Go to the Globe and Mail homepage

Jump to main navigationJump to main content

AdChoices
Mushkie Itkin (second, right), wife of Rabbi Levi Itkin of Chabad of Nun's Island, smiles at Selima Driss (second, left) as she drops in with her sons to discuss volunteer work at a donation centre for Syrian refugees on Nun's Island in Montreal. (Christinne Muschi for The Globe and Mail)
Mushkie Itkin (second, right), wife of Rabbi Levi Itkin of Chabad of Nun's Island, smiles at Selima Driss (second, left) as she drops in with her sons to discuss volunteer work at a donation centre for Syrian refugees on Nun's Island in Montreal. (Christinne Muschi for The Globe and Mail)

At a Montreal mini-mall, interfaith friendship blooms Add to ...

It is 11 short steps from the front door of the Al Jazira mosque in Montreal to the Chabad synagogue nearby. From there, the Catholic sanctuary of Sainte-Marguerite-Bourgeoys Church rises next door. Had things been different, had no one made an effort, the space between the faiths might have remained a vacant zone of mistrust.

Instead, people took steps to make peace.

“Hello, Mourad,” Rabbi Levi Itkin said one day recently, extending a hand to Mourad Bendjennet, an administrator of the mosque.

Bonjour Roger, comment ça va?” Mr. Bendjennet said on another occasion to Roger Légaré, a warden at the church.

This tiny pocket of Montreal offers, in typically understated Canadian fashion, a minor wonder of interfaith friendship. Three houses of worship happened to find themselves neighbours in a nondescript mini-mall in a major Canadian city.

At first, they eyed one another warily. Then, they started to talk. They already shared a roof, so they decided to share a common purpose.

Their tale of co-habitation offers a direction forward as Canadian cities increasingly navigate the choppy waters of religious diversity. Religious minorities are expanding in numbers in Canada, and zoning is pressing some of them into closer quarters.

For the three groups in Montreal, a key to getting along was finding common ground. They communally set up a donation centre for Syrian refugees – the Muslim community first launched it, the Jewish community secured the warehouse rent-free, Christian churchgoers help staff it, and today all three groups work together organizing toys, clothes, dishes and school supplies as volunteers.

“We always say the fact we’re here all together is a miracle,” Mr. Itkin, a native of Scranton, Pa., said in his small sanctuary at the mall recently. “But it’s what we do with it that really counts.”

Their efforts are unfolding in a district of 18,000 called Nuns’ Island, a residential enclave minutes from downtown Montreal that got its name from the Sisters of the Congregation of Notre Dame who first settled there in 1664.

If there is a lesson on Nuns’ Island, it is that harmony at the mall did not occur by happenstance. It took active goodwill. And the catalyst was a set of church bells.

Last year, the Sainte-Marguerite-Bourgeoys parish bought four bells from a church on Montreal’s South Shore that was ceasing its services. It wanted to install them in a new bell tower to give its 15-year-old shopping-mall location a profile.

Seeking support and a builder, the church had approached a veteran developer on Nuns’ Island, Samuel Gewurz. Mr. Gewurz, who is Jewish, was enthusiastic but wanted to make sure the project unfolded as smoothly as possible.

He was aware the Al Jazira Islamic Center had been in the mall since 2013, offering a spiritual space for the growing population of Muslims in the area, who hail from countries as diverse as Syria, Tunisia, Pakistan and Senegal.

He also knew that Chabad, part of the Lubavitch Hasidic movement, had rented a vacant space in the mall as a yet-unopened temple for local Jewish families. The synagogue was three doors down from the mosque, separated by a pizzeria and pet-food shop.

“You’re always aware there are tensions between religious groups,” Mr. Gewurz said in an interview. “I was trying to mitigate the tensions and bring them together so there would be acceptance of one another.”

Mr. Gewurz made two suggestions. First, that the bells be christened the Bells of Unity, a symbolic name that could turn them “into a unifying force.” The church embraced the idea.

He also urged the three communities to work together to find a joint humanitarian project. “Anything that can minimize hatred and bring people together is a good thing,” Mr. Gewurz said. “We’re not going to change the world, but we could take a small step.”

One day last fall, Mr. Bendjennet, Mr. Itkin and Mr. Légaré met for the first time at a Nuns’ Island café, along with city councillor Manon Gauthier, and founded the Nuns’ Island Collective for Unity. Mr. Bendjennet and his wife had already started collecting goods for Syrian refugees in their family garage, and needed more space. Mr. Itkin quickly found a landlord who donated the use of a 3,000-square-foot warehouse on Nuns’ Island.

As the rabbi drove to Mr. Bendjennet’s house one day to deliver the warehouse keys, he was coming to the new alliance with his own personal history. Mr. Itkin lived in Israel for three years, where he witnessed the conflict with Palestinians first-hand, including bombings and other forms of violence.

“Everything you hear about Muslims, it’s that they hate you and wish you dead,” Mr. Itkin said. “I saw the worst of the relationship between Jews and Muslims. I was very in tune to the conflict.”

Yet after handing over the keys to Mr. Bendjennet that day, the two men ended up speaking to one another for 90 minutes, both recall today. The wide-ranging conversation spanned everything from history and culture to current affairs, the start of ongoing and lengthy discussions.

“At the end of the day I think we agree on a lot more than we disagree on, on a humanistic level,” Mr. Itkin said. “He is a genuine man who wants to use his abilities for goodness and kindness. We share a lot of common values.”

Mr. Bendjennet, a community-minded architect who immigrated to Montreal from his native Tunisia 15 years ago, shares the view. “I realized he was a good person and we share the same values and objectives,” he said.

“It’s 2016. We have to set aside our differences,” Mr. Bendjennet said outside the Al Jazira mosque. “We have been divided for centuries. Let’s look at what unites us.”

The refugee donation centre, a five-minute drive from the mall, has turned into a teeming storehouse of goods to help refugees begin new lives. One day recently, it was a hive of folding, sorting and hanging among a group of about a dozen women who might never otherwise have crossed paths.

“Personally I had never been exposed to Arab culture. You hear negative things,” said Anne Blanchette, a retired banking manager who was volunteering. “This has changed my way of seeing the Muslim world. Spending time with them has opened me up to their culture. In the end, they’re not so different from us.”

Mr. Itkin’s wife, Mushkie, came by with two of the couple’s five children, who occasionally got a soothing pat on the head from a co-founder of the centre, Tunisian-born Sélima Driss.

“We are under a lucky star here,” Ms. Driss said. “It is something extraordinary.”

More common efforts are under way. The three religious communities are jointly sharing the cost of sponsoring a Syrian family, which has not yet arrived in Canada, and have started offering French-language lessons for newcomers. There are cooking classes, and efforts to find refugees jobs.

Meanwhile, another tangible emblem of co-operation is taking form at the mall. City officials for the borough of Verdun have renamed the square next to the three houses of worship the Place de l’unité, or Place of Unity. And workers have poured the concrete foundation of the new bell tower, alongside the Sainte-Marguerite-Bourgeoys Church. If all goes to plan, this December, the four bells will be installed in the belfry, and together they will toll for the first time over Nuns’ Island and beyond. They will carry a message the world doesn’t hear often enough.

Report Typo/Error

Follow on Twitter: @iperitz

Also on The Globe and Mail

Trudeau on Syrian refugees: 'We're Canadian and we're here to help' (The Globe and Mail)

Next story

loading

In the know

The Globe Recommends

loading

Most popular videos »

Highlights

More from The Globe and Mail

Most popular