Building Bridges, Sharing Cultures: Connecting Indigenous Communities and Canadian Reform Congregations

June 6, 2023Kate Bigam Kaput

It’s been a decade since the Union for Reform Judaism passed its Resolution on First Nations, which affirmed, in part, the URJ’s support of the right of Canada's First Nations community to self-determination and encouraged Canadian congregations to develop relationships with First Nations communities.

In 2023, the Reform Jewish Community of Canada (RJCC) launched its Roadmap to Reconciliation program in advance of National Indigenous Peoples’ Day, observed on June 21. The program was inspired by the success of recent Jewish/Indigenous programs hosted by congregations in Ottawa and Toronto.  

“Our Canadian Reform Jewish community has long been dedicated to truth and reconciliation, a phrase that represents commitment to making reparations for the damage to Canada’s Indigenous communities,” says RJCC engagement coordinator Corinne Krepel. “We developed this program to help congregations across the country run programs that promote local Jewish and Indigenous relationships.”

The RJCC received a Women of Reform Judaism YES Grant for $10,000 and matched that amount from its own coffers, for a total of $20,000 to be distributed as sub-grants to congregations. To be considered for a sub-grant, congregations were asked to conceive and pitch programs that would foster Jewish/Indigenous relationships. Programs had to involve the local Indigenous community and welcome participants from the greater community, whether in person or via Zoom.

“We were blown away by the applications,” Krepel says. “They were robust and creative — just really amazing program ideas.”

RJCC ultimately awarded grants of varying amounts to seven congregations and one summer camp. The first event took place in May, with others scheduled throughout the year.

  • Temple Shalom (Winnipeg, MB) hosted the first Roadmap to Reconciliation program in May 2023, partnering with a local Indigenous organization to plant a “Heart Garden” on temple property. The garden features plants important to Indigenous Peoples, including medicinal herbs and the trio of crops (corn, beans, and squash) known as the Three Sisters. The event featured an address by Indigenous/French educator Julie Delorme and served as the foundation for a relationship between the local Jewish and Indigenous communities.
  • Temple Kol Ami (Thornhill, ON) planned a full-day, multi-generational event. Jewish and Indigenous storytellers, artists, and musicians will lead small groups of participants in sharing their stories using words, art, and song. The event, open to Jewish and Indigenous adults, youth, and children, will begin with an intention-setting ritual drawn from Indigenous and Jewish traditions. The day will conclude with a drumming circle.
  • Holy Blossom Temple (Toronto, ON) joined with Elder Catherine Brooks, a member of the Nippissing First Nation, to host a musical event that showcased Indigenous and Jewish music. Cantor David Rosen played a key role in helping marry aspects of both musical worlds for this service.
  • Temple Israel of London (London, ON) planned a three-event series dedicated to decolonization. At the time of writing, they were eager to hear from Laura Ramirez-Sanchez, Indigenous Initiatives project associate at the University of Western Ontario, on the topic of land acknowledgements. The also planned a Kairos Blanket Exercise, “an interactive and experiential teaching tool that explores the historic and contemporary relationship between Indigenous and non-Indigenous Peoples in the land we now know as Canada.”
  • Temple Beth Ora (Edmonton, AL) hosted a five-event series in partnership with the Indigenous Knowledge & Wisdom Centre. It included an Indigenous local history walk, presentations on topics of Indigenous significance, and a student trip to a nearby ceremonial site (kihcihkaw askî) to learn about the significance of tipi. Before Yom Kippur 2023, the congregation reckoned with its complicity in Canadian settler colonialism during a facilitator-led shacharit service that included a collective Viddui (confession) and group discussion.
  • Shaarei-Beth El (Oakville, ON) organized a day of “sharing circles” for Jewish and Indigenous community members, giving participants an opportunity to talk about their cultures and traditions. The synagogue displayed art from local Indigenous creators and featured information about a new memorial garden created by survivors of a nearby residential school for Indigenous children.
  • URJ Camp George (Seguin, ON) built on its past truth and reconciliation programming by hosting Anishinaabe cultural educator Kim Wheatley, who guided campers, staff, and faculty through an activity about Indigenous communities’ connections to the local land. Members of nearby congregations and other summer camps were also invited to participate in the event.

Krepel shared that the RJCC is eager to continue facilitating similar opportunities in the future. Participating congregations agreed to share their planning materials on the RJCC’s reconciliation page, which allows other congregations to replicate the events in their own communities.

“We’re so impressed by how our communities have stepped up to create these programs, and we’re thrilled with the level of participation we’re seeing,” Krepel says, “We’re excited to see the relationships that come out of them and that will continue long after [the events have ended].”

Learn more about listening to and supporting Indigenous communities, and read about the intersecting identities of Jewish Indigenous people in “Intersections of Identity: The Jewish Indigenous Experience” from the Museum of Jewish Heritage and “Yes, You Can Be Native and Jewish” by Emma Barthold.

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