By Jeremy Appel
(AJNews) – In the Jewish tradition, the 10 days between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur are a time for reflection and atonement on how we’ve wronged others, whether as an individual or as part of a collective.
The Saturday that occurs during this time is known as “Shabbat T’shuva,” or the Sabbath of Repentance.
Members of Edmonton’s Reform congregation — Temple Beth Ora (TBO) — used this opportunity to reflect on their role in upholding settler colonialism on Turtle Island by participating in a Sept. 22 blanket exercise, as part of the synagogue’s broader commitment to reconciliation.
The aforementioned exercise consists of participants standing on blankets placed on the floor to represent the lands of Turtle Island, with participants able to walk around freely at first, trading artifacts the facilitators distributed to them.
Gradually, the number of blankets are reduced, as are the number of people standing on them, to represent the loss of land and extermination of Indigenous Peoples.
As this occurs, the facilitators read out the history of Turtle Island’s colonization while participants, including those who have been asked to leave the shrinking blanket space, are prompted to read quotes from celebrated Indigenous figures.
By the end, several people are crammed onto a couple of blankets, representing the reserve system. Others are sent to another blanket further away to represent forced assimilation institutions.
Donna Hovsepian, a member of the Pimicikamak Crosslake Cree Nation in Manitoba, was brought in by TBO member Sarah Cook to facilitate the event.
Cook, who works as a consultant for Indigenous communities on rights-related and community development issues, told Alberta Jewish News that she met Hovsepian when they worked together at the Alberta Energy Regulator.
Hovsepian, who’s been conducting blanket exercises since 2019, told AJNews that its “experiential part, the role playing, is really impactful,” allowing participants to “view the changes as we went through them historically.”
She said this was the first time she’s conducted a blanket exercise for a faith group.
Cook said she recalls being impressed the first time she heard TBO Rabbah Gila Caine open Shabbat services with a land acknowledgement, but Cook suggested the congregation conduct the exercise to match its words with deeds.
“We’re judged on our actions, and so let’s take some serious steps that are purposeful and actually moving towards that reconciliation journey,” Cook said.
She noted the complexity of Jewish relations with Indigenous Peoples.
“Jews have been persecuted, disrespected and belittled for much of their history. Indigenous people are much the same way. That kinship is really important for me to understand, or at least to try to understand, and empathize with what has happened,” Cook said.
Cook described how her family settled in the Prairies through the 1872 Dominion Lands Act, which provided new settlers with 160 acres of free land if they cultivated 10 acres.
Through her work with Indigenous communities, Cook realized that this policy “was a primary way of dispossessing Indigenous people from their lands.”
Rabbah Caine observed that the viduy, or confession, Jewish people make on Yom Kippur isn’t just for individual wrongs they’ve done to other people, but collective wrongs we’ve participated in, whether wittingly or unwittingly.
“Every action that I do as a person influences all of my surroundings and influences my group as well, so viduy has to be part of a community effort. It’s never just one person doing something for another person. It’s always a group’s interaction,” she explained.
Asher Kirchner, a TBO board member, has spearheaded the synagogue’s series of reconciliation activities, including a summer medicine walk at Kihcihkaw Askî.
He said the blanket exercise provided congregants with “a small glimpse, but it’s a glimpse, of the harm that was done” by settler society, within which Ashkenazi Jews can “move pretty frictionlessly.”
“We understand that if we’re part of a collectivity that has participated or passively benefited from a wrong, we’ve got a responsibility to take steps to make it right, and this is part of that learning process to get us on the road to being able to make things right,” said Kirchner.
Jeremy Appel is a Local Journalism Initiative Reporter.