Society

During the Israel-Hamas war, three faith leaders are uniting their communities

This fall, amid waves of protests, the East Toronto Multifaith Community organized a peaceful, apolitical vigil for their grieving neighbours. Here, they describe the healing experience.
Alex Cyr
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Soon after the war between Israel and Hamas broke out, one Toronto-based multi-faith group decided to do something radical, something that stood apart from all the political demonstrations and protests: to come together in a peaceful vigil, free of flags and signs, to support all who are grieving. The East Toronto Multifaith Community, founded in 2008, is a volunteer-run group whose members belong to Christian, Jewish, Muslim and myriad other faiths. For the last 15 years, the organization has hosted plenty of gatherings, panels and walks to bring awareness to local causes. It’s also extended its reach to provide support for communities affected by international catastrophes and conflicts.

This past fall, roughly 200 people from religious backgrounds of all kinds gathered in Toronto’s Withrow Park to pray, sing and listen to four faith leaders speak, all of whom advocated for peace. Here, Irshad Osman (an imam), Ilyse Glickman (a rabbi) and Bri-anne Swan (a minister with the United Church of Canada)—all members of the East Toronto Multifaith Community—recount the Withrow Park event and explain the transformative potential of multi-faith gatherings in polarizing times.


 

Ilyse Glickman: I have served as rabbi of the Danforth Jewish Circle in Toronto for a little over a year now. I haven’t slept much since October 7. This war has permeated our congregation—during weekly services, Shabbat and within families. Many congregants  have sought pastoral counselling on how to resolve conflicts between housemates and relatives. Others fear for the lives of loved ones in the Middle East and are struggling to cope from afar. Many of us, myself included, have done our best to stay calm at the sound of anti-Semitic chants and at the sight of swastika flags at rallies. As the grandchild of Holocaust survivors, I find these images are too much to bear. Through it all, my message to the community has been to resist falling into an us-versus-them mindset, and to find the humanity in everyone.

Shortly after the initial attack by Hamas, I was approached by some of my congregants who were part of the East Toronto Multifaith Community. They asked me to participate in a vigil that would bring together folks in the city’s east end. On October 29, hundreds of people—Jews, Christians, Muslims, and people of other faiths—gathered in Toronto’s Withrow Park to listen to the words of leaders of various faiths. This was an apolitical vigil, with the goal of being in community. We lit candles, sang songs, offered blessings and connected with strangers with whom we shared two common goals: seeing the goodness in everyone and praying for peace. The gathering at Withrow Park stood in stark contrast to the tribalism we are seeing across the world. At the end of the night, no one seemed to want to leave the park, even though our surroundings were growing colder and darker by the minute. We all just wanted to savour the moment, a much-needed salve for our aching souls.

Finding common ground is more important than ever right now. In fact, it is the only way forward. Since the October vigil, I have noticed that our congregants have participated in even more multi-faith events. In mid-November, a peace advocacy group called Coexistence organized a gathering at Queen’s Park. Again, the purpose was to help attendees foster relationships with people who share similar goals of building solidarity in these challenging times. At the Danforth Jewish Circle, we welcome everyone to draw closer into community. We extend the same offer to people of other faiths. This horrific war will, God-willing, be over soon. Torontonians need to stand strong together, throughout it and beyond. Our multi-faith vigil at Withrow Park, and all the ones that have followed, are glimmers of hope that we can stand side by side for peace, against hate of all kinds, as neighbours. 

Irshad Osman: I conduct sermons at four mosques across Toronto. I’m also a sacred journey fellow at Interfaith America, a non-profit that trains interfaith leaders. In this line of work, most practitioners try to keep their messages inside people’s comfort zones; they don’t often talk about real issues that divide us. To me, this is a problem. This particular conflict has become so intense that some faith leaders have altogether abandoned their balanced approaches, instead advocating—some very publicly—for one side without sympathizing with the other. Since graduating from the seminary, I have been able to bring people from the Muslim community, as well as other faiths, to the peacemaking movement. My mission in multi-faith circles, as well as in my sermons, is to prevent congregants from retreating into their own enclaves and demonizing people of other beliefs.

I understand why people are angry. This war has been atrocious. One of our imams in Toronto lost 18 of his family members in bombings, all on the same day. Still, we cannot allow that anger to turn into hatred, which is often misdirected. It does not land with the people who have committed violent acts in Gaza; it stays right here in our communities. In a recent sermon, I told people that they should not turn to the echo chamber of social media to air their grievances. The Quran tells us we should always verify the truth of a message before spreading it; that doesn’t always happen on WhatsApp. Instead, we are prone to taking a firm stance about the war, with no regard for finding common ground.   

Interfaith vigils are a way for us to truly come together. When I speak at these events, I tell attendees that, rather than stirring up more anger, they must remember that death is death, and that it pains everyone the same. When one mourns the death of a Palestinian, they should also consider that some Jewish people are also experiencing that pain. After my talks, the people who want to speak with me are rarely Muslim; they’re usually from other faiths. At a recent vigil, a tall, bearded Jewish man in his 70s told me, with tears in his eyes, that he wished he’d had the chance to attend multi-faith events earlier in life to realize how much he shared with others outside of his religion. I have many examples like that: after the Easter Sunday bombing in Sri Lanka in 2019, I spoke to a large crowd of Christians at a church in Scarborough. Emotions were running high, because the attackers were part of the Muslim community. During my speech, I shared my own experience, my own personal trauma, of being a victim of a bomb blast in Sri Lanka in 1995, at the height of the civil war. Several people in attendance told me that hearing my story helped them avoid making the same mistake as the perpetrators of the heinous attacks in Sri Lanka: dehumanizing others. The story helped them find solace. 

Peacemaking moments like that one will shape our future. We cannot become strangers in our own city. All around us, there are positive examples of dialogue. Recently, more than 33 faith leaders from Ottawa—some Muslim, some Jewish—issued a joint statement that condemned hatred in all its forms. Vigils like the one at Withrow Park remind us that, despite the atrocities we are witnessing, we must hold on to hope.

Bri-anne Swan: Our community at East End United Regional Ministry is hurting for our Muslim and Jewish friends, and we do not always know how to help. So when the East Toronto Multifaith Community asked me to participate in the multi-faith vigil in Withrow Park, I immediately said yes. Like everyone else, faith leaders can find it intimidating to speak about the war, which is a challenging and polarizing topic, with nuance and compassion. Still, showing up matters. On October 29, I stood alongside a Unitarian minister, a rabbi and an imam, sharing a clear message: as people of faith, we believe there is something more—to believe in and to work for. And we must work toward justice and peace.

There were far more people in attendance than I expected. I figured we’d only be joined by members of our respective faith communities. I had no idea people from the neighbourhood—many of whom had no religious affiliation at all—needed this time as well. Rabbi Glickman was the first to speak, and she ended her time with a prayer for peace, which she sang beautifully. I had also planned on ending my segment with “Kyrie Eleison (Lord Have Mercy),” a sung prayer. After I was done, I said to Rabbi Glickman: “We’re going to sing together sometime, right?” After we all finished speaking, the four faith leaders hugged and shook hands. 

This fall, East End United provided shelter for 30 asylum seekers from Nigeria, Kenya, Ethiopia, and Uganda who couldn’t find space in Toronto’s shelter system. We spend much of our time tending to those people—making meals and gathering everyday supplies—with help from members of the Danforth Jewish Circle and the Neighbourhood Unitarian Universalist Congregation. We all share a building, and in late October, the exterior was tagged with graffiti. Police now visit once a day to make sure everything is okay. In mid-November, during the Danforth Jewish Circle’s Shabbat service, our congregation formed a circle around the building’s entrance as a demonstration of support for the safety of our Jewish friends. I’m committed to protecting these relationships as we pray for an end to the conflict.


As told to Alex Cyr