In interfaith dialogue

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In interfaith dialogue
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Stephen Wise

Stephen Wise

Rabbi Wise has focused much of his rabbinate in striving passionately to connect Jews of all ages to their Judaism. Whether its through prayer services, learning or social action, each presents a gateway to stronger Jewish identity. Rabbi Wise has worked recently developing programming for young adults in their 20-30's, starting ongoing successful groups in NYC and Florida, reigniting their connections to Judaism. Rabbi Wise is the spiritual leader for Oakville's Jewish community, and his congregation is Shaarei Beth-El on Morrison Road.

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Here is the moment when it all made sense.

It was about 7:30 pm and it was time for the Muslim call to prayer. Our event had started at 7:00 pm in our synagogue and 100 people were listening respectfully as a Rabbi, an Imam and a Minister dialogued about the role of religion in world violence and peace.

Without much fuss, a group of Muslims quietly exited the synagogue sanctuary and were led by one of our congregants, Julie Appleton, to a quiet space in one of our classrooms. They knelt on the carpet and began their prayers. Could we ever find a better example of the power of interfaith dialogue then a group of Muslims praying in a synagogue? As town Councillor Max Kahn tweeted today, “last night Rabbi Wise invited Muslims to say their prayers at the Synagogue in Oakville. Gestures that foster peace and respect.”

Indeed it was that spirit of peace and respect that led us to gather in the first place. I am standing on the shoulders of great leaders who almost 15 years ago created the interfaith council of Halton. It was in direct response to the events of September 11th, 2001, when terrorists hijacked planes and attacked the twin towers in NYC and the pentagon in DC. Here in Oakville, we did not experience the same level of terror but we thought a response was required. And so Reverend Morar Murray Hayes of Maple Grove United Church contacted the local mosque and met with Abdul Q. Mufti. They met in the office of then Mayor Anne Mulvale. They then contacted the local synagogue, Shaarei-Beth El and asked if then Rabbi Paul Sidlofsky could join them. They established an interfaith council with the goal of learning more about each other to prevent future stereotypes and phobia from leading to violence and terrorism here in our town.

Thus began a wonderful partnership among the faith groups of this area. Soon at the table were representatives from the Baha’i, Sikh, Hindu, Zoroastrian faiths, along with various denominations of Christianity including Anglican, Catholic, Baptist, and more. The secondary goal after learning about each other, was to be more active in the community. One way was to create youth festivals where a leader from each faith could talk about the basic tenets of their religions – customs, holidays, rituals – and how they were similar or different from the other religions in Halton. These youth festivals have taken place in various high schools around Halton for the past 10 years and continue today.

We also sought to take a more active role in promoting interfaith cooperation. We helped the school boards develop a faith calendar to avoid putting major school events on faith holidays. We created an annual peace breakfast to promote dialogue. We participated in social justice events together such as food drives. We observed the 10th anniversary of 9-11 together back in 2011 in the middle of downtown Oakville on Lakeshore Road East by the clock tower in town square.

As leaders we meet monthly and last meeting we discussed how painful it was to see so many violent acts in the name of Islam – particularly the attacks in Ottawa, Paris and Copenhagen to name just a few. There of course is ongoing violence in Syria, Iran and Iraq led by ISIS, a terrorist group.

Aliyah Khan, who is one of the Muslim representatives on the council was so dismayed by those who preach violence in the name of Islam. She bought us texts from the Koran that support the peaceful nature of Islam and how these texts have been taken out of context or transformed in the name of violence. She also talked about how people look at her because she wears a head scarf, and sometimes fears for her safety.

That is not the Oakville or the Canada that I want to live in.

And of course it hearkens back to when Jews were targets of hatred and suspicion. We could not wear our religious garb comfortably in public. And while this might not be the case in most parts of Canada, this is certainly still true in many other countries in Europe and the Middle East. So as we talked through these painful issues as people of faith, who believe strongly in our own religions, and know that our faiths preach peace over violence, we thought of quickly making an event. I suggested hosting it at the synagogue and everyone agreed. We wanted to encourage dialogue, to ask the tough questions and allow people to talk about what frightens them and learn from each other. So we created the event which took place this past Wednesday. We were very intentional in how we created it. We wanted it to be a dialogue and not a lecture. We set up the room in a circle surrounding Aliyah, Reverend Morar and myself.

The participants would have a chance to see us model dialogue – where we asked each other tough questions, listened politely, challenged each other respectfully and found moments of clarity and cohesiveness.

We only did this for about 40 minutes and then asked people to gather in small groups, ideally with people who they did not know and were of different faiths. We had facilitators at each group but the goal was to allow individuals to talk and learn.

There was an amazing vibe in the room as people dialogued and talked for around 45 minutes.

For the last 15 minutes we gathered to share some of what was talked about in the small groups. Some things that stood out for me from this part was the learning especially about our history of shared experiences between Islam, Judaism and Christianity.

I talked about how in my group a woman in a sari whom I thought for sure was an Indian Muslim or Hindu was actually a college educated Anglican from Pakistan. We cannot judge a person based on how they look and what they wear. I was also moved by Oakville Town Councillor Max Kahn, who said as a Muslim he feels the world is against him. The terrorists who speak for violence are hated by most Muslims, because they claim to speak for all Muslims and they recruit from liberal Muslims. It’s a two edged sword. But he said a night like tonight restored his faith in people and in humanity. He was actually in tears when he came to thank us for hosting the event in the synagogue.

I know many of our congregants were there and some who wanted to were unable to attend. The overwhelming feedback was that we need to do this again and get the issues out in the public sphere more often, and inshala with gods will, ken yehi ratzon – we will.



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Readers Comments (2)

  1. Liz Bryant says:

    A very timely and well reported article. However, I am a spelling/grammar nerd. One may have quietly EXITED, without being quietly excited about those prayers
    Social justice EVENTS enable folks (I am certain) to not only vent on social justice issues, but get to know folks from many faiths as the people we all are

    • John P New says:

      Corrected, thanks.


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