Elyse Goldstein, it seems, is a popular preacher at St. Anne’s Anglican Church, in central Toronto.
“My people love Elyse’s preaching,” Canon Gary van der Meer, incumbent at St. Anne’s, says with a wide grin. “Oh my goodness, if I could just have her fill in for me whenever I’m sick, the church would be full.”
You might say she’d be an unusual choice for a fill-in Anglican priest. Goldstein is in fact the founding and current rabbi of City Shul, a Reform Jewish synagogue a 45-minute walk away. Then again, you might also call van der Meer an unusual choice to preach at a synagogue. But to the congregation of City Shul, he’s become a familiar face.
“I now know people by sight who are from City Shul, and they know me—they make a mistake and call me ‘Rabbi Gary’ sometimes, and I think it’s a big compliment,” he says.
For about three years, Goldstein and van der Meer, who is also the diocese of Toronto’s interfaith officer, have been doing a preaching exchange; Goldstein has been preaching at St. Anne’s on Christmas, and van der Meer at City Shul for the Jewish holy days of Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur. The exchange was the natural evolution, they say, of an interfaith friendship they began more than five years ago, when van der Meer first approached Goldstein after his congregation had expressed a desire to learn more about other religions.
There are actually more than two members in this circle of spiritual friends. In early 2013, van der Meer met Ilyas Ally, the son of Shabir Ally—imam at the Islamic Information & Dawah Centre International, a nearby mosque, and former host of Let the Quran Speak, a Toronto-produced television show on Islam—and the two discovered they shared an interest in interfaith relationships.
Meanwhile, van der Meer and Goldstein had decided they wanted to move from interfaith dialogue to “trialogue,” as Shabir Ally puts it. It wasn’t long before clergy and congregants from all three places of worship were meeting at St. Anne’s to talk about some of the similarities of their religions, and a number of other joint activities followed: Ilyas Ally preached at St. Anne’s, and discussed Christianity and Islam with its congregation. Van der Meer has attended Friday prayers at the mosque, and Goldstein has addressed its congregation—a powerful experience for her as both a woman and a Jew, she says, and one that had her wondering what her grandparents, who grew up in a climate of fear born from widespread anti-Semitism, would have made of it.
“They were Jews who had come from the old country and grew up in New York, and every other religion was scary, and against us, and going to kill us eventually,” she says.
The three clerics will often gather for coffee in a nearby espresso bar, to the bemusement—and occasional amusement—of onlookers.
“When Shabir and Gary and I have coffee at Aroma around the corner, and Shabir is in his Muslim garb and I’m in my kippah—and I sometimes ask Gary to wear his collar—people stop and take a picture of us,” Goldstein says. “They come over to us while we’re drinking our coffee: ‘Can we take a picture of a priest, an imam and a rabbi?’ It’s like a [living] joke.”
It’s funny, Goldstein admits—but there’s a serious side to their friendship also. At a talk during the Parliament of the World’s Religions, an international interfaith conference that met in Toronto November 1-7, the three talked about how the friendships between them and their respective congregations evolved, and the power they believe such relationships have to counteract hate.
The strong links that already existed among the three places of worship, for example, have made it possible for them to quickly lend support to one another in the aftermath of violent attacks. After the mass shooting at the Islamic Cultural Centre of Quebec on Sunday, Jan. 29, 2017, in which six were killed and 19 wounded, St. Anne’s and City Shul organized a “ring of peace” around their friend’s mosque. Other congregations heard about their plan and asked to join, and eventually, she says, 150 to 200 people gathered the following Friday to form the ring—one of at least seven formed around Toronto mosques alone.
The congregation at the Dawah Centre, Ally says, was “overwhelmed” by the message of friendship and solidarity.
Van der Meer and Ilyas Ally discussed the ring of peace, and their interfaith partnership, in a 2017 segment of Let the Quran Speak.
Tragically, Dawah Centre congregants had the opportunity to send a similar message to City Shul this fall, after a gunman opened fire on worshippers at the Tree of Life synagogue in Pittsburgh, Penn., October 27, killing 11 and injuring seven.
Once again, some 150 people gathered to show their support, this time around City Shul. Ally’s comments to a local TV reporter moved her deeply, Goldstein says.
“I’ll never forget the words he said to the newscaster, which just reverberate through me all the time,” she says. “He said, ‘If you want to come and attack our Jewish friends, you have to pass through us first.’ And that’s what the ring of peace did. It talks about friendship, not because we’re Muslim and you’re Jewish, we’re Christian and you’re Jewish, but because we are friends.”
All three clerics concede there are limits to how far such initiatives can go in reaching the “isolated people” of whom van der Meer speaks, and in counteracting violence. But all three say they hope to make an impact nevertheless.
In the aftermath of the Tree of Life shooting, Goldstein says, dialogue and friendly relations between Christians and Jews seem especially important.
“Maybe more than the Muslims standing with us—which is super-important—is when someone who is Christian, who has this kind of hate and anti-Semitism in them, like the person who did the attack on the synagogue, knows that his religion does not stand where he stands,” she says.
Robert Bowers, who has pled not guilty to 44 charges in relation to the attack, apparently used Christian Scripture to justify his hatred for Jews. Bowers’ profile on Gab, a social media platform popular with the extreme right, read, “jews are the children of satan. (john 8:44)—the lord jesus christ is come in the flesh.”
The rings of peace formed in Canada, first for Muslims and then for Jews, Ally says, were one way of demonstrating the power of interfaith friendship to the wider public.
“I think if we have this spirit of solidarity with each other, our love will prove stronger than hate,” he says.