Reform Jewish congregants in Edmonton commit to reconciliation at kihcihkaw askî

Edmonton Temple Beth Ora board member Asher Kirchner (right) listens as Dene Elder Molly Chisaakay teaches him about the plants and medicines in Whitemud Creek Ravine.

By Jeremy Appel

(AJNews) – Members of Edmonton’s Reform congregation, Temple Beth Ora (TBO), went on a guided medicine walk on July 30 at the kihcihkaw askî sacred Indigenous site as part of a broader grassroots effort to engage in reconciliation.

Rabbah Gila Caine gifted Dene Elder Molly Chisaakay with sacred tobacco before Chisaakay and Indigenous educator Lewis Cardinal, who is Woodland Cree, took congregants on an educational walk through Whitemud Creek Ravine, identifying various plants, berries and medicines.

Chisaakay opened the walk by offering the tobacco Caine gave her for a prayer. Cardinal then distributed tobacco to the guests and gave them the opportunity to offer it to a tree of their choice while making their own prayer.

The event is part of a larger series of reconciliation-themed events TBO is doing with Cardinal, which included a teepee talk earlier this summer.

Elder Chisaakay said at the outset of the walk that after years of Canadian settlers attempting to eradicate Indigenous cultures by various means, including residential schools, Indigenous leaders have an obligation to ensure their practices and ways of knowing are passed onto Indigenous youth, always looking ahead to the next seven generations.

“It’s up to us — my generation — to educate people without any preconceived notions or misconceptions,” she said.

Various crises — from climate to drug poisoning, affordability and housing — underscore the urgency of honouring Indigenous cultures and their relationship to the land.

“There’s no words for some things in our language. We live our language, we live through ceremony,” Chisaakay said.

Asher Kirchner, a retired University of Alberta linguist who sits on the TBO board, said he first met Cardinal a few years ago at the “Survival to Thrival” educational series at the Jewish Senior Citizens Centre, which was an exchange of Jewish and Indigenous perspectives.

Kirchner said that event at the seniors’ centre “got my appetite wetted for continuing and deepening that relationship.”

Kirchner reached out to Cardinal about the possibility of establishing a partnership between TBO and the Indigenous community in Edmonton, when Cardinal told him about kihcihkaw askî, which was then in development, and how they’re looking for local community partners.

The Reform Jewish Community of Canada offered a grant for programming to encourage reconciliation between Jews and Indigenous Peoples, which the shul successfully applied for.

“If it’s important for Judaism to be grounded in a moral, ethical stance, we have to come to terms with where we are living and our role as settlers in Canada. It is upon us to seek reconciliation, to learn about our Indigenous neighbours and to become allies to them in their struggle for justice,” Kirchner told Alberta Jewish News.

Speaking after the walk, Rabbah Caine said she was still reflecting and gathering her thoughts on the afternoon’s event, but she described the overall experience as enlightening.

“To learn the culture, to hear the stories from real people, not from books or movies, makes it feel more important,” Caine told Alberta Jewish News.

She noted the similarities in the Indigenous and Jewish experiences of attempting to pass their culture onto future generations in defiance of efforts to eradicate them. While all cultures are distinct, there’s a common humanity at their core.

“Deep down inside, there’s a space of human connection. But to be able to do that, we really need to travel down into the roots and learn old traditions, learn people’s histories and go deep down inside to see where their history has been ours,” Caine said.

TBO congregant Norma McLean observed the common history of attempts to exterminate Jews and Indigenous Peoples.

“We survived it all. We’re still here,” she said. “It feels good to be associated with another group that has the same kind of issues.”

Cardinal said events like these are important because they demonstrate the depth of meaningful, substantive reconciliation.

“Reconciliation cannot be seen as a government-funded program. Reconciliation only truly happens when the grassroots people sit and talk,” he said.

Cardinal emphasized the strong symbolism of two communities walking together to embrace the natural world.

“We’re all walking together, right? How much more human can you get than being in nature with your fellow human beings? I think that’s always very powerful, very strong. I think that communities should often take more walks together,” he said.

After the walk, Caine conducted a baby naming ceremony for a congregant family, which Cardinal attended. He noted this as an example of the commonalities between Jewish and Indigenous practices.

“We have traditional naming ceremonies and it’s so beautiful to see that happen in your ways. it reminded me that, hey, that’s what we do too,” Cardinal said.

The next TBO reconciliation event is the day before Yom Kippur, Sept. 23, with a shacharit Shabbat service using the KAIROS Blanket Exercise to reckon with the Jewish community’s complicity in Canadian settler colonialism.

Jeremy Appel is a Local Journalism Initiative Reporter.



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