by Rashi Jackman
Last month during our retreat in Palos Verdes we participated in two listening exercises about which I have thought a great deal. I wanted to share a few of my reflections in the hope that they will echo your own thoughts and experiences. The two exercises were simple enough. The first consisted of an activity where, sitting back to back with a partner, we followed their description of a shape they were making. We then attempted to rebuild that same shape without either seeing the original or being able to ask questions of the person creating the design. The second exercise involved sitting face to face with a partner and actively listening to what they had to share. In this exercise, we asked questions to see if we understood the speaker correctly and did so without judgment or adding our own personal experiences to what was said. Although deceptively straightforward, the two activities were actually far more significant than I first appreciated. The greatest struggle I had was in accepting the possibility that what I wanted to say might not be that urgent after all, and might even be a hindrance to my understanding what the person next to me was trying to communicate.
What we were doing, in essence, was what I would like to call "attending to the Other". By this I mean, that we intentionally stilled that voice within each of us that wants to project our own selves out into the world. For just a few moments, we gave the words of the one speaking all the weight of the world; something our egos generally resist. :
It is hard to be fully present with someone, because it requires deliberately breaking "the solitude" of our lives, in order to reach into someone else's world
In so far as listening to those around us demands that we give as much weight to their concerns as we do our own, simply lending an ear to another pulls us into the world of moral relations. The process of intentional listening, of being with and for someone else, is a profoundly ethical act. In opening ourselves to another through language, we transform their words from mere instruments of meaning into signs and testaments of their humanity and distinct individuality. In listening deeply to each other, we do not simply recognize and affirm the value of civility, although we are certainly doing that as well. We are also shifting the focus of our consciousness; first, from “me” to “you,” and then from “you” to a larger "us" or a collective consciousness.
These two simple exercises were powerful tools for illuminating the ways that we are connected to and transformed by those around us. Rather than approaching the self directly, when we turned out attention to those around us, we eventually did return to ourselves but to selves that were quieter, more reflective, calmer. I developed a greater appreciation of just how much we ourselves disrupt the clear communication with those around us we so eagerly seek. It was the first time I consciously used listening as a gateway to self-discovery and the insight that comes from the careful examination of our thought processes and behaviors. It was a strong reminder for me that attending to the Other openly, honestly, and without pushing my own agenda is the surest way for me not only to understand who they are but who I am as well.
by Rebecca Saliman
Jewish NewGround Fellow, 2010
Forty-seven eighth graders gathered at a hotel in Jerusalem to listen to a presenter from The David Project, an organization devoted to educating and inspiring strong voices for Israel. After an interactive Powerpoint presentation, discussions, analyzing video clips and news articles, the presenter’s message was unambiguous: Israel is your home. You must fight back. You must defend Israel.
As I sat there listening to this presentation, I felt extremely conflicted. On the one hand, I want my students to love Israel, to feel connected to Israel, and to care about Israel’s vitality and future. On the other hand, I want them to be critical. I want them to understand that Israel has violated human rights and that Israel is far from perfect. And I want them to understand the suffering that Israel has caused to Palestinians. I pictured my Muslim friends from NewGround listening to this presentation and I was horrified imagining their responses. While the goal of NewGround is to forge relationships between Muslims and Jews and facilitate learning about the “other,” the goal of this presentation was for students to learn to defend themselves against the “other.” NewGround advocates partnership; the David Project advocates opposition and defense.
The presenter showed a Palestinian children’s television show in which Palestinian kids were taught that the reason they got bad grades on a test was because of Israelis. The David Project presenter asked us, “what are the chances of peace when a Palestinian child grows up like this?”
But I would ask my Jewish students the same thing. I teach at a Jewish day school where five parents of seventh-grade students wouldn’t let their children go on the class field trip to the Islamic center because they were too scared for their children’s safety.
Jewish day schools teach kids to love Israel from the time they are in preschool. But now that my students are in eighth grade, they have not yet learned to criticize Israel, nor have they learned to empathize with the “other” side. Instead, we (and their parents) have taught them--albeit unintentionally--to fear and even hate.
I’m scared that we’ve gone too far; by focusing so much on teaching kids to love Israel, we have neglected to teach tolerance, respect, and empathy for Palestinians.
We may not be showing propaganda videos claiming that Palestinians are responsible for our students’ bad grades, but…are we really educating for peace?
by Jewish NewGround Fellow, 2010
My New Ground experience has helped me to grow in my conscientiousness regarding the conflicts in the Middle East and in my recent choice to pursue a career in the rabbinate. Id like to share one of my Rabbinical School application essays with you as it explores many of the tensions that came to light in my New Ground experience. While this essay is not an account of any explicit New Ground experience, my essay strongly reflects the understanding that New Ground fosters. I have also added translations to some terms that may be unknown:
Over the centuries, the Jewish destiny has been defined by the integration of religious faith and national identity. What role does choseness, peoplehood, and community play in your personal quest for spiritual meaning and how is Israel a part of your journey?
Perhaps the most difficult command of God in Torah is the divine instruction to occupy the land of Eretz Yisrael (the Land of Israel,) then inhabited by Canaanites, Hittites, Emorites, Perizzites, Jebusites, and Girgashites. A pshat (simple or plain) reading of the Ki Tissa text (Exodus 34:11-14) indicates a command for the chosen people to commit genocide, aided by our Jealous God against these peoples and to tear down their religious sites and structures. Textual apologists interpret away this claim, suggesting that these nations practiced depraved rituals and deserved to suffer or suggesting that the command was merely to convert or displace these clans such that the Israelite nation could thrive in the Promised Land. None of these explanations, however, address the apparent contradiction between the One God being the primary moral force in the universe and Gods most unjust instruction.
The reality of the modern state of Israel is far from just. We (the Jewish people) now fulfill Gods instruction to occupy and thrive in the Land, but do so at the cost of exiling and subjugating many Palestinian people, who too were created betzelem elokim, in the image of God.
In my search for ultimate reality and spiritual understanding, choseness, peoplehood and community manifest:
Choseness - Choseness is Jewish burden. From among the nations, God chose the Israelite people to become enslaved in Mitzrayim (Egypt), to receive the yoke of Torah (Gods commandments), and to occupy the Land. Being an adherent of process theology, I do not believe that God chose the Jewish people to suffer the destructions of the Holy Temple in Jerusalem, the Crusades, the Inquisition, the Pogroms, and the Holocaust. However, God chose the Jewish people to choose God, and in light of the great despair and suffering witnessed by the Jewish people, too often I confess that it has been difficult for Jews to choose God.
Peoplehood - Peoplehood is Jewish love. I love all Jews, those that I know and those that I do not know. I care for them without bound or reason, pray for their success, long for their teshuva (repentance), hope for their relief, sympathize with their circumstance, and disagree with them, as only one who loves them can.
Community Community is Jewish observance. We require a minyan, a community of ten Jews to engage fully in prayer. We feast in community, rest in community, and mourn in community. The cycles of Jewish life, Jewish holiday, and Jewish week retain meaning precisely because they are infused with community. Even for those rituals practiced in solitude, the knowledge of others performing the same ritual upon the same circumstance creates the recognition of community in observance.
In light of choseness, I recognize the burdens of the state and people of Israel: the burdens of terrorism, marginalization of non-Orthodox religious voices, water, hunger, poverty, and occupation. In light of peoplehood, I love with all its weaknesses, the modern democratic Jewish state: the cradle of innovation responsible for my cell phone and instant messaging, the Holy Land of the sites holiest to my religion and to many others, and the home of a military inclusive of women and open homosexuals. In light of community, I observe with the State of Israel from the Diaspora: reflection and gratitude on Yom HaZikaron (Israeli Memorial Day), shofar blasts and joyous celebration on Yom HaAtzmaut (Israeli Independence Day), and further praise on Yom Yerushalayim (Jerusalem Reunification Day).
Ive traveled to the Land of Israel three times. On USY Israel Pilgrimage, I spent six weeks exploring holy sites, tourist traps, and teenage melodrama. Then, on Hillels Pluralism Leadership Mission, I enjoyed ten days of interdenominational discussion, community service, and collegiate melodrama. At Ohr Someyach, I experienced kiruv (Orthodox Jewish outreach work designed to encourage less observant Jews to take on greater degrees of observance), Orthodox anti-Zionism, and Arab taxi drivers. Upon my return from each trip, I recognized that this Israel is far from our messianic vision and that I vastly prefer Diaspora Judaism to the religious extremes of Israels Jews. For this reason I recite the word Shetehei (It should be) before Reishit Tzmichat Geulateinu (The flowering of the dawn of our Redemption) when referring to the State of Israel, as Im far from convinced. Lshana habaa byerushalayim, habenuya. (Next year in Jerusalem, Mended/Rebuilt)
by Emma Pettit
Jewish NewGround Fellow, 2010
When I first started NewGround, I didn’t know what to think. I’m not your typical Jew, and I wasn’t sure what reception I would be getting from anyone – the Muslim fellows, the Jewish fellows, the facilitators. I’ve been taught that interfaith engagement is important, and that as a Jew, it is my responsibility to help others who are oppressed, the way my people have been throughout history. NewGround was a logical choice for me.
I’m an atheist, and a practicing Jew. Confusing, I know. It’s called being a Secular Jew, with a capitol S for intentionality and purpose. When I told people I was applying to be in a “Muslim-Jewish dialogue group,” most people’s reactions were: “Oh cool. [pause] Do they know you’re secular?” Like it’s some kind of dirty secret. In the first sentence of my application, I said I was an atheist. Everyone who read it said: “Great application…but do you think it’s smart to tell them you’re an atheist? Do you think they’ll accept you with that in there?” Being a Secular Jew in a Secular community is great. Being a Secular Jew actively participating in a religious environment is something I had never done before. It’s scary!
I was scared I was going to be rejected by the other Jews for not being Jewish enough. I was scared I would be rejected by everyone, Muslim and Jewish, for being an atheist. I was scared the facilitators wouldn’t want to go there with me, and would shut me down when I tried to bring it up. I was scared I would not be a part of the group. I was scared of what everyone would think and say and feel about the way I choose to practice Judaism and my own lack of spirituality. SPOILER ALERT: I was wrong.
In our second meeting, I said the word “secular” when describing my Jewish practice, and the other Jews responded with curiosity and interest, not scorn or derision or defensive anger, as I had feared they might. That was good. It wasn’t until the last day of our first retreat, however, that things boiled over for me.
The fear, the anxiety, the apprehension I’d been holding in about being atheist, about being Secular, about all of my Jewish practices came out. I ending up crying outside, desperately trying to control my feelings. But in our first meeting, the Community Agreement we created said that we had to be truthful with each other, and check in about how we were feeling. For the first time since childhood, I wanted people to know that I was upset. Even though I was still crying, even though I hadn’t been able to reign in my emotions, I went back in the room. It was the first time I’d cried in front of other people since middle school. But I told them how I was feeling, about my frustrations when I wasn’t included in the national Jewish community, about the intentionality of my Jewish practice and the anxiety I had been feeling. The Muslim man next to me put his arm around me and rubbed my back while I was crying. When I finished, the first thing anyone said to me was “Thank you.” Everyone came up to me and hugged me – Jew, Muslim, super observant and super reform. They said “thank you” and “I’m sorry you’ve had to go through that.” I realized, that for the first time, I had been completely honest about how I felt about Judaism and religion in a religious space, and I had been taken care of. The beauty of NewGround is that, in a few short weeks, we came together as a community that supported and trusted each other enough for something that dramatic and out of left field (for everyone else) to be taken in stride.
Last week, I was at a film screening about religions in Los Angeles with several fellows. The Jewish lady on the video said the very familiar (and very annoying): “There are three types of Jews: Orthodox, Conservative, and Reform.” Before I could say or do anything, the Jewish fellow sitting next to me took my hand and squeezed it, and the Muslim girl on my other side rolled her eyes at me. They were telling me that they understood, they know that this lady was wrong, and they were validating me and my Judaism. It was awesome.
by Muslim NewGround Fellow, 2010
I went into the first NewGround Retreat with an open heart and mind and a lot of excitement. I never had any personal expectations except for the fact that I wanted to learn something new.
The weekend was intense and filled with intriguing exercises. The various events and components of the weekend naturally impacted upon each individual in a different way. I enjoyed and appreciated each component for what they were and tried take on board the various skills imparted, for example the listening and the conflict styles exercises.
However, what resonated with me the most were the talks given by the guest speakers on the introduction to Islam and the introduction to Judaism. Not only did I learn about the history of Judaism and how this one particular faith based identity has transcended over time to fit changing societies and cultural landscapes, I also learned a great deal about Islam; my own faith-based community. What struck me the most was the fact that I feel that I do not know enough about the historical context of my own religion. I have a renewed realization of the importance of understanding the historical context of various aspects of religion in order to understand the broader picture.
I am also questioning not merely the religious knowledge that was passed down to me, but acknowledging that there is always a cultural context behind the way knowledge is passed own. This context should be known and understood. I feel that an equal importance should be placed on the search and study of alternative opinions to be able to come to a more informed conclusion. Not accepting (but at the same time not disrespecting) all of what our parents say as Gospel can be a tall task at times. However, it is necessary for one's own individual spiritual growth and journey.
by Saria Idana
NewGround Fellow, 2010
I am a goal oriented person, I like to make things, I like to see progress.
When I first heard of New Ground, I was extremely critical, not that it was a positive initiative but rather that I would benefit from engaging in it and that anything concrete could be built from it.
Two years in a row, multiple people told me about the fellowship and two years in a row I was resistant. This past winter, three hours before the application deadline, I decided to apply.
Why was I critical that I would benefit from the fellowship?
I AM an interfaith dialogue and I have been engaged in political and cultural activism in relation to the Palestinian/Israeli conflict for the past three years. My parents both carry Jewish bloodlines while my mother's family holds a much stronger Jewish cultural identity. My father was raised Christian and has a masters in Christian Divinity. But where the "interfaith dialogue" of my identity has its real roots is in the spiritual community in which I was raised. Both my parents took on a Sufi practice, a mystical Muslim practice, before I was born. I was raised with a strong Jewish identity but the first word I used as the name for the all pervading divine presence was Allah. In my late teens I invested much time examining the similarities and differences between Jewish and Muslim thought, and in recent years I have found myself extremely impatient when engaging in groups whose intention it is to begin this process.
With regard to the Israeli/Palestinian conflict, I am extremely critical when it is presented as a religious conflict. While I think religion is often used as a way to justify positions on political points, I do not think that it is a religious conflict or that it can be solved through a religious lens. It is also extremely problematic when the Christian voice is left out the discourse, both the Arab Christian voice on the ground and the many Christian Zionist organizations that flood money into the budget of the Israeli State. I was also critical of discussing the conflict at NewGround because I know that the conflict is extremely complex and needs a lot of time to unpack for people who do not have background knowledge of it. I was worried that, as fellows with NewGround, we would get nowhere in conversations about our cultural and religious realities as well as in conversations about politics. By nowhere I mean that we would use flowery language of similarity like "but we are both people of the book", share hummus and hugs and end there. Or that we would engage in debate that would end with the throwing of loaded language without examining their literal and emotional meanings; words like "terrorist", "zionist" and "genocide". I was even more concerned that I would get frustrated with both the jewish and muslim cohorts and feel out of place and misunderstood in the mix of both.
In early march I was asked to perform as a Jewish poet and musician at an event hosted by the Mayor's Office at City Hall that featured Jewish and Muslim Women in dialogue efforts. The NewGround facilitators Aziza Hasan and Malka Fenyvesi were featured on the panel. The mayor's office wanted a female Muslim poet to perform as well and thus I had the pleasure of beginning an artistic collaboration with another NewGround fellow, May Alhassen.
While the panel was underway a question was raised by a man in the audience regarding how difficult it is to solve the Israeli/Palestinian conflict and how did NewGround plan to go about this feat while being so far away from the region. I was intrigued to witness the answer. Aziza Hasan was quick to respond saying "we are not here to solve the middle-east conflict, we are here to build trust and understanding so that when tensions flare up in the middle-east, the conversations and collaborations between the Jewish and Muslim communities do not come to a stand still here in Los Angeles".
"Ah-Ha!!" I thought, "the goal is our relationships!" A weight was lifted from my chest as I realized that we in NewGround did not have to hurry up and envision how to fix the problems of the middle-east in next four months, nor were we expected to fully understand the complexities of our respective religious and cultural identities and political positions. We simply were expected to learn about each other, build friendships and learn some common language. The hope, I realized in that moment, is that change will happen through the relationships we make and through the initiatives we engage in after NewGround. Wowa! No pressure!
And then I remembered why I finally filled out the application and wrote four essays just under deadline. I was lonely and seeking more Jewish and Muslim folks in my life with whom to enjoy culture, celebrate pluralism, passionately debate issues that I hold very dear and build towards a self-determined future for all people.
I am extremely grateful for the privilege to sit in this group of Muslim and Jewish fellows, to learn from each other, to debate and to build relationships; to share humus and hugs. By privilege I mean that I have the opportunity to engage in this training program at no expense to my bank account. That I can sit in the fresh air of Palos Verdes eating three square meals a day, and countless snacks, while discussing what we think and how we feel about history, religious text and terminology without worrying about bombs dropping on our heads. I believe that we have a responsibility to use these privileges for the benefit of our communities both locally and abroad and I look forward to witnessing where we go from here.
Saria Idana is the writer and performer of the one woman theater show HOMELESS IN HOMELAND that investigates Jewish identity and the Israeli/Palestinian conflict. The show runs MAY 21, 22, 27 & 28 at Art Share LA. More info at http://www.facebook.com/event.php?eid=123544874328611
by E. Kaya
NewGround Fellow, 2010
Standing on new ground
I feel a sense of curiosity
A curious hesitation
Not to Speak
with all my Rage and Reasons
but rather to Receive.
Standing on new ground
I am a whole woman.
Whole, holy, holistically firm
I know who I am.
I know who I was.
I study myself and who I might become.
It's an odd sensation to watch yourself grow
but in a way I can't express or show
I am full of my history
and don't feel angry about
Standing on new ground
I am hopeful and encouraged.
After being dispirited by Process
I found my laughter once again.
I listen to my still small voice.
I feel the pounding in my heart
and, in relief,
it feeds my Spirit back to me.
Standing on new ground
I discover a new level of work to be done.
In inter-faith dialogue,
the intra-faith dialogue is key.
Intricate patterns of memory and
fade in and out,
only highlights the
Gaps in our Unity.
The mechanics of listening
and hearing the words beneath the words
the worlds behind the words
How to address one another,
Shared and varied
Struggles of Israel
Challenges to dogma
within a group
work in pairs
of intuitive knowledge
of G-d and lineage and prophecies
while justice and context and shapes
sometimes still only in our imaginations
are described to a blind-folded listener
lectures spent reflecting
jew, muslim, secular, religious,
the hyphenated identities
the plurality of experiences
the staunch opinions
and stoic dreams
conflicted and convoluted
rhymes and rhythms of life
continue to unfold
as we pursue
challenges and choices for
by Umar A Hakim
NewGround Fellow, 2010; ILM Foundation
Why, I had to choose one of the most strenuous jobs on site. My responsibilities were to fill a wheel barrel with fresh soil and deliver (literally’push ;0 woo0!) the soil to designated locations of Big Sunday workers who are cultivating constructed plots. As I was pushing through everyone “excuse me, excuse me” I notice individuals sharing tools with one another, lending assistance and smiles on everyone – simply applying an unselfish mannerism not seen in most places or even in Starbucks. “Sharing” is nothing new it is a model we as people utilize daily, but now I’m going to explore this concept even more; especially for problem solving. Before the work began, we spent time dissecting Jewish and Muslim text (odd Right?). In the exercise, our group became more interested about the wisdom being revealed. Subsequently it seemed we developed an appreciation for each other, due to this exposure. All in the company of my daughter, she participated in the children activities of; painting, pot setting, shoveling the soil and she left with a free copy of George Washington Carver. On the way home she asked, “is tomorrow big Monday?” I replied, “no, just Monday” she then said, “I wanna come back next year!” finishing I replied, “No problem, but next time we are going to water flower the beds instead.”
by Farah S. Khan
In the two years since I was a fellow in the NewGround dialogue program, our alumni group has worked hard to figure out how to take the dialogue to the larger Muslim and Jewish communities.
The answer came when Nicolas Merkin (NewGround, '07) and Rabbi Yosef Kanefsky of Temple B'nai David hosted a NewGround panel discussion at the home of one of their fellow congregants, Albie Cohen, for their modern orthodox congregation in Los Angeles.
I was anxious about talking freely regarding NewGround without knowing how it might be received by the audience. I expected silent cynicism of the entire dialogue effort masked by pleasantries. I could not have been more wrong.
The audience engaged us completely. The attendees had questions about how well the NewGround environment supported conversations about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and its repurcussions (the wall and suicide bombings, for instance). They also had questions about aspects of Islam and how we explored these issues during our sessions. The audience ignored the myth of the monolithic Muslim world and acknowledged the Muslim experience beyond the Middle East conflict.
After the discussion panel, I realized promoting dialogue requires stepping outside our comfort zone. Thanks to Mr. Cohen's gracious invitation, I learned sincere dialogue happens when interfaith mingling occurs in the only other sacred space outside places of worship - our homes.