During the 2015 Canadian federal election, the niqab came into central focus as a key election issue with Canadians dividing themselves among the camps of supporters and condemners. The issue reached such a ridiculous fervour that, on the advice of the Alberta Muslim Public Affairs Council, I opted to write an opinion-editorial on the issue about how it was dividing the country and we must stand together to move forward. After this article’s publication, I received an email from the Rabbanit (wife of the Rabbi), Dorit, at Beth Shalom Synagogue. She proposed that we start a Muslim-Jewish women’s dialogue circle to talk about some of the issues that plague both of our religious groups and would allow us to create a safe environment for women from both groups to ask questions, offer insights and generally get pushed out of their comfort zones in the interests of learning.
Our first meeting in January at the Synagogue was small but intimate. The few women from both sides shared their life stories and, by virtue of the fact that the meeting was taking place in the Synagogue, answered many questions about their brand of Judaism, Jewish dynamics in the city and their perspectives on some political aspects of both faiths. Some amazing connections were made, especially between myself, Nakita, and Michelle from the Jewish community. A philosopher, feminist, life coach and convert, Michelle is a tour de force who has gone on to launch Edmonton’s first women’s film festival in honour of International Women’s Day. Nakita was lucky enough to help in a small way with this effort with The Drawing Board being privileged enough to build the website and help with some public relations aspects.
Such relationships are not the only beautiful thing to come out of the group so far. In our second meeting at the MAC Rahma Mosque in February, the turnout was much higher and the Muslim and Jewish women were lucky enough to get a tour of the mosque from the brand new Imam, Dr. El Sayed Amin. The Imam is exceptionally gifted in public speaking, interreligious dialogue and intellectual pursuits so to have his full attention was a true honour for all of us. Additionally, most of the Muslim women had never had a tour of their own mosque before so it was an amazing learning opportunity for us as well. The mosque was unbelievably hospitable to us, offering us the space on a continuous basis (bi-monthly as we change on and off with the Synagogue) and having the Imam around to answer any of our more in-depth questions and read us excerpts of the Qur’an.
The second meeting’s conversation revolved around the subject of veiling and modesty in both the Muslim and Jewish traditions and the dialogue was amazing. For many participants, it was the first time for them to encounter a person of the other faith, let alone sit across from them, sharing food and life stories. Perhaps my favourite part of all was when the Jewish women joined the Muslim women in the Musalla for ‘Asr prayer, with some Jewish women actually participating in the prayer, shoulder-to-shoulder with their Muslim sisters. It was so beautiful, it actually brought a tear to my eye.
In the coming months, we will be discussing such important and controversial issues as conversion, terrorism, Palestine-Israel and much, much more. As our group grows and solidifies, we hope to have more public events aimed at creating a better understanding of both of our often misunderstood communities. And if we can do this together with mutual respect and kindness, we have already won the day.