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The beginning of a beautiful friendship

In October, parishioners from St. John’s went to visit Temple Israel on Prince of Wales Drive. Rabbi Daniel Mikelberg welcomed them and gave them a tour.
In October, parishioners from St. John’s went to visit Temple Israel on Prince of Wales Drive. Rabbi Daniel Mikelberg welcomed them and gave them a tour.
By on January 1, 2022
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It’s not easy, moving to a new city, and as a clergy person, moving to a new parish and diocese. It’s even tougher if you happen to move during a pandemic when most people are isolating at home. That was the situation almost a year ago when the Rev. Gary van der Meer accepted a call from Ottawa’s St. John the Evangelist Church on Elgin Street, leaving his long-time parish of St. Anne’s in Toronto and moving to the Diocese of Ottawa.

But van der Meer also happens to have some special skills and experience getting to know people and making friends, and that’s how he and parishioners at St. John’s came to form a new friendship with the congregation of Temple Israel in Ottawa, and how on Jan. 22 and 23, he and Rabbi Daniel Mikelberg of Temple Israel will address each other’s congregation in a preaching exchange.

But as van der Meer told Crosstalk, this story actually began when he was still in Toronto.

“I ran into an associate imam at a social justice event, and it turned out that he was the imam at the mosque nearest to my parish church, so we developed a friendship and then I also developed a friendship with a synagogue,” he explained. “Then it was a challenge of could they be friends with each other? And it was really hard, I think particularly for the Rabbi, just so much feeling put upon about Palestine and Israel and how the story is told.”

Ironically, it was horrific acts of terrorism that helped bring them together. “We created rings of peace around each other’s buildings. When it was Pittsburgh, we did it around the synagogue, and after Quebec City and New Zealand, it was around the mosque. That really helped them to get past their personal hesitation, and we became an intentional clergy group where we met every few months. It was astonishing how similar the challenges are having a congregation, whether you are a priest, rabbi or imam.”

Van der Meer submitted a proposal to the Parliament of the World’s Religions, which was gathering in Toronto in 2018, offering to do a workshop on how create intentional friendships between congregations of different faiths, which was accepted. His friends, Rabbi Elyse Goldstein of City Shul and Imam Shabir Ally of the Islamic Information and Dawah Centre, co-led the workshop with him. It went so well, a representative from the government of Singapore invited them to speak at an interfaith conference in Singapore, which is an ethnically and religiously diverse country. In the end, Rabbi Goldstein wasn’t able to attend, but van der Meer and Imam Ally went together, further cementing their friendship.

Van der Meer says this interfaith work offered an opportunity to challenge stereotypes of religion common in our secular society. Christians, for example, are often presented in the media as fundamentalists, he said. “You are always doing apologetics or a defense: ‘That’s not the only kind of Christian there is.’ So, if you have the attention of non-religious people at all, often you are in a position of having to be on the defensive, of having to justify why you would even be in the church. To be very public about our friendship challenged non-religious people to rethink what they thought religions were. They couldn’t be as readily dismissive of religion if there’s the rabbi and the priest and the imam all having coffee together and talking about life and laughing with each other.”

Ottawa

When van der Meer decided to move to Ottawa, Rabbi Goldstein offered to introduce him to a rabbi here, who was part of the same reform tradition she is, and that’s how he met Rabbi Daniel Mikelberg of Temple Israel in Ottawa. Because of the pandemic, they first met online, had some Zoom conversations and then decided to do a joint Bible study of texts that would be helpful to people getting through the pandemic. “You have to be creative. What can you talk about that will be pertinent to people and find a commonality…. And so it went very well. We had good participation from both of our congregations. And just like I experienced in Toronto, it was astonishing how similar to each other the congregations of Temple Israel and St. John’s really are, in terms of their political perspective, their outlook on education, community life and the arts. They were just a very compatible group of people.”

After two online gatherings, a small group of parishioners from St. John visited Temple Israel in October. Rabbi Mikelberg spoke and they sat together in mixed table groups with people who are members of the temple.

Kathleen Arsenault was one of the St. John’s parishioners who visited the temple. “I’ve been involved in the Anglican Church for 40 years, and this is the first time we’ve ever done that,” she told Crosstalk. “I really like that approach of learning from one another.” She said she was particularly struck by all the care and reverence with which they treated the Torah.

Bea Robertson recounted how the rabbi “introduced us to the many interesting customs of the Temple, most importantly the beautiful, ancient scrolls of the Torah as well as the many symbols around their beautiful sanctuary.  We had time to chat with Temple members and many questions were answered on the very different ways of Reform Judaism,” she said. “I know that we of St. John’s left with a warm feeling about the friendship developing between these ecumenical groups and hopefully we will be able to invite Temple Israel to St. John’s in the new year.”

Rabbi Daniel Mikelberg used the Yiddish word bashert, which he said is often translated as “meant to be” to describe how he thinks of the new friendship between the temple and the church. “It … is something that has really turned into a beautiful connection, especially in these times of isolation, to be able to explore different ways to build friendships, to learn from one another, and to really seek inspiration.”

The next adventure in this new friendship will take place on the weekend of January 22 and 23 when Rev. Gary will preach at the synagogue and then the Rabbi will do the reflection on Sunday at St. John. “I will preach from the synagogue’s lectionary assigned texts and the Rabbi will preach from church’s lectionary assigned texts, which means he gets the opportunity to comment on the New Testament texts,” van der Meer says. “If you feel yourself among friends, which is how I would feel there and he would feel with us, he’s not going to regard it as his job to downplay Jesus because “he was just a man,” it’s going to be “here’s what I hear in what Jesus is saying.”

When asked what surprised him most in the friendship so far, Rabbi MIkelberg replied, “Probably that there is more that we share than separates us. Certainly, as we approach holiday season, we’re very much focused on our respective holidays, but one of the things that we discovered as we came together is that the values that really bind us together as one are parallel. As Temple Israel, our core values are inclusion, social justice and music. And unbeknownst to me, the church is committed to the same three values. What a beautiful thing to recognize that our separate communities have the same priorities and can find ways to collaborate with this mission.”

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