנדה מספר הישראלים בקנדה עומד כיום על יותר משבעים אלף. מטבע הדברים מרביתם חיים בטורונטו. בנוסף אליהם בשנים האחרונות הגיעו לקנדה קרוב לכארבעים אלף יהודים מארצות חבר העמים. מרביתם כנראה גרו קודם לכן בישראל.
הקונסוליה הישראלית בטורונטו אגב נחשבת לאחת מהעמוסות בעולם וזאת לאור הגידול המתמיד במספר הישראלים המהגרים לקנדה, בין אם בגלל עבודה או רצון לשפר את איכות החיים.
יצויין כי המגבית היהודית של טורונטו מגייסת מדי שנה כשישים מיליון דולר, ומהם כעשרים מיליון מועברים לסיוע בפרוייקטים שונים בישראל, בעיקר בפריפרייה.
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.
Last week, U.S. President Donald Trump said the Democratic party in that country has become an “anti-Jewish” and an “anti-Israel” party.
The president was criticizing Democrats based on stands taken by Rep. Ilhan Omar, who has made impolitic comments, including accusing pro-Israel politicians of forgetting what country they represent. Omar, along with fellow freshmen congresswomen Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and Rashida Tlaib, have made their presence known on the national scene faster and more effectively than almost any political newcomers in years. They bring a fresh, radical approach to politics, whether one agrees with their positions or not. They have the potential to be a left-wing version of the Tea Party, which upended the Republican party beginning a decade ago. The parallels are several: fresh faces with radical views and little respect for business-as-usual or party leadership hierarchies.
The Tea Party and the new Democrats, who dub themselves “The Squad,” are both causes and symptoms of a widening polarity in American politics. The centre is not holding – a reality that many Democrats are fearing as they enter the most unpredictable presidential nominating process in their history, with a score of credible candidates having entered the race. Progressives think another centrist like Hillary Clinton can’t win, while party leaders fear that nominating an avowed socialist or other seemingly far-lefty will give Trump another term.
That divisiveness is exactly what Trump wants. His only criterion for supporting an issue is whether it has short-term rating benefits for his reality-TV presidency. He may not have a sound, thought-out strategy, but if a tweet or a comment from him can monopolize the talking heads for a news cycle, this is what he views as a presidential triumph.
So, to stick a knife in the entire Democratic party based on a few (admittedly crude and arguably antisemitic) statements by a couple of new politicians is just the sort of infotainment that Trump relishes. The problem is, it isn’t the Democrats who will suffer most if Trump’s latest gambit succeeds. It’s Jews.
Trump has a compulsive need to poke sticks at people, but weapons can sometimes miss their mark. He has painted himself as a Judeophile, touting his Jewish grandchildren, but he also traffics in overt stereotypes of Jews, such as when he noted before a group of Jewish Republican that he is “a deal-maker, like you folks.” This is to say nothing of his unconcealed cavorting with white supremacists and neo-Nazis.
But the line about Democrats being an anti-Jewish and anti-Israel party is a step too far. It’s not a problem in the sense that it is entirely false – we have seen the Labour party in the United Kingdom degenerate into a movement irreparably saturated with prejudice toward Jews and an attitude toward Israel that in many cases borders on psychosis. The Democratic party could follow a similar path if the trajectory from a sliver of the party’s progressive wing is not put in check.
The reason Trump’s comments are despicable is that he takes joy in the possibility that his opposition could become a genuinely anti-Zionist and anti-Jewish party. Jews be damned, it could help Trump get reelected, so he exploits it as much as he can.
Whatever the likelihood might be of the Dems actually becoming an anti-Jewish, anti-Israel party, like U.K. Labour, Trump has politicized Israel and Jews in a way that can only harm Jewish Americans and the American-Israeli relationship.
Support for Israel based on moral, military, economic and historical foundations has been an unshakeable plank in the platform of Democrats and Republicans for decades. By refusing to turn that bilateral relationship into a partisan slapfest, both parties have managed to ensure that, barring bratty interpersonal spats like the Obama-Netanyahu tantrums, the relationship between the two allies remains strong and seemingly unbreakable.
The Democrats are finding ways to accommodate new ideas. Some of them will be good ideas, some less so. The vast majority of elected Democrats stand as firmly with Israel as ever, and they could take some lessons from the newcomers about how to get their messages across in a dynamic, engaging way.
We have had this discussion in Canada when political figures have tried to make support for Israel a partisan wedge. True friends don’t do that, because they know that their political advantages will flow and ebb, while Jewish and Zionist Canadians will have to live with whatever consequences result from short-term political schemes.
A sitting U.S. president who foments tectonic political discord around an issue like this is no friend to Jewish Americans or Israel. No matter how much he professes love for his grandchildren and Jewish deal-making skills.
More than 100 headstones were vandalized at the Chesed Shel Emeth Society cemetery in University City, Missouri. (screenshot from cbc.ca video )
We do not need to delineate the full roster of antisemitic incidents that have made the news recently. Toppled headstones, bomb threats against Jewish institutions, spray-painted swastikas, defaced mezuzot, hate messages left on doors, physical assaults in France.
On the one hand, there is a necessity to catalogue and condemn each and every incident – and police and Jewish community organizations are doing this. On the other hand, for the sake of our own individual and collective sense of security and peace of mind, we must try to assimilate these incidents into some sort of coherent narrative that, hopefully, does not lead to panic.
For the sort of individual who would desecrate a cemetery after dark, there could be a perverse thrill in making global news for what may have been little more than a drunken act on a Saturday night. The fact is that these acts – in North America certainly – are perpetrated by a tiny number of individuals. A somewhat larger number of dedicated antisemites will take cruel pleasure in the grief and fear these acts instil in Jewish communities and individuals.
The most important thing is how the great majority of people react to such incidents. It is deeply heartening to see Muslim communities uniting with Jewish communities to make right as many of the toppled gravestones as possible in St. Louis and Philadelphia. This is a model of unity in the face of hatred.
It is also necessary for the broader public – those neither Jewish nor Muslim or having membership in other targeted groups – to express their outrage and opposition to such expressions.
The situations in which Jewish and Muslim Americans find themselves are different. Muslims are being specifically targeted not only by racist individuals and groups, but by agencies of the state. This is a particularly frightening scenario. Jews are being targeted by apparently random acts of desecration and hatred. This is frightening in a somewhat different way, in that government actions, ideally, are subject to the checks and balances set out in the U.S. Constitution and we hope that those safeguards survive and thrive in this era.
Imagine deplaning after a domestic flight in the United States and being met by security officials demanding to know “Are you a Jew?” This is an immensely chilling prospect. And this is precisely what some Muslim travelers have experienced in recent days: officials of the state demanding identification papers and inquiring as to whether travelers are Muslim. Additionally alarming is the fact that many people would probably never have heard about these incidents had one of those who experienced it not been Muhammad Ali Jr. Thank goodness, at least in this context, for America’s celebrity culture.
While there have been innumerable antisemitic incidents in recent years, those who are not immersed in such news are often only dimly aware of the frequency and increasing severity of these events. When a Jewish friend posts news of a new attack on social media, you will thankfully see condemnation from Jewish and non-Jewish friends alike. But you are as likely to see shock and disbelief.
More important than what Martin Luther King Jr. called the strident clamour of the bad people, in times like these, is the appalling silence of the good people. Part of this is caused by the refraction of media and the isolated silos of information in which we have surrounded ourselves, so that we do not encounter ideas or news from outside our respective bubbles. There are many people who simply do not yet know the extent of anti-Jewish and anti-Muslim incidents taking place.
Those who do know are elected officials in positions of power. It is heartening to see Canadian leaders and many in the United States Congress expressing solidarity with the victims and condemning the perpetrators. U.S. Vice-President Mike Pence has been at the frontline of showing solidarity with targeted Jewish communities, at least. Getting appropriate remarks out of President Donald Trump has been troublingly difficult.
We may not be able to pre-empt the actions of individuals who are driven to topple gravestones or call in bomb threats. But the finest antidote to such incidents is for ordinary people to come together in condemning these acts and speaking out in favour of the values of respect and inclusiveness. As a targeted community, Jewish Canadians and Americans have a unique role in both making others aware of what is happening and showing our Muslim friends and fellow citizens that we stand with them, as they are standing with us in communities where desecrations have taken place.
Acknowledging – and demonstrating – that we are all in this together is our best hope for thriving in these times.
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.”
In Petriplatz, Pastor Gregor Hohberg, left, and Imam Kadir Sanci listen as Rabbi Andreas Nachama recites a prayer for peace. (photo by Frithjof Timm)
In the middle of Berlin, on the grounds of where a church was destroyed in the Second World War, a pastor, imam and rabbi are collaborating to create a new reality wherein Christianity, Islam and Judaism can be practised under the same roof.
“It seems so logical that something like this would take place, but it never has before,” said Rabbi Dr. Andreas Nachama who leads the only Reform congregation in Berlin, Sukkat Shalom (House of Peace).
Some congregations and groups of people refrain from intermingling out of fear of losing members to other groups. For Nachama and the other House of One proponents, this is not a concern.
“I think that the congregations are solid and I don’t think that this might turn out to be a problem,” he said. “We have a lot of experience from sharing a building with Catholics, Protestants and Jews, and we’ve never had that kind of problem. The problems we had were very secular and could be solved quickly with a short discussion – things like who is cleaning the toilets after congregation and so on.”
As for the risk of intermarriage, Nachama said intermarriages “take place because people are studying at the same university or classroom, sitting in the same office, or meeting in a restaurant or theatre. I haven’t had a single case where intermarriages originate from a Christian-Jewish dialogue group in all my years.”
The idea for House of One originated five or six years ago with Nachama’s predecessor, Rabbi Tovia Ben Chorin. He was working to bring the concept to life until he retired and moved back to Switzerland. Nachama has been involved with House of One since April 2015.
Nachama is no stranger to Christian, Jewish and Muslim trialogue. He has been involved in the field since 1972, starting at summer camps in western Germany, where a local school invited members of each of the three faiths to discuss common stories and problems.
As Nachama went on to take Jewish studies in university in the 1970s, he also took basic courses on Islam and Catholicism. Gaining a good understanding of these religions has enabled him to effectively introduce his congregation to interfaith interactions since 1999, bringing in his Islamic and Christian counterparts to teach in the synagogue alongside him.
The clergy meet on a regular basis, sometimes involving leaders in their respective communities, but always aiming to keep meetings to no more than 15 people. So, the interfaith groundwork began long before the excavations started in 2007 of Petriplatz, the site of the old church, among other structures, and a new House of God was being planned. The church wanted to build a house where the three religions would each have a holy space of their own.
“Each would have their own synagogue, mosque and church, working together in one building,” said Nachama. “But, everyone would follow his/her own faith tradition, so it was not about some new religion being created.
“Instead, the idea was to build a house of teaching, of worship, wherein the teaching might bring us together; the worship, everyone does for him/herself in his/her religion.
“We can do programs on some aspects of interest to many, like looking at the differences between kosher and halal. We can also offer teaching programs to the general public.”
Worship times do not seem to be an issue either, with the holy day for Muslims being Friday; for Jews, Saturday; and, for Christians, Sunday.
“But, what happens if Christmas Eve is on a Friday night or during Shabbat?” admitted Nachama. “We can always find problems in terms of holy days on the calendar. They will be solved, but it’s not so easy.”
According to Nachama, the most difficult challenge is in the area of politics. “Islam, in particular, is being taken as a hostage for Islamic fundamental brutality,” he said. “That makes it difficult, because those Muslims that we deal with are not part of that. It makes it difficult … in the public eye … to make it understandable that we, as individuals and as congregations here in Berlin, can cooperate and speak with each other, whatever happens.
“My congregation is very much involved in Christian-Jewish dialogue, and we also sometimes have teachings or panel discussions together with Muslims, so it’s not new to my congregation and, as far as I see, the other congregations have had experience in the field before as well.”
As far as reaching beyond congregational circles, Nachama understands all too well that if someone has prejudice, it is he or she who needs to be willing to open their eyes and ears to seeing the other side. “We can’t do it for them,” he said. “If they are willing, we then can try to show them how we see things.”
While the project is gaining momentum and more than a million euros have already been collected, much more is needed to even break ground on the building project.
Nachama anticipates that his congregants will have no problem with the move when the time comes. “We’ve moved already once and, when completed, either parts of the congregation will move or the whole congregation. It won’t be a problem.
“We believe this project is a result of the history in Berlin,” he continued. Given the history of antisemitism in Germany and the Holocaust, people want to create “a new page of history,” he said. “People really try to look for new ways of cooperation, coexistence and respect for other peoples and faiths.”
The comedy team of Rabbi Bob Alpert and Ahmed Ahmed on their August 2015 Laugh in Peace Tour. (photo from Laugh in Peace)
“Both Jews and Muslims have a lot in common. What are we fighting over? Jews and Muslims don’t eat pork, we don’t celebrate Christmas, we both use ‘ch’ in our pronunciation, and we are both hairy creatures of God,” says comedian Ahmed Ahmed. “The only real difference between Jews and Muslims is that Jews never like to spend any money and Muslims never have any money to spend.”
So goes one of the dozens of jokes featured in the Laugh in Peace comedy routine of Ahmed and Rabbi Bob Alper. It’s one Arab, one Jew, one stage. The unlikely duo’s show was in Israel (Jerusalem, Tel Aviv and Haifa) and the Palestinian territories (Ramallah) for the first time from Aug. 12-17. Together, Ahmed and Alper have performed more than 150 times during the last 14 years – throughout the United States, Canada and England – at synagogues, churches, mosques, theatres and college campuses.
Their story began as a gimmick by a savvy publicist, said Alper, a Reform rabbi who spent more than a decade at pulpits in New York and Philadelphia – or, as he calls it, “14 years of performing in front of a hostile audience.”
Alper admits he was at first resistant to the idea of the combined show. “My publicist calls me one day and says, ‘Bob, why don’t you do a show with an Arab comedian?’ I said, ‘Do you have any other ideas?’”
Ahmed was skeptical, too. “I got this call, ‘My name is Bob Alper and I am a Reform rabbi.’… He says, ‘I have an idea. I thought it would be great to do a show together.’… Well, I said, ‘That sounds good, where do you perform?’ He says, ‘Well, I perform in synagogues.’ … I thought someone was playing a joke on me.”
But the timing was right. In 2001, at the height of the terrorism of the second Palestinian intifada (uprising) in Israel, people were primed for comic relief. Alper says, when people are tense or sad, “comedy is even more important.”
Over time, the two have been more than just a successful and sought-after show. They’ve become good friends. The women in Alper’s small Vermont town fell in love with Ahmed through his visits and regularly inquire about his well-being. Alper has eaten in Ahmed’s parents’ California home.
“Ahmed’s dad asked about my family,” Alper recalled. “When I told him my wife would be having shoulder surgery the following month, he looked gravely at me and ordered, ‘You must stop twisting her arm.’”
They also believe they have played a role in breaking down barriers between Muslims and Jews. On college campuses, where Jewish-Muslim tension and antisemitism run rampant over the issue of Israel, Ahmed and Alper perform for mixed audiences. Jewish males wearing yarmulkes and females in hijabs sit side-by-side, smiling and laughing.
“When people laugh together, it is hard to hate each other,” said Alper, recounting how at the University of Arkansas it occurred to him that they were guests of the Razorbacks – a Muslim and a Jew performing at a school whose mascot is a pig.
They keep their shows apolitical, though they do touch on their personal religious experiences in the 90-minute performances, which generally are divided between solo acts of 30-35 minutes and a joint opening and closing. The closing includes stories from their travels.
Seventy-two years ago yesterday, two Polish women, Zofia Kossak and Wanda Filipowicz, founded the Council for the Assistance of the Jews. By 1942, awareness of the intent of the Final Solution was becoming widespread. By creating an underground movement to assist and shelter Jews in Nazi-occupied Poland, these women and all who assisted them put their own lives at immense risk.
Throughout the Second World War, countless individuals, at great risk to themselves and their families, undertook to assist their Jewish neighbors. These included Christians in every part of Europe and also Muslims, notably in Albania.
There are, of course, plenty of stories of collusion, betrayal and collaboration. There are, we remind our children, good and bad behaviors among any group of people, but the redemptive stories of people doing the right thing help restore humanity to our collective self-understanding.
Today, Jewish people still face challenges in various parts of the world. By sheer numbers, however, the vast majority of Jews live in Israel and North America, where life is free of the systemic bigotry Jewish people experienced in much of the world through much of history. Especially now, from our place of relative security and privilege, we should be turning our attention to the atrocities playing out against other minorities around the world.
In the world today, Christians are being persecuted and murdered in Africa and Asia. In North Korea, an estimated 50,000-70,000 Christians are held in the country’s notorious labor camps. In Nigeria last year, more than 300 churches were destroyed and more than 600 Christians killed; and mosques are being targeted with deadly attacks against clerics who speak out against the Islamist group Boko Haram, as happened – again, tragically – earlier this week. In Yemen and elsewhere in the Muslim world, those who convert to Christianity face the death penalty. In China, government forces oppress Uyghur Muslims in the west of the country. In Cambodia, members of the Buddhist majority have been attacking the Muslim minority. And, in India, systematic violence against Muslims is widespread. The list goes on and on – and this list only includes instances of persecution against Muslims and Christians; there are many other populations around the world under threat of discrimination, persecution and brutality.
The Jewish value of adam yachid, a single human being, means that humankind descended from one individual so that no one can say, “My father is greater than your father.” As Jews, but more especially as people who enjoy the freedom to express ourselves without fear of retribution from government or mob, we have an obligation to speak out on behalf of those who cannot. This is something we should do not because others did it when we were oppressed, but because their actions are the model of the human(e) response to injustice.
What can we do? In small and large ways, we can inform ourselves and our circles of influence about the issues facing minority communities worldwide. There are plenty of organizations working quietly on these topics. Consider supporting one. Inform yourself on events in other parts of the world that affect specific populations. When elected officials – and those who hope to become elected officials – knock on our doors in the federal election next year, we should let them know that the issues that are important to us go beyond those that impact our immediate lives.