I have taught courses on racism, classism, and sexism, but NewGround opened my eyes to the depth of understanding that can arise from interfaith dialogue. All too often, there are images of hate between Muslims and Jews in the media, but if the conversations of mutual curiosity and cultural sharing were broadcasted in living rooms across the nation and world, I think people's historical notions that these two groups refuse to get along would be changed in an instant. Many dialogues about what it means to be a Muslim, what it means to be a Jew, and what it means to be an ally for both communities caused me have those "aha" moments – realizing that I could make a difference in my own community.
With that realization in mind, I spoke with the Vice Chancellor of Student Affairs at UCLA about building an Intergroup Dialogue course on Spirituality and Faith. She was so receptive to the idea that she immediately set up an interfaith dinner with all the religious groups on campus to brainstorm how to create a dialogue course.
As a result, this spring, UCLA's Intergroup Dialogue Program, led by Tiffani Garnett, Minh Tran, and Dr. Sylvia Hurtado, is offering a course through the Community Health Sciences Department called Faith and Spirituality Peer-Dialogue. Two participants in The Olive Tree Initiative, an Israel-Palestine educational program, are facilitating this 2-unit course of 20 UCLA students of various religious and secular backgrounds.
Students engage in interactive activities, small group discussions, guest lecturers, and write papers on their journey to better understand privilege and oppression in society, and also how to become more empathetic toward students from different spiritual backgrounds. Students explore similarities and differences between religious faiths, examine the causes and effects of group differences, and identify ways that social justice and alliance building can take place in communities through collaborative social action.
My hope for this course is to plant a seed of peaceful social change. If college students begin to recognize the "other" as a brother or sister, rather than a distant cousin, then we begin to put an end to the unfortunate reality of self-segregating. We start purchasing foods of different cultures, listening to music of different religious groups, we attend religious services in solidarity with the once "other", we understand that the atheist has just as much of a point of view as the devout follower, and we begin to teach our children in a different way, which in turn breaks the cycle of hate, silence, and oppression.
My family perished in Poland and Austria at the hands of people who became consumed with hate and propaganda that Jews were rats, Christ killers, less than human, and that Jews were destroying Europe. Murder became the status quo and hate became the common currency. It was not something unique or sadistic about German people, it is in our DNA as humans. President Obama says: "we can appeal to our better angels", and I say that if we do not, then we run the risk of the next Rwandan, Chinese, Bosnian, Alawiti, Armenian, Jewish, Gypsy, Darfurian, or Native Peoples' genocide.
The history of tomorrow is waiting to be written. And I often find myself inspired by John Lennon – like him, imagining a world where all the people actually understand each other's histories, care about the nuances of each other's religions, harmoniously celebrate each other's holidays together, learn how to share small portions of land throughout the world, challenge hate speech in any form – fighting for nobody but working for the liberation of everybody.
NewGround has given me tools with which to make a positive difference in my community and I hope to continue to do so throughout my career as a peacemaker. In the spirit of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., we remember how much further we have to travel and the work that is yet to be done because "Whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly. I can never be what I ought to be until you are what you ought to be."
(full text published in the Interfaith Observer)
Can Jews and Muslims actually get along? For the average American, plagued by widespread misinformation and skewed biases from the media, this might seem nearly impossible. In light of the ubiquitous news of conflict in the Middle East, coexistence between these two faith traditions is often perceived as a lost cause. However, here in the Southern California a number of Jewish and Muslim communities are working in harmony towards peace and understanding. Read more...
NewGround’s Iftar event on Thursday August ninth offered a reminder of how close Muslims and Jews can be. Two-hundred and fifty Muslims and Jews gathered at the Westside Jewish Community Center to celebrate Iftar, one of the religious observances of Ramadan, one of the holiest events on the Muslim calendar, an event where people gather as a community to break their fasts.
I was so excited to attend this event; I had always wanted to attend an Iftar, but the opportunity had never come up. I thought that this one in particular would be great—the bringing together of two different religious groups for a meal that meant so much to one group, both religiously and for their community, would be so significant and special.
The evening began with an exercise used in NewGround’s annual fellowship program—a silent question and answer game. People formed pairs, then questions would be asked, and then a minute of silence would follow before one of the two would answer, after which the other would have their minute. We saw how difficult it can be to stay silent, but how rewarding it is to truly listen. During the minute of silence, some of us smiled, some of us nodded our agreement, and all of us learned a little about active listening.
We then heard from various community leaders about how NewGround has impacted them. Rabbi Sharon Brous from IKAR told an old story about two people meeting in the woods, and without any idea of how to get out, they take each others hands and go in a direction that neither had come from, because “together we will find a way out of here”.
I thought of that proverb all night. When two of the young women involved in the Muslim-Jewish High School Leadership Council spoke about their strong feelings about their futures as leaders in their communities, I thought of what we were all there for. We were there to learn, but more than that, we were there to celebrate a special event, and to help lead each other out of the woods.
When we all sit down for a meal, there are so few differences. We all pray before eating, we all know the hunger pains from a long fast, and we all know what we want most—to be able to celebrate together. By coming together with events like the Iftar, we can continue to really do that.
-Chelsea Price, Iftar attendee
On May 30th 2012, participants, supporters, and friends of NewGround, led by Rabbi Sarah Bassin, gathered at the King Fahad Mosque to honor those who had been working so closely with the organization. The Mosque houses the third largest Muslim community in Los Angeles, and members of Temple Emanuel, where many of the Jewish participants had come from, is the second largest community of Jews in Los Angeles. The overwhelming feeling of closeness, community, and the shared experience that all of the participants went through was completely apparent in the room.
The night was filled with stories and anecdotes of people’s experiences and personal paths with Newground; how it had shaped and changed their experiences, lives, and personal thoughts and opinions. People spoke of their surprise at the similarities that they learned of, and one thought specifically stood out to me-- that “even Jews have their disagreements, and aren’t we all interpreting and re-interpreting”? That one thought says so much, and really captures the core message of NewGround. We don’t have to pretend that we’re all the same, but we have to be able to talk peacefully, and without trying to convince the other person that we’re right.
This program is crucial in so many ways. None of the fellows began this journey by discussing their most heated issues, or by disagreeing. Instead, they began by learning to listen. Throughout the weeks that they met, they discussed, shared, and opened their selves up to really hearing what the other person was saying and feeling. Los Angeles is one of the most religiously diverse cities in the world, but this program acts as an “advancement of the city as a whole, not just within the religious community”. It begins to rise above religion, and enables people to see each other just as they are—as people who simply want to be good neighbors.
That is what these participants became. They are a community. As so many of the fellows stood to talk, they spoke not only of what they learned throughout their experience, but more of the friendships they formed. Despite age, race, religious or any other kind of background, there was one thing that was one thing that everyone could agree on, as well as “let’s hurry up and get to desert”. And during desert, they brought out a cake and sang to one of their members on his sixty-fifth birthday.
As I spoke with the people in the room that night, I was comfortable. One of the women from the mosque helped me to wrap a scarf around my hair and keep it on correctly, and another’s face lit up with excitement when I discussed my own interest in becoming part of a future fellowship. As one woman said to me, “this should not be a well-kept secret. It should be a household story.” And everyone’s chief complaint of the program? That it wasn’t long enough.
-Chelsea Price, A Night to Inspire attendee
By Bob Tornberg
Temple Emanuel-King Fahad NewGround Fellow
This past Sunday, my wife and I went to see Pray to Ball at The Complex
, a play written by Amir Abdullah. I had gotten to know Amir because we both participated in NewGround King Fahad-Temple Emanuel Fellowship and wanted to support his efforts to use his skills as an actor and writer to share his views of Islam. Interestingly, my wife, Julie, only met Amir once, but she was so taken with the person he is that she pushed us to actually be certain to attend the performance. Pray to Ball
tells the tale of two long-time friends, Hakeem and Lou. Both of them are star college basketball players who want to move into the NBA during the next season. Because of pain in his personal life, Hakeem begins searching for a new meaning, and turns to the world of Islam. This radical change is not understood by Lou and the play portrays the struggle both of them go through as a result.
As a Jewish person attending this play, I was struck by the real-life difficulties Hakeem and Lou went through and how I have seen parallel experiences in many Jewish young people as well. Although I shouldn’t have been surprised by it, it was an “aha” moment for me during the poignant scene when “Tammy” revealed her struggles to live the discipline of Islam with the temptations posed by college life as a backdrop. Whether one is Jewish, Christian or Muslim, life constantly gives us opportunities to be less than our ideal selves!
So, while the play itself left me with new knowledge and sent me home thinking deeply, I also took something else away from this Sunday afternoon adventure. When I arrived, I saw that there was another person from the Fellowship waiting in the lobby with a friend she had brought to the play and it felt very good (Note: we also brought two people to the show as well). And, by the time the actors took the stage, there were a total of 8 or 9 Fellowship members and at least 6 guests that they brought with them.
For me, this may be the most important testimony about the extreme success of the Fellowship in which a group of strangers—Muslims and Jews—participated in over 5 months. Strangers became friends. We were there to support Amir, but, at least for me, as each person I knew entered the theater, I had a sense of being “at home.” It had been nearly a month since we had been together and I broke into a smile when each one walked in—and it didn’t matter whether the person was Jewish or Muslim! They were simply my friends and I had missed seeing them.
So, thank you Amir for all you did to make me think last Sunday, but ALSO, thank you for bringing me together with my friends who now matter a great deal to me!
TLC’s All American Muslim attracts undeniable interest and relevance in post 9/11 America. The show illustrates how easy it is for one family made up of different individuals and couples to vary among each other in religious views, practice, and daily life while they come together at the end of the day like any family. This is solid programming.
However, while All American Muslim is an improvement to current national dialogue over American Muslims, the show still offers up a smorgasbord of predictable and familiar themes when attempting to understand Islam. For example, there is apparently still confusion over whether there’s a difference between an Arab and a Muslim. (There is.)
In an effort to debunk stereotypes, All American confirms the old one that has Muslims across the board being represented by people of Arab origin. The choice to follow families of one particular origin in the single location of Dearborne, Michigan, a city with the highest concentration, not population, of Arabs in America, neglects the culturally and ethnically diverse community that makes up the American Muslim population, and by extension the eclectic melting pot that is indeed America.
The result of this choice provides yet another example, albeit a more positive one, of America’s modern day fixation on Islam being a byproduct of an age-old political relationship with the Middle East. Had the early 1900s seen the discovery of an endless supply of oil beneath Tibet, and its surrounding region, history would have taken a different course, and this would be a piece about TLC’s show on Buddhist Americans who also love Kenny Chesney. But there wasn’t, and here we are trying our very best to understand Arabs. I mean Muslims. Whichever.
The habit of confusing all Arabs with Muslims, and vice versa, overlooks Arabs who are of other faith-backgrounds including Christianity and Judaism. Still, the show is not about Arabs, but about Muslims. In reality, African Americans along with South and East Asians make up the largest percentage of Muslims in America. Not a single one of which are represented on the show.
The families of the Amen’s, Aoude’s, Jaafar’s, Zaban’s, and Nina Bazzy, whose dream is to open a night club, do provide a glimpse into some issues Muslims may face, and might be a nice welcome wagon particularly for that percentage of Americans who claim never to have met a Muslim in their life. But TLC is the learning channel. So if a budget exists to follow five different families, perhaps they can actually be different families.
Consideration could have been made to include a Pakistani-, Bosnian-, Indonesian- or African-American family that identify as Muslim across various cities in the U.S. The largest American Muslim population exists in California, a location in which one would think the camera feels at home. How about New York? It would have made for some entertaining irony to film in the city that became the hub of last year’s Park 51 brouhaha, the same city with a Halal (Muslim Kosher) food cart every second block of Manhattan.
Admittedly, it's easier to be the critic rather than show creator, but lack of criticism has only ever produced a beggars can’t be choosers attitude when it comes to Muslims, Arabs, or really any other minority group in media and entertainment. Fair or equal representation has always been a hurdle for TV show creators who, once called out on their foibles, I like to think are fairly responsive (give or take a few decades.)
A show is after all is dependent on ratings, which require an audience that can identify with some familiar imagery. What’s nice about All American Muslim is its effort to redefine that imagery from negative or misinformed into a positive one.
The show has also provoked a larger and long overdue discussion within Muslim communities on acceptance, and people who are loyal to the faith without necessarily practicing in a way that fears cultural taboos. That this conversation is taking place should be celebrated, proving that “American Muslim” is indeed an identity that can be viewed independent from international politics.
The families of Dearborn, Michigan include some endearing characters that deserve to be represented as part of the fabric of Americans and American Muslims. However it’s a misnomer to call the show All American when it is hardly all-inclusive. After all, Islam is a monotheistic religion, not a monolithic one. The diverse cultures and environments in which Muslim families are born, or convert into make for varying degrees of practice and interpretation, a picture that should help us as Americans get closer to the realization that one group of people can’t be pegged or profiled into one box.
Lana Daoud is a freelance writer for FEN magazine, and a 2010 Fellow of "NewGround: A Muslim-Jewish Partnership for
Eliana Kaya and Sarah Bassin
On Thursday, September 15th, a delegation of 12 imams and academics from Al Azhar University in Cairo, Egypt met at Los Angeles City Hall with NewGround staff and alumni. The exchange was organized by Imam Bashar Arafat of the Civilizations Exchange and Cooperation Foundation which works in conjunction with the U.S. State Department to bring delegations of religious leaders from the Muslim world to the United States to study effective models of interfaith engagement. NewGround launched the Egyptian delegation’s Los Angeles itinerary on their multi-city tour.
NewGround partners and supporters also joined the meeting. Joumana Silyan-Saba of the Los Angeles Commission on Human Relations, and Sherif Morsi of the Los Angeles Sheriff’s Department attended in order to demonstrate the importance of collaboration from governmental and law enforcement perspectives.
To introduce themselves, members of the delegation were asked to define and share the five most central aspects of their identity (i.e., father, Muslim, sister, scholar, Egyptian, etc.). As the introductions progressed, people were encouraged to shorten the list from five aspects to three, and eventually to only keep one aspect of their identity that was impossible to eliminate.
“It’s so hard to pick just one, but if I have to choose, I choose to keep ‘Muslim’ because it encompasses everything,” said one professor. “I choose to keep “peace-maker” because that is what I do not only at work but also in my personal life,” said a law enforcement officer.
The activity, used often in the NewGround fellowship, helps participants to see both the complexity and the simplicity in what shapes identity. Although the participants represented multiple faiths, national and ethnic backgrounds and professional fields, the conversation focused on tools for listening, rather than on labels that trigger emotion and debate.
Silyan-Saba, of the Human Relations Commission, emphasized the importance of religious pluralism, especially in a city like Los Angeles. "We are the most diverse city in the world; we have over 270 languages spoken within our city."
Executive Director Rabbi Sarah Bassin presented the purpose and a brief history of NewGround, discussing the structure of the program and its capacity at building a wide range of community leaders skilled in conflict-resolution and interfaith engagement. "We are interested in creating and fostering relationships that will hold up locally regardless of what happens on the other side of the world."
Egyptian delegates were particularly interested in hearing what those who go through the program learn and if it makes a difference in their respective communities.
Alumna of the NewGround Fellowship, Eliana Kaya, an Israeli-American and veteran of the Israeli Army said, "We came into the group as Jews and Muslims, with all of our ideas, judging with our eyes. NewGround trains us to listen with both ears and creates a space where we begin to care about one another. I have used what I learned every single day – in the store, at my synagogue and with my family. My language has changed. My understanding has changed. My vision has changed."
Through the friendships that the fellowship inspired, she has learned how "to be comfortable with being uncomfortable. There can be a space for differences of opinion and I am no longer afraid that it will threaten my own identity - in fact, my faith has been strengthened.” The topic of faith as a motivating factor for being a good and righteous citizen resonated with both Egyptian faculty and local law enforcement.
The delegates in turn, were eager to share their own aspirations and views on interfaith cooperation. Their remarks on Islam in relation to Judaism, included making distinctions between religious values and political ideologies, as well as citation of Quranic Scriptures in an effort to demonstrate multiple precedents for religious pluralism within an Islamic context.
Beyond expressing mutual commitment towards interfaith engagement, the delegation was most interested in learning about the concrete tools that an enterprise such as NewGround can deliver, both in an Egyptian context as well as within the United States.
Rabbi Bassin cited several of NewGround's previous and ongoing projects, while emphasizing that the purpose of the program is to foster a place to develop relationships, rather than to solve political problems.
Professor of Islamic and Arabic Studies and a PhD in Islamic Jurisprudence, Dr. Mona Mostafa asked if NewGround had any plans to expand internationally. "If we can get a NewGround in Cairo, that would really be a wonderful thing," she remarked.
Kaya responded by sharing with the delegation how NewGround lays the foundation for effective cooperation. “The Fellowship is in some ways like a classroom," she said to the group. “It's a safe place to try out new ideas; but it is up to the students to remember the lessons when they leave and turn them into solutions in the real world. While we learn how to listen and see one another as full human beings, the choice to act on the skills we learn – that comes on our own, just like in life."
After the roundtable conversation, the delegates were taken on a brief tour that concluded with a 360 degree view from the top floor of City Hall. After only two short hours, these religious leaders and academics were deeply moved by their experience and inspired by what they had heard as a model of positive Muslim-Jewish collaboration.
As Dr. Nabil Darwish, Professor in the department of Islamic Culture at Al-Azhar University stated, “I do not find words to express my gratitude for the work that you do.”
To see the biographies of the delegates, please click here
Ha-Meiri of Rothenberg was centuries ahead of his time in his understanding of other faith traditions. During his lifetime in the 13th century, Jewish tradition legislated stark distinctions for how Jews ought to relate to their fellow Jews versus non-Jews. At best, tradition instructed Jews to get along with their non-Jewish neighbors for the sake preserving the physical security of the Jewish community. Yet in contrast to the legal tradition he inherited, Ha-Meiri refused to place people of other faith traditions on a lesser plain. In an innovative legal twist, he created an entirely new category that maintained distinction between Jews and non-Jews but still afforded others the same dignity Jews that expect of one another.
Jews of the medieval period certainly experienced horrific episodes of violence and persecution at the hands of their non-Jewish neighbors and could not imagine a different reality. Our natural human tendency to understand an issue through a lens of the past unintentionally blocks us from seeing the full range of tools in our hands to address the problem. But Ha-Meiri had the foresight to envision a reality not characterized by a past of mistrust and harm.
I look to Ha-Meiri as one of the most inspirational rabbis in history for his ability to break the mold. Having chosen to become a rabbi to pursue interfaith relations, I have always believed that my relationships with non-Jews have made me into a better Jew and that interfaith encounters offer as much to gain in self-understanding as in understanding of the other. Early in my rabbinic training, it became clear that the greatest misunderstanding existed in the relationship between the Muslim and Jewish communities and I chose to focus my energies here to help form a new reality.
I was drawn to NewGround because the organization embodies Ha-Meiri’s foresight. The founders of NewGround looked at the existing landscape of interfaith relations and envisioned the possibility for a different reality- one in which the pairing of “Muslim” and “Jew” does not conjure up images of conflict, tension, suspicion, violence, and hatred. Instead, they choose to put forth a new vision in which Jewish-Muslim relations are normalized and our communities join together on the issues we share in common.
But NewGround has more than just a vision; it has a model for successful impact to transform relationships between Muslims, Jews and our communal institutions. To learn more about NewGround’s unique approach, read about “Fellowship and Alumn
i” and contact us with your questions: email@example.com
To read Sarah Bassin’s biography, see "Who We Are
by Maya Barron
Jewish NewGround Alumnus
Oddly enough, I leave NewGround with some fascinating factual knowledge and new ways of thinking about Judaism (my own religion) and its history. First, that Judaism grew out of a tribal historical context and all/most tribes saw their tribe as “chosen” based on their close, symbiotic relationship with their God. Judaism is simply the only tribal religion that has survived the Greco-Roman period. While this does not reconcile all of my issues with chosenness, I found this really interesting. Second (and fast-forwarding a bit), that under Christian imperial rule Jews couldn’t own land and Christians couldn’t charge interest on each other. So, Jews became bankers. Then, when Jews lent money to local leaders and the leaders didn’t want to pay them back, they opted to kick the Jews out instead. While this is clearly an oversimplified narrative, there is enough truth there to add another layer to my understanding of the historical origins of anti-semitism. Neither of these two facts are earth shattering, but I found both interesting enough to write down in my notebook.
by Maya Barron
Jewish NewGround Alumnus, 2010
During the first NewGround retreat, we completed a “conflict styles” worksheet and I was somewhat surprised and very confused by my results. According to its rubric, I was categorized as equal parts “collaborator” and “avoider” during times of “calm” conflict. My initial reaction was total confusion at what seemed to be an essentially self-contradictory result. This actually brewed within me for quite some time because I completed the worksheet on Friday night and we didn’t examine and discuss them as a group until Saturday afternoon. When I finally voiced my confusing situation, expecting others to agree with me that my results made no sense, Aziza actually said that my particular combination meant I was a very thoughtful person. This was quite possibly the most validating and reassuring thing that anyone could have said to me.