Rabbi Menachem Blum and Dr. Aisha Sherazi fight against hatred and racism

During this time of increased hate and antisemitism, there are two community members who have been working for the past 14 years to break down stereotypes and help students see that there is more the unites us than divides. Their work is even more meaningful now. 

Rabbi Menachem M. Blum and Dr. Aisha Sherazi travel throughout Ottawa and the surrounding areas meeting with school groups of all ages to talk about tolerance and to bring understanding about living in peace with each other. Tolerance and acceptance can happen even if we look different, practice different faiths, have different political views, and seem to have nothing in common. We can find common ground and that is where growth happens. 

Although they are not new to this work, since Oct. 7, they have had more requests than they can accommodate and now dedicate every Friday to meeting with school groups.

The E-Bulletin was honoured to interview these two champions of tolerance and learn from them about their impact on the Ottawa community.

EB: Why and how did you become involved in this work and how did you meet?

DAS: I have always been engaged in interfaith work.  I met Rabbi Blum at an Ottawa-Carleton District School Board (OCDSB) Harmony Bridges Conference in 2010.  As we presented together at the conference alongside others, Rabbi Blum and I thought there might be more we could do together to make a difference.

RMB: I met Dr. Sherazi at an OCDSB conference, and I approached her and said, “I see you doing a lot of work in the schools. I also do work in the schools, why don't we go out for coffee and see maybe there's some work that we could do together?” We went out for that coffee and that was the beginning of developing the first workshop. We thought it would be powerful to have a Jew and a Muslim presenting together.

We developed one workshop, then another one, and slowly but surely, we became a resource for the schools. Whenever a school was experiencing any type of racial disharmony or any type of hate issues, they would call us in.

EB: What do you gain from this work?

DAS: I enjoy learning about stereotypes and biases from students and teachers. As we have been presenting for many years, common themes emerge.  Children are more likely to open up and say how they feel. Teenagers can feel awkward at times.  Adults say what they know to be politically correct.  It is very fulfilling to help children and adults speak about their thoughts and ideas comfortably and safely, and to help them learn that we all have unconscious biases.  We volunteer to conduct the workshops and they are free of charge.  We both gain a lot of joy out of helping others understand that hate has no place in our community and that we can forge friendships with others but disagree about things at times and still care for each other and respect each other.

RMB: Every time I present, it is a powerful experience. That is what keeps me motivated and doing this work. I believe that we should continue drilling the message that hate has no place and that we can still live together and respect each other, even if we don't agree. Hopefully, we can create a better environment.

EB: What do you hope the students you speak to take away from your workshops?

DAS: I hope that students and teachers learn that there is no inherent enmity between Jewish people and Muslim people.  I hope that students walk away feeling they can call out hatred and that they can be more open about making friends with others, giving each person they meet a chance, not judging them based on poor experiences in the past.  I also hope they understand hate crimes better and understand that victims of hatred may not report or complain, because they do not want to be victimized a second time.  I truly hope that students see themselves as agents of positive change.  Rabbi Blum and I tell students that we have far more in common than divides us.  I hope they walk away remembering that and I hope the conversations continue in classrooms beyond our visits. 

RMB: The whole the goal is to get students of the next generation to start thinking beyond assumptions and stereotypes and help them see people as humans and to recognize that we have so much more in common than what divides us. Even at first impressions, a visibly Jewish rabbi and a visibly Muslim women walking in into a school and working together and sharing a message of respect and tolerance, regardless of, whether we agree on political issues or not is a very powerful image. 

Both of us feel strongly that when we present, we want to create an environment where every person feels safe, respected, and accepted.

EB: Why is this work even more important following Oct. 7?

DAS: This work has always been important, but since Oct. 7, both the Muslim community and the Jewish community have appeared heavily in the news.  If students and teachers' only reference for Jewish people is the actions of the government of Israel and their only reference for Muslim people is the actions of Hamas, then we really do have a problem.  Our communities are so much more than what appears in the news.  Seeing us work together, understand each other, respect each other, this is more important than ever.  

RMB: We discuss stereotypes. So, let's talk about the stereotype right here. What do you think of when you see a Jew and a Muslim when you think of a Jew and a Muslim? Often their response is: war, conflict, hate. This gives us a chance to really address what the students are thinking. We talk about standing with us against hate. We can emphasize that standing up for something you believe in doesn’t’ involve bringing hate into the school. You can stand up and voice your opinion, but bringing hate here is not going to help anything. It's just going to perpetuate more conflict. That message is even more prudent now than it was before Oct. 7.

EB: What lasting impact do you think you have had?

DAS: Faith in public schools is already a grey area and our workshops help students and teachers see faith in action.  I see the eyes of Jewish students light up when they see Rabbi Blum, and how happy Muslim students seem to be to have a Muslim woman be respected in a public space.  Representation matters and young people are not always exposed to people of faith in a visible manner.  We have visited rural schools that are trying to open the horizons of rural students, and inner-city schools with extensive diversity.  It has been heartwarming to be welcomed into every space and brings me comfort to know that our messages reach all parts of our city and the surrounding areas.  

RMB: The feedback following a workshop is always tremendous. A couple of months ago, we were out at a school that was clearly experiencing a lot of a lot of tension since Oct. 7. After the workshop ended, we have three teachers come to us in tears. They told us that the workshop was so powerful and so needed. We thanked them and let them know that our message to the teachers is always that this is just a springboard for them to continue that conversation in the classroom. It reinforced for me why this work is still needed.

Because we have been doing this for so long, I will see students who have finished high school and they will recognize me and come up to me and tell me how impactful our workshop was, even years later.

If you are interested in Rabbi Blum and Dr. Sherazi coming to your school community, please feel free to contact them to arrange presentations.

Rabbi Menachem M. Blum is the Executive Director and Spiritual Leader of the Ottawa Torah Centre. He is often seen presenting workshops that facilitate inter-cultural understanding and initiate dialogue. To contact Rabbi Blum call (613) 798-6729 or email him at rabbi@theOTC.org

Originally a successful Biologist, Dr. Aisha Sherazi is the Pastoral Care Worker at Merivale High School. She is also a freelance writer for the Ottawa Citizen and uses her writing to promote peace and dialogue. To contact Dr. Sherazi call (613) 864-8948 or email her at aisha.sherazi@gmail.com