By Regan Treewater-Lipes
(AJNews) – As Jeremiah Levine watched the horrors of the Pittsburgh synagogue massacre unfold on television, and then widespread racial upheaval in the wake of the George Floyd murder, he began to feel a growing sense of frustration with the state of affairs rampaging through society with devastating repercussions. This prompted Levine to want to learn more. As it often happens, a Google search turned into hours of reading, and the hours of reading into a full-blown research undertaking. Jeremiah became increasingly more aware of the sinister culture of anti-Semitism.
“I also came across some really incredible work being done by Jewish groups in the US and Canada drawing on their communities to find positive ways forward that are steeped in Jewish values,” explained Levine.
In his 2007 book Antisemitism: A Very Short Introduction, Steven Beller postulates: “The question is, how can the ‘eternal’ form of antisemitism be kept within minimal and ‘harmless’ dimensions” (119). Like Beller, Levine knew that the malignancy of anti-Semitism has become so endemic within contemporary society that its influence could not be erased, but he saw an immediate need for more community-based dialog around the issue.
“We see this project ‘Edmonton Beit Midrash: A Shared Local Learning Space to Contend with Anti-Semitism and Racism’ as only a first step.”
One of Levine’s fellow community organizers, Meital Siva-Jain, added that “we are working to find a way to address a very urgent contemporary situation through dialog and Jewish teaching.”
Ignited by what began as casual research, Levine began to approach others from the Jewish community. “I knew right away who I needed to approach,” he mused. “As a child I attended Talmud Torah,” Levine began.
“I grew up hearing stories about changes that began with just one or two people getting together, guided by G-d, or spirituality, or the teaching of Jewish thought. Something that I have always been taught, is that when we want change to happen, it starts small and grows,” he continued. “It can be a matter of growth in courage, or maybe growth in empathy, and it continues from there.”
Levine’s disillusionment with the state of widespread social xenophobia blossomed into something positive and constructive when he began collaborating with fellow Jewish community members. For over a year a group of like-minded individuals met every other week to brainstorm and collaborate.
“We knew that in order to begin to contend with issues as huge as anti-Semitism and racism, we would have to start together,” said Levine. “Then we can move forward together.”
Modeled after a beit midrash pedagogical format, the group has planned a three-part workshop series targeting community engagement from across Edmonton’s broad spectrum of Jewish identities.
“Anti-Semitism is painful and historical. Our work with ‘Edmonton Beit Midrash: A Shared Local Learning Space to Contend with Anti-Semitism and Racism’ is just an attempt to address it in a safe and culturally considerate atmosphere,” Sive-Jain elaborated. “In our daily lives we try to process our experiences, and this space for discussion will be an important part of that.”
The conversation kicks off during Sukkot with a Zoom information session hosted from Temple Beth Ora’s Sukkah. The group sees this as the inauguration of a new “peace-seeking” space for Edmonton’s Jewish community. “At some point we may see how best to engage other groups in Edmonton,” said Siva-Jain. “But for now, we are reaching out to all of the branches of Judaism in Edmonton specifically.”
Levine added with enthusiasm: “Yes, we have such a diverse Jewish community in Edmonton with representation from so many different spheres of Jewish thought and identity, and we would like to celebrate this through the discussions we initiate.”
Following the information session, the planned three-part workshop series begins on October 6 from 7 to 8 pm. “We are not here to convince anyone of anything,” offered Levine. “This is a matter of discussion and our shared heritage. We probably will not always agree with each other, but we will definitely learn from one another through this process.”
The second and third workshops will be held on October 20 and November 3, also from 7 to 8 pm. “So many of us feel this social tension caused by anti-Semitism and systemic racism and we need to find a way forward as a community while paying attention to our own Jewish values,” Levine concluded.
“This series is just the beginning of a larger project,” Meital explained. Although the program will conclude on November 17 with a Menorat Shalom panel discussion from 7 to 8 pm, this initial project is intended to create a forum for productive dialog and debate.
“We are just starting the discussion, and hopefully it will evolve into much more,” stated Levine. The group anticipates that the second phase of their undertaking will focus on broadening their circle of engagement, with the third stage culminating in social action.
Anti-Semitism has been a terrifying reality for Jews as long as history has recorded. Parents of Jewish children not only worry about the everyday trials and tribulations of child rearing, but the potential prejudice rotting in the dark corners of society. Through projects like ‘Edmonton Beit Midrash: A Shared Local Learning Space to Contend with Anti-Semitism and Racism,’ community members will be able to contribute their voices to a growing chorus for change.
Regan Treewater-Lipes is a Local Journalism Initiative Reporter for Alberta Jewish News.