After Canada’s July 1 bash for our 150th birthday, the Centre for Israel and Jewish Affairs (CIJA) challenged every mosque, church, temple, synagogue and place of worship to commit to 150 acts of public service this year. Convivium publisher Peter Stockland asked CIJA CEO Shimon Koffler Fogel for more details.
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Convivium: What is the Canadian Faith Community Pledge Challenge? What does CIJA hope Canadians of faith will do?
Shimon Koffler Fogel: We use the term challenge in the most constructive way really, encouraging faith communities both individually and collectively to reflect on the role they play in Canadian society and how they can serve as agents for positive change and growth. It’s meant to underscore the legitimate and full role that they should be playing, and the whole public conversation about what we are as a society. How we can improve ourselves? How we can share certain values and principles that are inherent to what we believe as individuals and groups of faith to improve the lives beyond our own parochial communities to impact on those of all Canadians? I think that over the last few decades, and certainly increasingly over the last 10 or so years, there had been questions raised about the propriety of having a religious perspective or a religious voice directly engaged in that discussion, regardless of what the particulars are on public policy. I think one of the ways in which we can demonstrate the value we bring to that discussion is to leverage our perspective on what our obligations are as individuals and as communities in answering the question, "How do we make things better?"
Convivium: Do you have “starter ideas” that faith groups might consider as projects?
Shimon Koffler Fogel: There's no shortage of needs that are expressed by one segment of Canadian society or another, but there are also generic things. There's an acute need for blood donations, for example. It's just an easy thing for an individual to do, and it's such a user-friendly way for a church, a synagogue, a mosque, a temple to organize. Canadian Blood Services has a program where a group can join together in order to set a particular target of blood donations, and then it just becomes a self- perpetuating kind of exercise. How can that be anything but good when we reflect on those blessings that we have and consider those who don't, without judging why they don't or what their circumstances are?
The idea is about saying, "We are going to make a statement about what it means to be Canadian by sharing our loaf of bread, by visiting those who are isolated and shut in, by identifying those who are underprivileged, providing a tutorial program from kids after school, or for those that can't be involved in organized sports for one reason or another. We want to provide a platform for them to be able to do something healthy and constructive, looking at First Nations and recognizing there are communities living in the most desperate of circumstances. What can we do to partner with them?"
It has nothing to do with promoting or proselytizing on a religious basis. It’s about saying that I, as a person of faith am making a statement about what that faith means by translating it into practice. There's something for me to share that is of inherent good, that doesn't compromise anybody's independence or way of thinking.
C: So, in a sense, you’re asking people of faith to demonstrate something beyond just a particular project they might undertake?
SKF: As we approached Canada 150, we thought it was important to mark the occasion by reflecting not only on what we gain from the State, but what we can contribute to reflect gratitude for living in such an extraordinary country and society. We look back at our tradition, obviously not just Jewish tradition, but one shared by all people of faith. It has a real foundation in the notion of charity and kindness and the effort to make things better for the other.
There's a passage in the Talmud, which ostensibly is all about decoding the laws and the Commandments and so forth. It tends to also stray into other things as well. There's a passage that has God looking down and saying, "What's going in the world?" He's a little frustrated with a lack of what God would consider to be evidence of what He created the world for. Referring to the Ten Commandments, he says "If you were just to ignore the first five commandments," namely those that engage in a set of expectations of our relationship with God, and just focus on the second set, the second five commandments, which relate to our interaction with others, "I would be satisfied."
One of the lessons that's extracted from that is the notion that perhaps the most central imperative is for us to do good to be good. We can look at this anniversary as an opportunity for us to establish a new level of giving, and recognition that we have responsibilities to those with whom we dwell in this country. We can elevate Canada collectively to a new standard of charity in the full sense of the word, not just giving money, but giving of our time, giving of ourselves, and understanding that a country is made up of people with needs and with suffering, with deficits and with disadvantage. The most compelling way to celebrate Canada is by demonstrating just how giving we can be and how committed to helping others we should be as the defining character of this country.
C: Does the translation of faith into practice allow for translation of faith into public policy?
SKF: Look, I have experienced the struggle of faith communities wanting to participate in public policy issues. Too often, they are told dismissively, "Well, you've come with a parochial agenda and your only interest is in advancing it at the expense of other perspectives." I think this kind of issue allows us to be living models of what it means to be Canadian period, not a Canadian of particular religious persuasion, but a standard that all should be aspiring to. I'm motivated to do it by my belief in God and all that I have embraced on a personal level, but it's something that I can share with others that doesn't impact on their own independence and serves as an inspiration for all.
Even though this isn't the motivation, perhaps it would also give (Canadians) cause to reconsider the place of faith communities in those broader discussions. So often, we're relegated to a view that our interest in opining on public policy matters are limited to contentious issues that have particular religious dimension to them, abortion, end of life, and so forth.
But we also have something to say about the economy, about immigration, about healthcare, and about social services. They impact on us as much as all other Canadians. There are many areas in which we have something to say that should be an important consideration in the overall basket of perspectives that input into the public policy process.
It's not exclusive to the Jewish tradition, but it's certainly central to it, that the most powerful way of demonstrating the values inherent in the faith is by serving as a living example. The converse is true as well: If we don't take this opportunity, then we can be criticized for not stepping up when we had the opportunity to do so. Let's not be periodically or episodically involved in the Canadian experience. Let’s show leadership in looking at every opportunity in a positive and constructive way.
C: It is telling that Canada’s Jewish community is taking this leadership role. Of all of the great faith traditions, it seems fair to say Judaism is the most rooted and concrete. It’s about specific acts within the world. The working out, the manifestation of the relationship with God, is a very specific act-oriented process in Judaism, unlike some faith traditions.
SKF: What is very central to Judaism is the idea that the spiritual has to be manifested through the material. All of the lofty notions that we all cherish really gain their expression through doing something in a tangible, physical way. For us, that gives particular meaning to life. A person can express sympathy for another's travails, but if they take it one step further and address them in a way that mitigates or diminishes the pain, the suffering, the challenges, or what have you, that puts it into an entirely different category. Jewish tradition has it that we recite blessings on pretty much everything that's done. It's not just praising God and the like, every act that we do has a prayer attached to it, from the most mundane to the most esoteric. Before consuming food, we recite a blessing and we recite one afterwards as well.
Somebody was trying to underscore the whole purpose of those benedictions were and he remarked to some one else that "The difference between you and me is that when you take an apple, you recite a blessing so that you can eat the apple. I eat the apple so that I can recite a blessing." I think that if we were to look a little more at all of these different initiatives and opportunities as a way of giving an expression to our faith, rather than simply doing it because our faiths dictate that's the proper code of conduct, it provides a completely different approach to doing good. It's meaning and purpose from a faith perspective.
C: What you're saying is reflected in polling data Cardus has published through our work with the Angus Reid Institute. The survey numbers show Canadians are very positive towards manifestations of faith in their own neighbourhoods, or in local communities, through concrete acts. But when faith is seen as abstract, when it becomes large and overarching, Canadians turn off. They don't want to hear about it. The acts you're talking about, a specific contact with your neighbours, with people around you, are what Canadians seem to be craving from faith.
SKF: I think that religion has become a bit of a boogeyman in the eyes of so many because they themselves are not engaged in personal expressions of faith. They have this notion in their minds that it has no face, it has no direct meaning to them, it's just this presence. But when you unpack it at a level people can relate to as individuals, it takes on a whole different meaning: "Oh, so that what it means to be religious. You're at the soup kitchen on a very bitterly cold winter morning because you're moved to do it as an understanding of your personal faith.” That’s tangible. That’s real.
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The research that you've been doing with Angus Reid underscores that, especially for our younger demographics who in one respect, if you're cynical, you might say they're very self absorbed and narcissistic. But what's real to them are things that they can feel and appreciate on a personal, experiential level. They can feel it, they can touch it, they can experience it, and they can witness it. It demystifies something that had previously been a very dark and forbidden kind of presence within society.
C: Is there a benefit, then, for faith communities themselves to be challenged to experience communities beyond themselves?
SKF: I think it helps us to be less insular. I think sometimes we close ourselves up from the larger community in which we live. We, ourselves, treat religion as something distinct and separate from the rest of our life. I was always taken by those bumper stickers that have the fish. I don't know all of the particular nuances, but it's an expression of a person's faith as a Christian. There are those with the fish. And there are those that have the fish with a seven inside the outline of the fish. What they're saying, I understand, is they're not just Christian one day a week when they go to church on Sunday. They're Christians seven days a week, meaning that they don't distinguish between their conduct and their mindset and perspective in a religious mode from what they do the rest of the week.
They carry their faith through all that they do.
C: You’ve waited until after the celebration, after the birthday candles were basically blown out on the big July 1 blow out weekend. Why was that?
SKF: A good comparison is with a marriage. The wedding event is a big celebration, and everybody's really excited. A lot is invested in it, not just money, but time and energy. But that's just the first moment. Almost like the first moment of creation, it pales in relative importance to what comes next. The wedding itself pales in comparison to what kind of marriage it's going to be, and what's going to emerge from that. We have a birthday cake and we celebrate 150 years and everybody has these parties across the country, and they're exciting to be a part of, except here in Ottawa where it rains. People are enthusiastic, and it is wonderful to be able to give a big shout out, we have fireworks and so forth. But is that all there is? Is that all reaching the milestone of 150 years represents?
We think no. We think that that has to be a platform for bringing us to a different level. That process isn't something that takes place in one day or one week. If we really want to bring meaning to the notion of Canada reaching the milestone of 150, then let's take that whole year to give root to and entrench an elevated way of thinking about what it means to be Canadian and what our responsibilities are to sustain the Canadian vision and dream of being a spectacular place for people to live.
Peter Stockland: I suspect you would be most happy if on January 1st, 2018, people from places of worship continued doing 150 different things to keep the legacy alive It doesn't really end on December 31st, does it?
Shimon Fogel: My hope is that on July 1st, 2018, when we're 151 years old as a country, we will be able to publish an inventory of all the Canada 150 pledges that were made and that were undertaken so that we can provide compelling witness to the determination of Canadians led by faith communities. We want people of faith to be able to say, "This year, we are this much better off than we were the year before. That's what it means to be Canadian and we are going to now pay it forward in years to come and institutionalize the idea that Canada Day celebrations are the engine of making pledges to better our country and improve the experience of living in this country for all.”
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