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On July 12th, 2015, IDA GTA hosted a Ramadan Iftar dinner at its downtown Toronto office with the Canadian Association of Jews and Muslims. The theme for the evening was “Hunger in our Midst and the Spirit of Fasting”, with a panel of three speakers, one from each major Abrahamic faith tradition.
The welcome speeches began with Azim Shamshiev, Executive Vice President of IDI GTA, thanking the attendees for the big turnout. He spoke about the importance of Ramadan for 1.3 million Muslims worldwide as well as the community and spiritual aspects that extended beyond abstaining from food and drink and developing a sense of empathy. He thanked Shahid Akhtar and Dr. Barbara Landau, co-chairs of the Canadian Association for Jews and Muslims, for partnering and co-hosting the event, as well as acknowledged the support of Immigration and Citizenship Canada for partial funding of IDI GTA’s eleven Iftar dinners.
Dr. Barbara Landau extended her thanks to IDI GTA and Canada itself, which she considers herself lucky enough that an interfaith event is a cause for celebration.
Shahid Akhtar explained that the purpose of the Canadian Association of Jews and Muslims is to bring people together, regardless of their backgrounds so that everyone can truly feel like they belong. He spoke of how one of the panelists, Alexa, spoke on hunger and they decided that there was a need to understand those in the community and relate to them, to combine an event for Ramadan and bring awareness to hunger in Canadian societies when this is a preventable problem.
Dr. Brad Bass of the Solel Congregation, and a professor with the University of Toronto’s School of Environment, was the first panelist of the evening and he spoke from a Jewish perspective. He began with anecdotes of wasteful restaurants and the amount of edible plants that we regard as weeds and of which we attempt to rid our gardens.
He drew on traditions of the Torah and the oft quoted 5th century BCE biblical scholar Isaiah. In answer to why one should spend the day fasting instead of spending the day giving out food, Dr. Brad Ross explained that it is difficult to develop the empathy needed for actions, in addition to the actual personal spiritual practices associated with fasting. However, he did stress that hunger was not just a health issue, but a spiritual issue if the society left people to stay hungry. He explained that while Solel created food banks, they noticed that there was an equal need for stable housing.
Shahid Akhtar introduced the next panelist Reverend Alexa Gilmore, of the Windermere United Church, who was the Chaplin of the Occupy Movement. She joked that Dr. Brad Ross covered much of the scripture that she would use as much of Christian scripture comes from Jewish scripture. She described her first experience with fasting through a Native tradition called Vision Quest where one went out into the wilderness for four days with nothing but a sleeping bag and water. This is where she was called to Christian ministry.
Rev. Alexa Gilmore spoke on the different experiences people within her neighbourhood had with wealth and abundance, and the inequality among them. She explained how anyone could help, from as simple a thing to giving a haircut once a month or donating groceries to give poor people back their dignity. This is an initiative she calls Communities of Care, so that in doing these simple acts people get to know each other and socio-economic barriers are crossed.
Shahid Akhtar introduced the final panelist, Imam Abdul Hai Patel, founder of the Council of Imams. He described prayer as a means of connecting with God and fasting as one important way of connecting. He spoke of the 4600 families registered in his food bank at the moment. This food bank has passed through several organizations and attempted to save this food bank. When his organization got involved they discovered a back-rent of $30 000CAD and sent an appeal to match the $15 000 donations given by people to cover the cost. Imam Abdul Hai Patel explained that many food banks were unable to find the funds to buy common food staples like rice. He implored people not to stand idly by as the number of poor in Canada, and Toronto especially, rise. There are many faith based programs that are involved in feeding the poor and urged support for them.
Shahid Akhtar explained that he wanted to use this evening as a call to action, to find any capacity to help or alleviate the problem that a rich city like Toronto should not be facing.
The evening ended with a call to prayer before the meal was served.