The Question of Optimism: Shabbat - Iftar Dinner at ARK

I was honoured to attend the first-ever Shabbat-Iftar Dinner in a Synagogue in Australia hosted by The ARK Centre and the Australian Intercultural Society.  As you may know, I have been fascinated by the optimism of Ramadan, and this multi-faith and multicultural gathering thrilled me with its optimism, hope and joy.

Read More on The Optimism of Ramadan

During the course of the evening, we pondered whether "refraining from bread leads to spiritual growth?"

Panellists Dr Susan Carland, Mia Gardiner & Viv Nguyen AM discussed the question in answer to questions from moderator Stephen Brook.

You can imagine my thrill when the last question from Stephen was, "What makes you Optimistic?"


Stephen Brook: Let's talk very briefly about the future and the question of optimism. We should start with the youngest person on our panel, which is Mia Gardiner. Mia, are you optimistic for the future? Are you optimistic about how the Jewish faith will continue forward based on your experiences with young people?

Mia Gardiner: Well, absolutely, and also speaking from my personal experience of joining this community so late, I'm optimistic that anyone can join the Jewish community in Melbourne no matter what stage, no matter how they practice, how they plan to, there is such an accepting feeling. When I joined, I knew no one; I didn't have any Jewish friends. I went to an Anglican school, so my mother and grandparents were the only Jewish people I knew. And so, since joining now, there are so many familiar faces at any event I go to. Everyone has taken me under their wing. And for anyone wanting to join the community, even if it's much later in life, there is a place for them. We have so many community organisations that want to help people no matter what they want out of the community: If they want to be involved a little bit, if they want to be heavily involved, if they're religious, they're secular, there's a place that everyone and young people are running these organisations, they're starting them. So it's more than just people joining. It's young people inspiring their little siblings to get involved when they grow up. So it's everywhere at every level. So there is still a lot of involvement and a place for everyone.

Stephen Brook: Viv Nguyen, you have worked a lot with your community. You have been concerned about drug use amongst young people. How much is that an issue that weighs on your perceptions of where we're heading as a community or where your community is heading and where we're heading more broadly in Australia?

Viv Nguyen AM: If I take my experience working with the community during the pandemic, you can only have optimism, and you can only have hope. Because without that optimism and hope, it would've been very difficult for many people in the different multicultural communities. They had to work through it. And you would know this and see this more than I have with floods, fires and everything else. So I have enormous optimism for our multicultural and multifaith communities. We have a lot more to share and celebrate and to be able to support each other. However, I am concerned about the level of racism that is serious in our society here in Victoria. And I would like us to be looking at the changes that are much more structural and more foundational than the tourism things that we talk about, some of the peripheral stuff that we do, which is fantastic, but I think we do need to look a lot deeper, deeper within in our structure to see even to bring out that sense of optimism a lot more in our society.

Stephen Brook: Very briefly, before we move on to Susan, Viv, you've raised structural racism. Let's tease that thought out a bit. Do you believe there are barriers in how society is organised that favour certain groups over others?

Viv Nguyen AM: I think the structure that we have had for a long time, by definition, supports the majority. Democracy does look at the majority. So when you happen to be in the minority group, there are things you can't do, and we rely a lot on the individual. It's up to you to find out for yourself. It's not up to us. In contrast, many of us come from a very collective society. So those sort of structural differences does make it difficult for the individuals to say better, "I need to stand up for myself, and I have the confidence and the knowledge to do that, and I don't."

Stephen Brook: Well, Susan Carland, we've had qualified optimism from two-panel members. What are your views? Are we going three from three here?

Dr Susan Carland: Well, I will be "unqualified optimism", and I think I'm that because just being in an event like this one tonight is, when you think about it, quite astounding, and it's such a credit to our hosts. Rabbi Gabby told me he spoke to the Chief Rabbi in Sydney, who said he believes having an Iftar at the shul for Shabbat is the first time this has happened in Australia - things like this matter. You look at this room; we should not underestimate how significant it is that this synagogue has done this. When we look at what's happening in the world, at just the shocking rise in anti-Semitism, division, all of these things, there's a lot of terrible things, but I think people are good and events like this change things. We shouldn't underestimate the role events like this play and the people who come to this, what we will be like when we leave, and what we will tell other people about events like this. It's stuff like this that makes me feel really optimistic.

Stephen Brook: That is very true. You have articulated something that I wanted to articulate myself about this event, and you encouraged us all to take a moment to realise its significance. Interestingly, our dear friends and colleagues in Sydney were admiring of it because there is some truth to the contention that only in Melbourne could we be gathering this way on a Friday night. 

The ARK Centre is a modern Jewish orthodox community-based centre & synagogue that prides itself on inclusivity for an ever-changing community. Members at the Ark Centre have a strong sense of belonging, a passion for interacting with people across cultures and sensitivity towards embracing differences.

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The Australian Intercultural Society promotes multiculturalism and fosters intercultural and interfaith dialogue.

I am very grateful to Ahmet Keskin and Rabbi Gabi Kaltmann for their optimism and bravery in hosting this event and the superb hospitality of the Ark community led by Jo Star.  Chef Francis delivered a superb feast meeting the dietary needs of all faiths and health attitudes.

Rabbi Gabi's celebration of the service and Kabbalat Shabbat were inspiring, engaging and uplifting.

Thinking of the optimism of Ramadan, Ahmet Keskin told me, "Ramadan is time for purifying the soul and re-calibrating oneself. By doing so, you accept that challenges exist but you are more adamant to get through the year ahead with your renewed sense of optimism."

It was terrific to see community leaders there, including Leader of the Opposition John Pesutto MP, Shadow Minister for Finance Jess Wilson MP,  Victoria's Emergency Management Commissioner Andrew Crisp, Jurist Jennifer Coate AO, Catholic Archbishop Peter Comensoli and Rotarian Anne Josefsberg.

Anne Josefsberg told me, "What makes me optimistic?  Knowing that doing activities that benefit others will help improve the quality of life in the world I know."

John Pesutto once told me, “I’m optimistic because we get so little time to do good. Because of all the pressures, all the challenges that confront leadership, you have to make the most of every opportunity you have. You can't afford, in my view, to dwell or obsess about all the things that can go wrong or that are in your way.  There is a joy, a real joy, in achieving something, particularly as a political leader, on behalf of the people you represent. And it might be something little or something unexpected, or it might be something even grander.“

Read More: Optimism, Spirituality, Religion and Faith

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