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Coming Together

September 10, 2012 – 10:11 pm3 Comments

A meeting of Sikhs and Jews in Jerusalem. Image: Eliyahu McLean. For more, see flickr.com/photos/jerusalem_peacemakers/sets/72157602140229184/

By Alex Kats
In my life I have met very few people of the Sikh tradition. Even on a recent trip to India, the few Sikh people that I did encounter were just in passing and I wasn’t able to have a proper conversation with any of them. This all changed on a recent Friday night when I met a young Sikh man at a traditional Shabbat dinner. In fact, he was one of numerous non-Jews who were part of this very traditionally Jewish of Jewish events.

Inderbir Singh, like many of the other participants, is a member of the Multi-faith Future Leaders Program, a project of the Anti-Defamation Commission (ADC) now in its fifth year. The program brings together young Jews as well as members of the Sikh, Muslim, Christian, Baha’i, Buddhist and other faiths for a series of programs. Earlier in the year, they all participated in a camp together, and since then, they gather regularly to experience sparks of each religious background. As part of their exploration of Judaism, they experienced a melodic Kabbalat Shabbat service followed by an engaging Friday night dinner.

The event was hosted at Shira Hadasha, one of few orthodox synagogues that welcomes such diversity, and continues to host brave and relevant events that inspire and get people thinking. This was no different, and I noticed Inderbir almost immediately, because it is rare to see a tall Indian man with a turban in a Jewish setting, particularly holding a Siddur during Kabbalat Shabbat. Like all the participants in the program, he was invited to attend the service prior to dinner, and though somewhat mystified by the service and especially by the regular standing up and sitting down, many greatly enjoyed the tunefulness and enthusiasm.

After the rest of the shule cleared out, the twenty or so program participants, together with about twenty other Jews, sat down for Shabbat dinner. Unsurprisingly, most initially sat with people they already knew, but after the first course, there was a serious case of musical chairs with everyone moving around wanting to chat to someone of a different faith, and that is how I got to meet Inderbir.

Like most Friday nights, the dinner was very casual and the conversation flowed easily from all corners of the room, but it was all preceded by Kiddush and then a short talk by Ittay Flescher, a teacher at Mt Scopus who is the facilitator for the Colleges’ Building Bridges through Interfaith Dialogue program. He spoke about comparative religions and said that although one of the prevailing views about most religions is that they all strive for the same goal, they just have different means of getting there. A tall mountain can have many paths leading to the summit, and each path can offer a different view. Using many Jewish and other sources, he said that maybe there is no summit to reach and that each religion is designed to bring its own unique element into the world. All religions have something to give with one particular thing to focus on, and each can learn from the others. This was the starting point for many of the conversations around the room for the next few hours.

Sitting across from Inderbir was Lisa, who admitted that she knew very little about Judaism, but equally little about most religions. Her family were lapsed Catholics and she grew up with no religion. However, she came to this program with her boyfriend Zack because she is an agnostic who knows that there is a higher being out there, she just isn’t sure what manifestation that being has and what it means to her. This was another unfamiliar thing for me to hear and I was fascinated by it, though she was more fascinated to hear about Judaism and about the intricacies of Kashrut and Hebrew, two things she had never encountered before, but both were all around her in the setting of a synagogue dinner. Between us and the other people around us, we also laughed and talked about architecture, transport, travel, movies, cooking, psychology, and video games amongst other things. We even at one point made up our own religion, and talked about how our various religions view the world, though strangely none of us asked what anyone does for a living. When comparative religion is the starting point, what one does for a livelihood seems secondary.

By the end of the night, I’d only met a few of the multi-faith protagonists, but felt greatly enriched by the experience. I also felt a sense of vulnerability talking about the complexities of Judaism. Often I argue about the minutiae and authority of various aspects of Halacha or Jewish traditions, but here as a representative of the Jewish faith, I was tasked with representing Judaism as a whole, for Lisa in particular was a blank canvas who didn’t even know about separating dairy and meat, let alone any of the other rules, regulations, laws and traditions that many of us mull over each day. What I told her about Judaism would be all that she would know without further exploration.

This was a Friday night like few others, and I am grateful to Shira and the ADC for coming together to put this on. I feel empowered and exhilarated as a result, and also have a new appreciation of my own tradition. I also realised, like Ittay said, that there are more things we have in common than things that can tear us apart, and each of us can learn from each other. I certainly learned a lot by attending this dinner, and I hope that Inderbir, Lisa, and the rest of the participants did also. And next time I see someone of the Sikh tradition, I’ll feel a certain sense of kinship that came about because of a unique Shabbat experience.

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