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Today We Stand Together

Edmonton Jewish News, September 29, 2016

(EJNews) – Many of you read my op-ed piece in the Edmonton Journal about how I was going to wear a shvimkleid – the modest garment worn by Orthodox women – to my first triathlon and how it became an issue of religious tolerance.  I received quite a few inquiries about how it went and so I wanted to update everyone on what transpired.

On the Friday before the race we were invited to participate in a water familiarisation, which meant that we could take a swim in the Hawrelak Park pond. Although there was still green and blue algae they informed us that it was safe to swim.  There were quite a few of us ready and excited to take the plunge.  The temperature of the water was quite nice, although I was wearing a wet shirt and of course my shvimkleid.  That notwithstanding, when I exited the pond, I suddenly felt cold and ill.  Thank G-d, my dear husband was able to quickly nurse me back to good health, with a shot of scotch and a hot bath!

To be honest I wasn’t looking forward to getting back into the pond, but after a couple of days of mental prep, I was ready to tackle it again Sunday morning – only to be told, half an hour before the race, that the swim section was cancelled due to the freezing temperatures.  The triathlon had now become a duathlon – run, bike, run. You can imagine how I felt.  I had mentally and physically prepared myself to do this and now I wouldn’t be able to.  Yes, I was disappointed to hear the news, but I wasn’t about to quit now.

I did it . . . albeit without the swim (so now I am challenging myself to do another).  It was an awesome race – I call it a race but for me it wasn’t about my time, it was about completing it.  I enjoyed every moment especially the cheering volunteer who called to me, “I love that you’re running in a skirt!” or another who shouted out, “You’re my favourite runner!” They sure gave me the strength to carry on (or do you think they just said that to everyone who ran past?)  I had awesome supporters and I especially want to thank those members of the community who came out to see me in action. I am humbled and grateful to them. It meant a lot to me.

But none of this support is surprising to us in Canada. We pride ourselves here on our religious tolerance.  As evidenced from the burkini fiasco in France this past August, we shouldn’t take it for granted.

While I presented the issue in the Edmonton Journal as one of religious tolerance, here’s the real problem.  Not only are these women being made to feel like strangers, but these insensitive secularistic policies are effectively confining them to their homes.  If they can’t wear the burkini in public, then the only place that they can go swimming is in the privacy of their backyard pool.

And so, ultimately who wins?  The ISIS terrorists who believe that a woman’s place is in the home and she should never be seen in public.

These families came to the West for a better life.  A life where religious police wouldn’t tell them how to dress and where to hang out.   But instead of the freedom to just be whomever they want to be, they find themselves yet again being dictated to by religiously intolerant bullies with preconceived notions of the relationship between religious adherence and worldly engagement.

In North American society, thank G-d, you can be religious and enjoy life.  Everyone’s entitled to their own choices as to what they wear and how they lead their lives.

As we approach Rosh Hashanah, let us recall the liturgy of Hayom Harat Olam – “Today is the birthday of the world.”  At this time of year, we pray not only for the Jewish people but for ALL peoples and ALL creations.  We pray for peace and harmony so that we can continue to make this world a dwelling place for the Creator.

Wishing you all a happy sweet and healthy new year!

 Batya Friedman is the rabbanit of Beth Israel Synagogue in Edmonton, Alberta. 

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Saying “yes” to diversity is a no-brainer in Canada; we must never take it for granted

Edmonton Journal – September 1, 2016

This week I will compete in the triathlon taking place in our City of Champions. “So what?” you say. “A lot of people are competing.”

Yes, but how many people are doing it in a shvimkleid – the modest swimsuit worn by religious Jewish women?

I almost didn’t have the guts to submit my application. What if they wouldn’t accept me? It’s going to be my first triathlon, I didn’t know the rules and regulations. Maybe everyone has to wear the standard wetsuit, bike pants and jogging shorts?

While a shvimkleid is actually made of Lycra, nobody would ever confuse it for any of those “normal” sports outfits – it’s pretty obviously a skirt made from stretchy fabric.

So I summoned up the courage and picked up the phone and called the ITU World Triathlon Edmonton’s office. To my great relief, they said yes. Five minutes later, I was registered.

The fact that they said “yes” is probably a no-brainer to most Canadians. Living here we take multiculturalism and our faith mosaic for granted. That’s Canadian values 101.

But we must never take it for granted. We are very blessed to live in our great country. While we might like to believe that any 21-century Western liberal democracy would be no different, sadly that’s not the case.

In August, France, the home of “liberty, equality, fraternity,” decreed that religious Muslim women may not wear the burkini – their modest swimsuit – at public beaches. France’s highest court has since suspended the ban in one coastal town and other bans are being challenged too.

But instead of embracing and respecting the culture and beliefs of fellow Frenchmen, those imposing burkini bans once again alienated them and made them feel like strangers in their own countries. If they would only open their hearts and minds, they would find – as we have here in Canada – that the mosaic of cultures is what makes society and, ultimately the nation, great.

Thank goodness here in Edmonton our government leaders not only tolerate and respect every creed, but they have found ways to capitalize on the strengths of our communities.

We have a number of interfaith groups, including the Edmonton Interfaith Centre for Education and Action and the Phoenix Multi-Faith Society for Harmony that fulfil various roles from interreligious to law enforcement relations. These groups are endorsed by our municipal government and city hall regularly hosts their celebrations of faith.

Another important Edmonton interfaith coalition is the Capital Region Interfaith Housing Initiative (CRIHI). Supported by the City of Edmonton along with the Edmonton Community Foundation, the Catholic Archdiocese and other churches, CRIHI is made up of dozens of Edmonton faith groups.

The city has a goal to end homelessness by 2018. To that end, a number of affordable housing programs are underway across the city. But transformation never comes without its challenges and this project is no different.

Unfortunately in some parts of the city there has been some pushback to the introduction of affordable housing. The goal of CRIHI is to involve faith groups in the conversation about homelessness and hopefully to motivate religious Edmontonians of all stripes to get involved in making our city livable for everyone.

The response to date has been heartwarming; churches, temples, synagogues and mosques are engaging in important discussions and we are working together for the betterment of our society.

We are incredibly blessed to live in Edmonton, to be citizens of Canada. Here, we respect our differences and work together to make this world a better place for everyone. Our city and country are shining examples of successful integration.

Let us unite with one voice and condemn any intolerance and disrespect, whether at home or abroad. Together, we can achieve amazing things.

Rabbanit Batya Friedman is the director of the Capital Region Interfaith Housing Initiative and the co-pastor of Beth Israel Synagogue.

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Passover and the British Monarchy

Edmonton Jewish News, April 2016

In 2005, Queen Elizabeth II came to Alberta for our centennial celebration.  Rabbanit Batya and I had the good fortune of being invited to the official state dinner with the Queen.  Nevertheless, she didn’t limit her interactions to leaders of the province; she made sure to make a number of public appearances, including a visit to the Provincial Museum, which was subsequently renamed the Royal Alberta Museum.

My mother-in-law, Sylvia, happened to be in town and was thrilled to have the opportunity to greet the Queen.  Spending her formative years in France, she had always had immense respect and wonder for the royal family and was also looking forward to reciting the special bracha one makes when one sees a monarch.  Anticipating busy crowds, Sylvia set out early to get a good spot on the road where the procession was due to take place.  Can you imagine her surprise when she was first in line and only about a hundred people showed up to greet the Queen?!

The truth is, many people believe that the monarchy is an antiquated relic of earlier forms of human progress.  In our age of tabloid magazines, respect for the royal family has all but disappeared.  Is it not time to become a republic?

Particularly, at this time of year, as we approach Passover and celebrate our freedom from the Egyptian monarch, Pharaoh, many of us probably ask why we would support the rule of Queen Elizabeth II. Isn’t it time we freed ourselves of the shackles of monarchic rule?

As tempting as it may be to jump on the republican bandwagon, as Jews we have many important reasons to be staunch supporters of the monarchy. Firstly, the Talmud (Gittin 80) states that we must be so concerned for good relations with the gentile monarch that we must recognize them on our religious documents, such as bills of marriage and divorce!  How much more concerned must we be about supporting them throughout our societal and political interactions!

Second, we are bound by the principle of dina d’malchusa dina – we must obey the law of the land.  Believe it or not, it is still treasonous to act against the monarchy.  And so unless they are corrupt or oppressive, we are halachically obligated to support them.

The third reason is practical and has to do with our love for the State of Israel and the safety and security of our brothers and sisters in Israel.  Recently, British Prime Minister David Cameron criticised ‘settlement construction’ in ‘East Jerusalem.’  In 1967, Israel captured the eastern part of its capital city from Jordan.  Prior to 1967, no modern sovereign nation-state had ever laid claim to the area.  And so when Israel claimed it as its own, it did not steal it from anyone.  Contrary to popular myth, the Palestinian people never owned the territory and in fact rejected the United Nations’ offer to have it in 1947.

And so despite the fact that the nations of the world wanted to recognize that piece of land as Palestinian territory, they never claimed it as their own.  Israel was the first modern state to stake a legal claim in the eastern part of Jerusalem.  To draw an analogy closer to home, although there were indigenous people living in the land that today we call Canada, those people never staked a modern legal national claim to the land.  The first do so were the British and therefore Canada today is under the rule of the Queen of England.

And so when PM Cameron criticizes Israel for building homes in East Jerusalem, he might as well criticize every public action carried out by the Canadian government, with the approval of the Queen’s representative, the Governor-General.  Who gives them the right to build on land belonging to Inuit and First Nations people?

In other words, as long as Great Britain retains its stake in Canada, as long as the monarchy remains in place as our sovereign ruler, Britain has absolutely no right to criticize Israel’s actions in East Jerusalem or the Golan!

Of course, the major difference between Israel’s ‘occupation’ and Britain’s is that nobody denies that the British came here from abroad and colonized Canada.  In contrast, everyone agrees that the Jewish people are the true indigenous inhabitants of the Land of Israel!  The only complication is that for the two thousand years that most of our nation lived in exile from our homeland, others came and repopulated the area.  And so upon our return home, they too claimed indigenous status.   But never did they claim to establish a nation-state; and never did Israel occupy sovereign territory that belonged to anyone else.

Really, we should not have to defend our right to the Land of Israel.  Anyone who has ever read the Bible, or studied a little history or archaeology knows who the rightful owners of Israel are.  But until Moshiach comes, we live in an international society and we must play by their rules.  L’shana haba b’Yerushalayim!

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