Rabbi Hanan Schlesinger, above, and Noor A’wad of Roots Palestinian-Israeli Network were the featured speakers at Vancouver School of Theology’s Two Truths in One Heart; Two Peoples in One Land event May 27. (photo from friendsofroots.net)
Two Truths in One Heart; Two Peoples in One Land, a discussion on the Roots Palestinian-Israeli Network, with speakers Rabbi Hanan Schlesinger and Noor A’wad, took place on May 27 as part of the Religion and Thoughtful Activism conference organized by the Vancouver School of Theology (VST).
Formed in 2014 by peace activist Ali Abu Awwad and Schlesinger, Roots is a group based in the Gush Etzion settlements of the West Bank that believes the path towards peace between Palestinians and Israelis is through dialogue.
“In the West Bank, Jews and Arabs live completely separately with no connections at all,” said Schlesinger, an Orthodox rabbi, passionate Zionist settler and director of international relations for Roots. Everything, he explained – from legal systems to health systems, transportation to universities – is separate. The separation is so complete that Palestinians are forbidden from entering Israeli areas and vice versa.
“If I were to say that there is no common ground between Jews and Palestinians, I would not be exaggerating, and I would not be speaking metaphorically. There is literally no common ground as far as geography goes. If there had been a place for a crazy Israeli Jew and a Palestinian who wanted to meet for coffee, there would have been no place to do it,” he suggested.
At least, this was the case, he said, until seven years ago, when Roots was formed and when the Dignity Centre, a community centre where the two sides can meet with equality and mutual recognition, was created.
Schlesinger spoke of the great apprehension and trepidation each side has in coming together at such a place. Yet, often, at the end of an event at the centre, people come to Schlesinger, saying how wonderful the simple experience of conversing with a member of the other side is.
“People are amazed to discover that ‘the other’ is a lot like us. It’s hard to fathom after all the stereotypes and all we on both sides have been taught,” he said.
He likened the animosity each side has to a disease he called “the hubris of exclusivity,” which infects people with a “virus” that makes them believe that their people are the only legitimate people in the region.
Charting his own journey, Schlesinger recounted that, during his first encounters with Palestinians, he began learning that there were not one but two stories in the land where he lives. “For 33 years, I lived in my story and the Palestinians didn’t exist. They were part of the grey drab scenery that passes in the background of a movie but not part of the plot,” he recalled.
He spoke of his initial distrust of Palestinians and his profound reluctance to meet them – a distrust and reluctance shared by his Palestinian interlocutors during their first meetings. Implicit, too, in the unwillingness to meet was the fear that each side had of the other, Schlesinger said.
Noor A’wad, a licensed Palestinian tour guide based in Bethlehem, where he takes English speakers on geopolitical tours, spoke of his family’s long history in the land.
“I remember growing up during the Second Intifada – some of my family members were killed, others arrested – realizing that this is not a normal life and asking myself why am I living this abnormal life under occupation? The simple answer to the question is, because I am a Palestinian,” A’wad said.
He considered leaving the area, but that urge was outweighed by a sense of responsibility and a sense that there was no other option but to stay in order to best serve his people. Ultimately, he came to learn about nonviolent solutions to conflict.
A’wad described his change of heart upon getting involved with Roots: “When Rabbi Hanan spoke about his identity as a Jew and a settler, these are very loaded words and terminology that is connected to the conflict. For him, I was able to see how beautiful this terminology is because it is part of his identity.
For me, the same terminology is connected to the suffering my people have.”
For A’wad, as with Schlesinger, the acts of sitting and listening to the other were enormously challenging. Nonetheless, each persevered and, in the process, they discovered a partner in dialogue and perhaps the most effective way of understanding the humanity of the other – finding mutual empathy and thereby creating a means to achieve peace.
“What I discovered in Roots is the foundation for any peace process,” said A’wad.
The event was organized by Rabbi Laura Duhan-Kaplan, VST’s director of inter-religious studies. “Our students – most but not all are Christian – are very interested in news about Israel and Palestine. They see Israel as their beloved Holy Land. So, we wanted to introduce them to one of the many NGOs there doing collaborative peace-building work,” she told the Independent.
“I’ve been a supporter of Roots for some years now. Rabbi Schlesinger is a colleague and friend from Clal’s Rabbis Without Borders fellowship program. Still, this event would not have happened without the help of Quebec psychotherapist Colleen MacDougall, another Roots supporter,” she added.
Rabbi Dr. Ted Falcon will be joined by Imam Jamal Rahman in a keynote address called Healing at a Time of Polarization, which the public can watch online by registering at vst.edu. (photo from Ted Falcon)
When beginning interfaith or intercultural dialogue, how much emphasis should be placed on similarities and how much on differences? According to a rabbi with decades of experience in the topic, the question puts the cart before the horse.
When Rabbi Dr. Ted Falcon, a Seattle spiritual guide, author, teacher and therapist, leads such interactive processes, he starts with something far more general: the basic humanity of the participants.
“We encourage people to begin a dialogue, a conversation process, not by focusing on similarities or differences in their religious views or nonreligious views, whatever they might be, but begin by creating contexts in which they can meet each other as human beings, meet each other as persons, which essentially is done through sharing stories,” said Falcon.
He uses “a series of questions that people can respond to either in dyads or around tables that elicit stories about important events in their lives, stories about concerns in their lives, stories about important relationships in their lives, so that the dialogue begins by appreciating a common shared human condition. That has made a tremendous difference because only after that do we encourage people looking at more specifically their religious or nonreligious concerns.”
Falcon will be part of a keynote address at a fifth annual multi-religious, multidisciplinary conference presented by Vancouver School of Theology, May 24 to 26. Due to the pandemic, the conference, titled Religious, Spiritual, Secular: Living in a Pluralistic Culture, will take place online. To virtually attend the entire event, registration fees apply, but the keynote and a Monday night concert are open to the public at no cost, although pre-registration is required.
Falcon is a member of the Interfaith Amigos, made up of himself, Pastor Don Mackenzie, a Christian minister, and Imam Jamal Rahman, a Muslim clergyman of the Sufi tradition. The three have published books and present together frequently. Rahman will join Falcon at the conference for the keynote, titled Healing at a Time of Polarization: Reaching Beyond Difference to What We Share.
Once the framework for constructive dialogue is in place, Falcon said in a telephone interview with the Jewish Independent from his Seattle-area home, interfaith exploration can begin to approach similarities that transcend religious differences. Among their Jewish, Muslim and Christian values, the amigos acknowledge some fundamental principles.
“We identified three basic core teachings that our traditions share,” said Falcon. “A core teaching of oneness, a core teaching of unconditional love and a core teaching of compassion. We can utilize those core teachings to then look at our texts, our traditions and our lives and evaluate how does this reflect in my life, how am I not living up to this, what do I need to do to live up to this more authentically? And it’s only after that discussion that we encourage people to engage in more difficult conversations, whether it’s conversations about Israel-Palestine, whether it’s conversations about desire to convert other people, whether it’s conversations about feeling your way is somehow better than other ways, whether it’s conversations about somehow being wary of allowing ourselves to truly appreciate the spiritual wisdom in another’s tradition.”
He admitted that interfaith dialogue is not always possible. But, even among people who acknowledge that they believe their theology to be unerring and people who may not be open to difference, there can still be dialogue, he said.
“In other words, if our conversation is based on my need to get you to change, there is no conversation.” But, he continued, if people recognize that neither they nor their interlocutor will change their minds, there is still a means and a purpose to engaging.
“We share the essential aspect of walking around in a human body with all its frailties and all its challenges and all its wonders,” said Falcon. “We have so much in common that that changes the energetic environment and allows a different kind of conversation to take place. Will you ever convince me that Jesus is the only way? No. But can I truly appreciate that that is your way and authentically support that? Yes, I can do that.”
Rabbi Dr. Laura Duhan-Kaplan, director of interreligious studies and a professor of Jewish studies at Vancouver School of Theology, is conference director. She acknowledged that the online, virtual format for the conference changes its nature, but with the drawbacks come benefits.
“We are well aware that people can experience Zoom fatigue and computer fatigue and perhaps don’t want to sit in front of the computer for two full days, no matter how much they are fascinated by the content,” Duhan-Kaplan said. As a result, all of the sessions will be recorded and participants can watch and join the conversation on message boards for 10 days after the conference weekend. This means that, unlike most in-person conferences where participants have to choose between breakout sessions, it is possible to virtually attend all of them.
While the event is an academic conference and it will naturally attract clergypeople, Duhan-Kaplan said it is appropriate for anyone who cares about the role of religion in the public sphere.
“One of the objectives, when it was an in-person conference, was, of course, to get people interested in religion and spirituality from different sectors of our community, to meet each other in person and network,” she said. “The dynamic may be very different online, so, aside from that goal, I’m really hoping that people will come away with a sense of the complexity of creating a community that has room for religious diversity.
“But I also want them to be able to see what some of the components of that complexity are, so that no one throws up their hands and says it can’t be done, but has a sense that by doing acts, whether it’s a group of multifaith chaplains supporting a prison population or whether it’s a group of people getting together to work on the Downtown Eastside or even religious communities twice a year doing outreach to someone of a different faith, I want people to get a sense of understanding that they are part of a larger project and what kind of difference what they do makes.”
For information, to register for the entire conference ($100/$50 students) or sign up to attend the keynote and concert (free), go to vst.edu by May 21.
Kasari Govender, British Columbia’s human rights commissioner. (photo from Wosk Centre)
Hate in British Columbia, in Canada and globally is on the rise. In 2017, there were 255 police-reported hate crimes in British Columbia, an increase of 55% from just two years earlier. In 2018, Metro Vancouver had the highest rate of hate crimes reported to police in any of Canada’s three largest metropolitan areas, most based on the victim’s ethnicity or religion, with a smaller but significant number based on sexual orientation.
These alarming statistics, and others, provided a framework and urgency for an event Sept. 12 at Simon Fraser University’s Morris J. Wosk Centre for Dialogue in downtown Vancouver. The event, titled From Hate to Hope in a Digital Age, is envisioned as the inaugural annual Simces and Rabkin Family Dialogue on Human Rights.
Contextualizing the discussion, Shauna Sylvester, executive director of the Wosk Centre for Dialogue, cited the results of a report undertaken by her organization. These indicate that one in three Canadians believes Canadian-born citizens should have greater say in government than those born outside the country. One-quarter of Canadians say we have too many protections for minorities and one in four also believes we have too many protections for religious freedom.
Keynote speaker at the forum was Kasari Govender, in just her second week on the job as British Columbia’s human rights commissioner. She is the first to hold this role in the province since that office was closed in 2002.
“In my view, there is a strong connection between hateful speech and hateful violence, both on an individual and a systemic level,” she said, citing racist manifestoes sometimes posted online by perpetrators in advance of a mass killing. She said it is necessary to trace the path from speech to violence.
A common theme of recent mass murderers is anti-immigration sentiment, sometimes emphasizing the “purity of the nation, whether that nation is Canada, New Zealand, the U.S. or another,” she said, adding that many of the attacks around the world that have been linked to white nationalism correspond to discourse in mainstream political debates over immigration and public policy.
The worst antisemitic mass murder in United States history, the attack on Tree of Life synagogue in Pittsburgh in 2018, happened while U.S. President Donald Trump and others were promoting fears of the so-called “migrant caravan” coming from Central America. Part of that conversation, Govender said, “was somehow blaming the Jews for this migrant caravan, drawing a connection in the public discourse, and then there was the shooting.”
Boris Johnson, now prime minister of the United Kingdom, compared women who wear burqas to bank robbers, which led, Govender said, to an increase in acts of hate against Muslim women in the United Kingdom.
Online hate is a particular product of technologies that have emerged in recent decades, she said. “The anonymity, reach and immediacy afforded by the internet escalates the problem beyond what we’ve seen before,” she said. “The internet is a very effective tool for fomenting hate from belief to action, from hateful words to violent actions.”
While forcing social media platforms to police hate speech might be criticized as an infringement of free expression, she said, the opposite is true. Regulating platforms to shut down violent rhetoric actually improves access to freedom of expression for many, as people of colour, women and others are being silenced online by racism and misogyny, she said.
Participants at the Wosk Centre offered a wide range of perspectives.
Evan Balgord, executive director of the Canadian Anti-Hate Network, outlined the approach his agency takes in confronting online hatred.
“Legal [action] would be our last recourse against a hate group or a hate propagandist,” he noted, saying that their first response is to “try to hold somebody socially accountable.” That means, if the person is anonymous, exposing them. If the person is not anonymous, this might mean bringing their posts to the attention of their employers, family and friends.
“Those might provide checks on their behaviour,” he said, adding, “We’re not really trying to reform people here, we’re just trying to stop the spread of hate propaganda.”
For those who do not respond to social accountability, Balgord said, Canada’s laws are insufficient. Application of the Criminal Code’s section that deals with the wilful promotion of hate and distribution of hate propaganda is unwieldy.
“We did use to have a better recourse,” he said. “It was Section 13 of the Canadian Human Rights Act. It would allow a private individual to essentially file a complaint, which would be vetted by the Canadian Human Rights Commission and, if found credible, would go to the tribunal. They could order a cease-and-desist order against that individual and up to a $5,000 fine.” If, at that point, the individual failed to comply, they would be in contravention of a court order and could face jail.
“We really want to see something like Section 13 come back,” he said.
Several speakers agreed that social media platforms need to do more policing of hate speech. Some countries have laws that force social media companies to address hate material on their platforms within certain timeframes or face serious fines.
Social media platforms, Balgord said, may already be in contravention of Canada’s existing laws against discrimination in the provision of a commercial service, because women, people of colour, LGBTQ+ people and other members of targeted groups are exposed to abuse, harassment and death threats that could drive them off the platform.
Rabbi Dr. Laura Duhan-Kaplan, director of inter-religious studies at the Vancouver School of Theology, noted that government budgets are limited but that education can take place everywhere – and that everyone is an educator. Early childhood is crucial, she said.
“What children do together, the songs they sing, the books they read, all of that becomes the building blocks of the way they think,” she said. “All of us who interact with children have an opportunity to begin to teach values of respecting difference, helping others, nonviolence.… One week of summer camp with friends on a theme of diversity, peace, public service – these are experiences that stay with teens and we really, really bring them into young adulthood in a different way.”
A speaker from the audience, a counselor and educator, noted that inequality, including economic inequality and poverty, makes people susceptible to fear and that can become a foundation for hate.
Another speaker contended that there is, in effect, no such thing as race.
“I think it’s very problematic to use the term race as if it’s a reality,” he said. “There is such a thing as racism but not really race. If you look at the majority of anthropologists, geneticists and so on, they say that we have much, much more in common with each other [than differences].… Even using terms like black and white to refer to people reinforces racism. We never call people yellow anymore, because that’s racist. We need to come up with a new language that doesn’t emphasize unreal differences and that are respectful to everybody.”
Lorene Oikawa, president of the National Association of Japanese Canadians, contended that sharing one another’s stories is an effective means to education.
“People really don’t know the stories,” she said. “For sure, there are some people who do, but they don’t know the [extent of the] harm that was done and the intergenerational trauma.”
She applied lessons of the past to current events. “In 2019, Japanese-Americans, Japanese-Canadians are horrified by some of the hateful rhetoric we’re hearing [that] could be lifted from 1942,” she said. “If people knew their history, more people would be going, ‘Wait a minute. What we did back in 1942 was wrong. Why are we saying the same things about people from [other] countries, putting people in camps, separating families, separating children from their families?’ All that stuff happened to Japanese-Americans, Japanese-Canadians and it’s being repeated today.”
She added: “We feel it’s our duty that what happened to our community must never happen to another community again.”
Clint Curle, senior advisor to the president of the Canadian Museum for Human Rights, agreed that education is pivotal.
“Is there a lesson, an experience, we can give children especially that will make them resistant to hate speech and resistant to hateful violence?” asked Curle. He compared hatred to a communicable disease.
“If this was polio, what would we do? If this was polio, we would do what we did, which is vaccinate. The way vaccinations work is you get children and you give them just enough of something close to the disease [so] that they develop an internal resistance to it, so, when they encounter the disease, there is something within them that says, no. So, when they encounter hate, they’ll know.”
With more than 1.5 million visitors to the museum since it opened five years ago, Curle said what resonates, especially with young people, is exactly what Oikawa suggested.
“The thing that seems to work best is storytelling across social boundaries,” he said.
Zena Simces, a health and social service policy consultant and a former Pacific region chair of the now-defunct Canadian Jewish Congress, conceived of the annual event with her husband, Dr. Simon Rabkin.
“We felt that we wanted to enhance an understanding of human rights in our community and to create an opportunity for dialogue on human rights issues,” Simces said. “Our aim is to select current and relevant themes each year and to invite experts and community leaders and community members to advance and generate positive action.”
Rabkin, a cardiologist, professor of medicine at the University of British Columbia and president of the medical staff at Vancouver General Hospital, added: “The dialogue this evening … is seeking to enhance our understanding and knowledge of how this increase in hate and its consequences can be addressed from legal, social media and community perspectives.”
Rabbi Laura Duhan Kaplan, director of inter-religious studies at Vancouver School of Theology. (photo from Laura Duhan Kaplan)
“Most of the world’s religions speak of dying to self,” said Dr. Eloecea, a Christian psychotherapist speaking at the Inter-Religious Conference on Spiritual Perspectives on Death and Dying at the Vancouver School of Theology May 22-24. “If we can do this before the time death approaches, suffering is greatly diminished for ourselves and for those around us.”
“Dying to self” refers to giving up egotism and self-centred attachments. Eloecea’s words echoed a theme that appeared in many of the sessions I attended, which was that of a holistic spiritual path of surrender and humility that unites life and death.
Rabbi Dr. Laura Duhan Kaplan, formerly of Or Shalom Synagogue and now director of inter-religious studies at VST, discussed how she had been spurred by reading Plato to take a closer examination of Jewish views of death and the afterlife. “Plato said living well is preparing for death. But what is death?” she asked.
Duhan Kaplan explained how the texts of kabbalah offer accounts of a soul’s journey after death. The soul travels through stages of physical, emotional, intellectual and spiritual purification, she said. According to Duhan Kaplan, this account of the afterlife is based both in kabbalistic theories of the soul’s development and glimpses of higher consciousness by current spiritual seekers. As Duhan Kaplan presented them, these texts are a guide to a lifetime of self-reflection, humility and non-attachment.
The stages of the soul’s ascent after death are tied to the rituals and rhythms of the traditional Jewish year of mourning that follows the death of a loved one, she said. “When I decided I would research Jewish views of the afterlife I had no idea I would discover what I did.”
Duhan Kaplan spoke of the dreams and spiritual experiences she had after the deaths of her father, mother and mother-in-law. She said the stages of her parents’ journeys offered particular gifts that related to their stages of spiritual ascent in the next worlds. The movement from the shivah period through the year of saying Kaddish to the yahrzeit and Yizkor corresponds to the soul’s difficulty in letting go, the emotional purification, the visit to the lower Gan Eden, the “paradise of understanding and good deeds,” and then the return to the storehouse of souls to merge with the divine. This description captures just one thread in the rich tapestry of connections Duhan Kaplan wove.
Other teachers at the conference presented different lenses through which spirituality relates to death. Acharya S.P. Dwivedi, poet and interfaith activist, presented the traditional Hindu view of karma, reincarnation and freedom from rebirth through non-attachment and identification with the transcendent self (atman). Dwivedi described how in the Hindu view the jiva (individual soul) moves from birth to death, experiencing happiness or suffering in accordance with the good and bad actions it commits, until finally it finds its true identity with the atman – the innermost self that is one with all of existence – and lets go, returning to its source and not again being reborn.
Syed Nasir Zaidi, Muslim chaplain at the University of British Columbia, discussed the importance in Islam of confronting and making peace with death. “Death should be our strength, not our weakness,” Zaidi said, emphasizing how thoroughly internalizing the reality of our own death and ceasing to fear it can enrich our spiritual path. Zaidi pointed out that, according Rumi, it is death that gives value to life, making it precious. Zaidi also explained that, in Islam, peace with death is accomplished through confident submission to God’s will in a life of virtue and acceptance of life’s unfolding as an expression of God. “Abraham told his children they should not die before becoming Muslims,” Zaidi said. “Obviously, this doesn’t refer to being members of the religion of Islam, but rather to having submitted to God, which is what being a muslim [submitted one] means.”
Some presenters offered specific practices. Eloecea shared a series of meditations aimed at producing positive thoughts to change the state of the brain, to shift from the egotistical self and its entrapping habits. Lynn Mills, a PhD student at Trinity College in Dublin, Ireland, Skyped in to present a liturgy for people in the early stages of Alzheimer’s, which consisted of psalms and prayers to be recited in their presence. This had two parts: the first was a morning liturgy for every day, the second a way to celebrate the person’s life before memory loss prevents them from knowing friends and family and remembering the stories they share.
A variety of other topics were covered. Mark Stein, a Jewish chaplain, tackled the issue of what to do when non-Christians (or anabaptists, who only baptize believing adults) are called upon to give baptisms for sick or stillborn children. Can a Jew baptize a child? Should they? Stein spoke of the need for chaplains to support people in these extreme situations. He spoke of the transformation this could cause in a chaplain, leading them not only to embrace a pragmatic flexibility but to an openness – seeing God’s work as something also happening beyond one’s own religion.
One recurrent issue was medical assistance in dying, about which there was a panel discussion moderated by Duhan Kaplan on the opening night of the conference. Rabbi Adam Rubin of Congregation Beth Tikvah spoke as a member of the panel. He noted the lack of a consensus about medically assisted dying across Jewish traditions, but affirmed a few core teachings. “First, because of the infinite preciousness of every life, we’re commanded to do everything we can to preserve life,” Rubin told the Independent. “Second, we must do everything we can to attenuate suffering. Some traditional rabbinic authorities hold that this imperative means that one can give a level of pain-killing medicine (morphine, for example) that might even endanger the life of a patient, in order to reduce the patient’s suffering. In addition, some authorities allow the removal of life-sustaining machines or apparatuses if they extend suffering, in order to allow the normal course of physical decline to take place. This is a tricky and controversial subject within Jewish tradition,” he said, “but the general idea is that there’s a place for ‘allowing nature to take its course’ if it is likely to reduce suffering. All of that said, there is a (rare for Judaism!) consensus in traditional Jewish law that it is absolutely forbidden to take one’s own life or to assist in taking someone else’s life.”
Rubin warned of the dangers of simplistic notions of consent or decision-making that don’t take into account the full range of pressures and emotional factors that might influence a person’s decision. “People are not robots, making ‘clean,’ rational decisions in a vacuum,” he said. “So, my approach, and my take on Jewish tradition, is that we must fight the things that might lead to someone wishing to end their life.”
In addition to the talks and panels, there was an afternoon session for musical and meditative reflections on the first day of the conference. Jewish music ensemble Sulam (which contains both Duhan Kaplan and her husband Charles Kaplan) performed, as did the Threshold Singers; the music was followed by Zen priest Myoshin Kate McCandless giving a presentation on meditation and chant in support of end-of-life care.
The keynote event of the conference, which was open to the public, was called We Die Alone and Yet We Don’t. It was a conversation with Dr. David Kuhl, facilitated by Duhan Kaplan. Kuhl is a professor in the department of family practice in the faculty of medicine at UBC. He helped design and develop the palliative care program at St. Paul’s Hospital, and is known for his 2011 book What Dying People Want: Lessons for Living from People Who Are Dying.
Matthew Gindinis a freelance journalist, writer and lecturer. He is Pacific correspondent for the CJN, writes regularly for the Forward, Tricycle and the Wisdom Daily, and has been published in Sojourners, Religion Dispatches and elsewhere. He can be found on Medium and Twitter.
Limmud Vancouver is now accepting program proposals for the April 14-15, 2018, learning symposium. Organizers seek presentations on a range of topics – text study, Jewish history, social action, arts and culture, family programs, and more – and welcome a range of formats: for example, lecture, interactive music and movement, chavruta-style small group, PowerPoint. They hope both new and returning presenters will prepare proposals, and encourage both experienced teachers and new voices to share areas of personal expertise. The Limmud principle is, “Every learner can be a teacher. Every teacher should be a learner.”
In 2018, Limmud Vancouver returns to Beth Israel Synagogue. The Saturday night event will shift: before sunset, participants will learn from several diverse presentations; after sunset, they’ll enjoy Havdalah and a reception. There will be only one weekend ticket sold, good for both Saturday night and Sunday.
Limmud Vancouver 2018 chairperson Laura Duhan Kaplan is well known around town for her breadth of teaching and organizational skills. The previous chairperson, Avi Dolgin, and the core group that created Limmud Vancouver will be staying on to create this next weekend. But Limmud Vancouver is looking for community members to join the team. They need volunteers on the existing committees – publicity, community outreach, venue, family programming, etc. And they would like to have one or two more people managing the computer tech for the presenters on the Sunday. As well, they are looking for two people to create the printed program guide – a time-limited task that calls for writing, editing, layout and production abilities. And they are also open to new initiatives; for example, Jewish theatre, monthly topic gatherings, and so on. What would you love to see at the next LimmudVan? What would you love to take on?
Moishe House (and friends) show off their “Most Jewish Table” certificates. From left to right are Alexei Schwartzman, Benjamin Groberman, Carol Moutal, Jordan Stenzler, Shayna Goldberg and Kevin Veltheer. (photo by Robert Albanese)
Music. Storytelling. Video. Flash dance. These were just some of the elements in Limmud Vancouver’s first-ever Saturday night cabaret, which took place on Jan. 31, the night before the all-day learning festival.
One hundred and sixty people gathered around tables of food, books and Havdalah candles in a transformed Jewish Community Centre of Greater Vancouver auditorium, awash in colored lights and humming to the music of Sulam. The event, co-produced by JCCGV and LimmudVan ’15, brought a cabaret of storytelling (Shoshana Litman of Victoria and local raconteur Michael Geller), drama (Michael Armstrong of Victoria’s Bema Theatre), songs (singers Harriet Frost and Wendy Rubin), Talmud (Tracy Ames), a quiz show (former Vancouverite Adam Growe), Havdalah (Rabbi Laura Duhan Kaplan), dancers (led by Nona Malki) and lots of good food.
A highlight of the evening was an inter-table contest of personal Jewish experiences: Who has climbed Masada? Who attended Camps Miriam or Hatikvah? Who speaks Ladino? etc. The winners, a group of Moishe House residents and friends, beat the opposition in a spirited event that included spontaneous renditions of Adon Olam, and were proclaimed “Most Jewish Table.”
The Chanting and Chocolate band, from left: Charles Cohen, Lorne Mallin, Charles Kaplan, John Federico and Martin Gotfrit. (photo from Dave Kauffman)
On the last Sunday of every month, you can find a group of people gathered around a band of musicians, chanting Hebrew text to the rhythm of beautiful, rich melodies of the likes of Rabbi Shefa Gold and Rabbi Andrew Hahn (also known as the Kirtan Rabbi). It is a deceptively simple concept with surprisingly diverse results.
These harmonies of chant, through the repetition of just a few words, seem to have the power to carry you away from the daily hustle and bustle into a realm of music and spirit. This is Chanting and Chocolate, Lorne Mallin’s creation, which just celebrated its 10-year anniversary.
“In the summer of 2004, I began a two-year training called Kol Zimra (Voice of Praise) with Rabbi Shefa Gold of Jemez Springs, N.M.,” said Mallin about how Chanting and Chocolate came to be. “During our first gathering, Shefa encouraged us to create chant circles where we live and so, on Nov. 28th of that year, I began offering monthly evenings of sacred Hebrew chanting in Vancouver, initially called Evenings of Jewish Chant, which were then held at Sourcepoint shiatsu centre on Heather Street.”
This became a monthly tradition until Mallin moved to Uganda to live with the Abayudaya Jews in 2009. Not one to let geography, language or architectural challenges stand in his way, he was intent on sharing his passion for Jewish chant with the Abayudaya.
“At the mud-brick synagogue in the village of Nabugoye Hill, I led Shefa’s Nishmat Kol Chai, using the Luganda translation of ‘The breath of all life blesses you,’ ‘Okuusa kwebilamu kukutendereza.’ I tried to start a chant circle but, at the first announced session in the shul, I drummed and chanted alone until there was one arrival – a clucking hen skittered into the room.”
Fifteen months later, and back in Vancouver, Mallin and his band started the monthly evenings again.
“One regular participant brought tea and some baking to celebrate,” he recalled. “I noticed people enjoyed the opportunity to linger and get to know each other, so I began baking triple-chocolate brownies and rebranded the evenings Chanting and Chocolate. Two years ago, we moved to Or Shalom Synagogue at Fraser Street and East 10th Avenue.”
Beyond the good it does to its participants (naches to the soul and an uplifting of the spirit), Chanting and Chocolate is also a tikkun olam project on another level: the musicians perform for love, with the proceeds from admissions going to support the education of four Abayudaya orphans.
So, after a decade, what is it about Chanting and Chocolate that keeps Mallin going?
“For me, nothing creates a space for connecting with the Divine like chanting. The chants combine short sacred texts, beautiful melodies and deep spiritual intention. They often last 10 minutes, which strengthens the intention and clears the mind. After each chant, we give time for inner silence and connection, which is the most profound experience of the practice of chanting.”
Although Mallin has been the driving force behind this monthly undertaking, bringing it together and making it happen is very much a group effort.
“I am very grateful to my beloved teacher Shefa, the holy Kol Zimra community, Or Shalom, our band – Charles Cohen, John Federico, Martin Gotfrit and Charles Kaplan – and the lovely people who come to chant with us.”
While Mallin and the band have recorded little so far, they are planning to record their first CD in February, so stay tuned. In the meantime, to experience a unique kind of musical Yiddishkeit, attend the next Chanting and Chocolate, which will be held at its regular venue on Sunday, Dec. 28, at 7:30 p.m., with Rabbi Laura Duhan Kaplan as a special guest. Since no previous singing or chanting experience is needed, all you need to bring is some kavanah and yourself. And maybe a friend.
Dr. Charles Kaplan and Rabbi Laura Duhan Kaplan. (photo from Rabbi Laura Duhan Kaplan)
The small group meeting to pray and learn in living-rooms in the late 1970s and early 1980s couldn’t have known for certain that their community would survive to grow into a 200-family congregation, but they did know that they’d helped start something special. That much was apparent from the start.
This year, Or Shalom, the outgrowth of that small group, celebrates 36 years, but will also say goodbye to its current spiritual leader, Rabbi Laura Duhan Kaplan. She and her husband, Charles Kaplan, arrived in Vancouver in 2005, encountering a vibrant and energetic Jewish Renewal congregation, with a permanent home on East 10th at Fraser Street – and an already storied history.
Rabbi Daniel Siegel who co-founded Or Shalom with his wife and partner, Hanna Tiferet Siegel, was in 1974 the first person to receive smicha (rabbinic ordination) from Rabbi Zalman Schachter-Shalomi, founder of the Jewish Renewal movement. Today, Siegel is director of spiritual resources for ALEPH: Alliance for Jewish Renewal, where he also serves as associate dean of the ordination programs, chair of the rabbinic texts department and rabbinic director of ALEPH Canada. From his Gulf Island home, Siegel described the congregation’s early evolution, and what makes Renewal’s approach resonate today.
“We consciously chose Vancouver, Hanna and I, as a place to move to because we wanted to start a congregation and we wanted to see whether the things that made us newly excited about our Judaism were things that other people would respond to, other people who were also disenchanted or disconnected, so we were looking for a place to do that.”
About a year after arriving here, the Siegels’ vision took root. “We started the second year that we lived in Richmond, in 1978. We started what was then called the Hillel Minyan, and we would meet once a month on Friday night and the following Shabbos morning,” he said.
With help from friends, the Siegels were able to put a down payment on a home on West 22nd Avenue and started leading Shabbat morning services in their living-room. The name was changed to Havurat Sim Shalom. Over the next several years, services were held in participants’ living-rooms, rented homes and on the University of British Columbia campus. The Siegels worked in partnership, Daniel taking leadership of more traditional aspects, he recalled, and Hanna Tiferet on the creative expressions. In that way, there were various access points for participants.
“The intention was that we wanted to create something that gave ownership to people very quickly,” he explained. “So, Torah discussions, which could be done in English, and pesukei d’zimrah, which could basically be some melodies bridged by reading … were open to almost anybody as soon as they wanted to try it. And then there was leading shacharit and reading Torah, which required traditional skills, which meant that people had to decide to improve their Hebrew or whatever they needed to do. I think that was always intentional…. The motto of Havurat Sim Shalom was ‘traditional, egalitarian, creative,’ that’s what we called it.”
Harley Rothstein was a member of the young community. In an essay he wrote in 2000 about the history of Or Shalom, he shared some of those experiences. “I attended the minyan for the first time in January 1980. Entering the Siegels’ house on 22nd Avenue I was instantly struck by the enthusiastic participation. I enjoyed the meditative quality of the service in which some prayers were highlighted and certain lines repeated. I noticed a number of beautiful and unfamiliar melodies. I appreciated the depth of thought and extent of participation in the Torah discussion. I was surprised by the leadership shown by the women (I learned later that I had walked into a special women’s Shabbat). The physical layout was fascinating. Almost all participants were sitting on the floor, crowded into a limited space (Hanna’s enormous loom took up about one third of the living-room). I was delighted by the potluck lunch afterwards with the kind of vegetarian and whole foods that I had eaten for years. I was impressed by the energy and spirit of this small group and immediately became a regular participant.”
“The early days of Or Shalom were an adventure for those who were involved. Many of us were discovering a Judaism [that] we didn’t imagine could be so rich and meaningful. We were young and these were, for the most part, uncharted waters.”
Later he wrote, “The early days of Or Shalom were an adventure for those who were involved. Many of us were discovering a Judaism [that] we didn’t imagine could be so rich and meaningful. We were young and these were, for the most part, uncharted waters. We were drawn together as friends and held together by inspired leadership. What made it work was that we honored the centuries-old wisdom of the Jewish tradition while at the same time honoring our own creativity and insight, as well as our commitment to deeply held political values, such as gender equality, social justice and peace.”
By the time the Siegels left for Hanover, N.H., in 1987, Or Shalom was already on firm footing and, though it was still small and mostly consisting of friends, its early success encouraged mainstream congregations to reconsider some of what they wanted to offer. “I think Or Shalom served the function of being a kind of presence that encouraged a bit of ferment in the community, which I think was good because supposedly people cared about the fact that so many young people were not connecting … and they wanted them to connect,” Siegel said. “When we actually got them to connect, I think people had mixed feelings about that success.”
The tension between tradition and creativity was the defining feature. “The most important thing in my mind about what Hanna and I were trying to set up was a community that would be experimental and traditional at the same time,” he explained. “What Zalman called ‘backwards compatibility.’ The creativity that we do is compatible with what we inherited. That still is a very important thing to me. That’s why I do halachic thinking…. In my mind, what was really innovative about Or Shalom as we envisioned it was that combination of a creativity [that] was backwards compatibility, which was loyal to the tradition … both in the sense that we respected what we inherited and we also respected that we inherited a tradition of creativity…. I would say that was the challenge that we faced when we started it, and it would be the challenge that I would hope Or Shalom would look to finding ways to face and play with over the next 36 years.”
“Renewal does not seek to be a denomination. And that’s a big difference. We’re more like an association of like-minded people whose primary relationship to Judaism is through an unfolding relationship with the Divine. And so we don’t have creedal or halachic requirements for belonging, we don’t have any exclusionary clauses – like if you belong to us you can’t belong to something else – so that our clergy association has in it rabbis from all across the Jewish spectrum.”
Today, Renewal communities have sprung up all over North America – and beyond, Siegel said. “We have strong connections in Brazil, we have some people in Costa Rica now, we have a small hevre in Germany and in Amsterdam and in Stockholm, less so in England. And in Israel.” This growth can be attributed to the fact that “Renewal does not seek to be a denomination. And that’s a big difference. We’re more like an association of like-minded people whose primary relationship to Judaism is through an unfolding relationship with the Divine. And so we don’t have creedal or halachic requirements for belonging, we don’t have any exclusionary clauses – like if you belong to us you can’t belong to something else – so that our clergy association has in it rabbis from all across the Jewish spectrum.”
Duhan Kaplan, who has now been Or Shalom’s spiritual leader for nearly a decade, warmly described her first days with Or Shalom and her plans to continue participating in the congregation and wider Jewish community. “When Charles and I first came to Vancouver, we fell utterly, totally in love with Or Shalom – and East Vancouver. None of that has changed; if anything, it has intensified. Every week day, I appreciate Vancouver’s combination of natural beauty, access to urban services and perpetually green foliage. I especially love the winter mist and fresh air. With every Shabbat gathering at Or Shalom, I get cumulatively more relaxed. I worry less about logistics, and appreciate more deeply the way that singing, studying, shmoozing and celebrating life events together creates spiritual community. Leading the service has become a spiritual high for me; I take note of who is there, try to connect with them in thought and feeling, and help uplift the group with words and music.”
Growing up in New York, Duhan Kaplan said her “childhood experiences of Judaism were all positive: a large social circle, Orthodox synagogue, Conservative Jewish day school and Hebrew-speaking summer camp.” A self-described book addict, she graduated from university with plans to be an educator.
“My own education is ongoing; I’m in love with school,” she said. “I have a BA in philosophy from Brandeis, an MEd in adult education from Cambridge College Institute of Open Education, a two-year certificate in ayurvedic yoga from the New Life Centre, a PhD in philosophy and education from Claremont Graduate University, rabbinic ordination from ALEPH … a graduate certificate in spiritual direction from Vancouver School of Theology; and I’m currently taking graduate courses in depth psychology at Pacifica Graduate Institute. Honestly, I’m pretty tired: for 33 years, I’ve been working full time, going to school and raising children – without nannies or extended family, but with a great marital partnership and an organized household.”
After spending several years as a philosophy professor, Duhan Kaplan said she was looking for something new. “My leadership role in our local havurah and my powerful dreams and conversations with God led me to deeper Jewish study. I found [ALEPH]’s ordination program, a hybrid distance-learning/residential program, with an emphasis on kabbalah, just right for a philosopher juggling work, family and school. In 2005, I received smicha, moved to Vancouver and started to work at Or Shalom.”
She is inspired by and proud of her accomplishments during her tenure, including the year-long Exploring Judaism course, her experiences working closely with bar and bat mitzvah students and the more “personal moments in pastoral care, where I witness people’s reserves of strength and courage. I may be exhausted a lot of the time, but I never, ever feel my work lacks meaning.”
“Our founder, Rabbi Zalman Schachter-Shalomi, was a master at using creative techniques to disrupt routine thinking and engage the whole person in discovery. He urges us to respond to changing social questions using traditional Jewish resources, recognizing how diverse and evolutionary Judaism has always been. As a teacher, he has empowered Jewish intellectuals, artists, environmental activists and more; his influence can be felt across all Jewish movements.”
Renewal’s orientation towards Judaism and life provides a vehicle to chart a satisfying course, she noted. “Renewal is spiritual and socially liberal. Following the early Chassidic teachers, we explore the inner spiritual journey of Jewish life. We take seriously life’s existential questions and we fully expect Judaism to help us answer them. To stimulate our souls, we study, sing, make art and have fun. Our founder, Rabbi Zalman Schachter-Shalomi, was a master at using creative techniques to disrupt routine thinking and engage the whole person in discovery. He urges us to respond to changing social questions using traditional Jewish resources, recognizing how diverse and evolutionary Judaism has always been. As a teacher, he has empowered Jewish intellectuals, artists, environmental activists and more; his influence can be felt across all Jewish movements.”
Judaism’s evolutionary character resonates with those who haven’t fit into more mainstream Jewish life. “Or Shalom is really a community of seekers. Our members are deeply committed to Judaism, but they don’t participate out of a sense of obligation,” she explained. “Each person is genuinely and self-consciously on a path of spiritual and moral growth. Of course, we are all at different places on our path. But this self-awareness really makes working relationships easier; people reflect, reach out across conflict, and grow the community.”
Though the time has come to move on from synagogue leadership, Duhan Kaplan doesn’t plan to stop being a teacher. “Charles keeps reminding me to take some down time, but my normal way of living is to be working, going to school and volunteering. Next year, I’ll be working part time, teaching three graduate courses each at the ALEPH seminary and the Vancouver School of Theology. I’ll continue to take courses in Jungian psychology at Pacifica Graduate Institute and I have agreed to a big volunteer project for Ohalah: Association of Rabbis for Jewish Renewal. I hope to do some cat transportation for VOKRA, Vancouver Orphan Kitten Rescue. Yes, I’ll still be blogging! And I hope to put the finishing touches on the animal book.
“Of all the roles I play, educator still resonates most deeply,” she continued. “When I’m teaching, I can be scholar, deep listener and interpersonal facilitator all at once. I have to be well prepared and flexible at the same time. And I get to play with different learning modalities, as we explore really deep ideas in ways that work for the learners.
“Or Shalom is a wonderfully musical community and the congregational singing (without musical instruments) on Shabbos morning is utterly awe inspiring! It has been a joy to introduce new melodies to this community because they will join in with enthusiasm in singing absolutely anything, even adding beautiful harmonies.”
A Pittsburgh native who grew up in “a relatively non-observant, culturally Jewish-identified home,” Charles Kaplan said that he “began to rediscover and explore my Jewish (religious) roots in my 30s and this accelerated exponentially after Laura and I met.” A multi-instrumentalist, he and his wife have continued the tradition of making music a large part of the service. “Or Shalom is a wonderfully musical community and the congregational singing (without musical instruments) on Shabbos morning is utterly awe inspiring! It has been a joy to introduce new melodies to this community because they will join in with enthusiasm in singing absolutely anything, even adding beautiful harmonies,” he said.
And though he often gets asked by others about being the rabbi’s husband, he said “Or Shalomniks are far too comfortable with egalitarianism to even think the question! Usually, it’s asked with a clever smile, ‘You know the wife of the rabbi is the rebbetzin. What do they call the husband of the rabbi?’ My standard answer is ‘Around here they call me “the hubbetzen!”’ In all seriousness, supporting the rabbi’s work as a spouse is a challenging responsibility regardless of gender.” Among other contributions, “I’ve gotten myself involved in davening, musical events, ritual committee and even building maintenance! All with ‘ivdu et Hashem b’simcha!’”
Pat Gill and David Kauffman are co-chairs of the board of directors, and spoke to the JI about reaching the double-chai milestone. Or Shalom “occupies a unique place in Vancouver Jewish life,” said Kauffman, who first discovered the congregation in 1985. “Firmly committed to inclusiveness, we make efforts to invite and engage everyone who wants to explore, or return to Jewish life and Jewish community, regardless of their background…. As a participatory shul, most Shabbat services are different each week, portions of davening and reading Torah and Haftorah by a significant percentage of the congregation.”
Gill said she heard about Or Shalom “20 years ago when my husband and I were planning to move here from Seattle. A friend said we should check it out; we’d like it. She was so right. Our first event was High Holidays, 1994, and we were hooked!”
Both agree that Duhan Kaplan has “set the bar high” for the next rabbi. “Reb Laura has brought to Or Shalom a high level of insight, analysis of text, and ability to teach,” said Gill. “As well, her davening and leyning are exceptionally musical and beautiful…. I believe Reb Laura was the first female congregational rabbi in B.C. Her knowledge, intellect and desire to work with the greater Jewish community in Vancouver have earned respect for her and, I believe, for female rabbis in general, as women become more accepted in the role of pulpit rabbi.”
Kauffman seconded that praise. “Reb Laura has brought the aspects of Jewish life that Or Shalom dreamed of in a rabbi. Teaching that draws from rabbinic tradition and modern philosophy, davening that reflects musical influences both traditional and more recent, such as those taught by Reb Shlomo Carlebach and others. For the greater Vancouver Jewish community, Reb Laura is known for her courses all around the Lower Mainland, including Talmud Torah, Vancouver School of Theology, Melton Institute and the most recent Limmud Vancouver. We expect that Reb Laura will continue to teach in her many ways in and around Vancouver even after she leaves the role of Or Shalom’s full-time spiritual leader.”
For now, the search for an interim rabbi continues. “We’ve embarked on a rabbi search mission, one based on the thorough process that gave us such excellent results 10 years ago,” said Kauffman. “We’re looking for an interim rabbi for about a year, and posting a larger search for a full-time rabbi to start in the summer of 2015. Our process will eventually bring the committee’s three top choices to Vancouver for Shabbaton-like interviews, after which a community process will help us find the best match.”
Or Shalom’s 36th anniversary celebration features entertainment by Tzimmes and Grand Trine, on March 1, 7:30 p.m., at VanDusen Botanical Garden. Tickets at 604-872-1614 or [email protected].