Search results for : faith and spirituality

Bringing the Values of NewGround to UCLA by Zack Ritter

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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.”

Majic Advisory Board

Muslims and Jews Inspiring Change Advisory Board

Jewish Communal Advisory Board Members

Rabbi Sarah Bassin, co-chair NewGround
Rabbi Sarah Bassin serves as the Executive Director of NewGround: A Muslim-Jewish Partnership for Change. She traveled to Iran in November 2008 as part of a civilian diplomacy delegation. From 2009-2011, Sarah served as the program manager at the Center for Muslim/Jewish Engagement where she implemented the first comprehensive survey on Muslim-Jewish relations in the United States. She received a certificate in Jewish Non-Profit Management in August 2010 and was ordained as a rabbi in May 2011 by Hebrew Union College.

Merrill Alpert, United Synagogue Youth
Merrill Alpert is the Regional Youth Director of Far West United Synagogue Youth. She received her degree in Jewish Studies from UCLA and returned to Valley Beth Shalom, her childhood synagogue to serve as the youth director for 18 years. Merrill a masters in Jewish Communal Service from Hebrew Union College before accepting the position as regional director where she now oversees more than 1600 students. She is the mother of four.

Rabbi Neil Comess-Daniels, Congregation Beth Shir Shalom
Rabbi Neil Comess-Daniels serves as the rabbi of Congregation Beth Shir Shalom in Santa Monica. He is known for his stng personal commitment organizations that deal with interracial, interfaith, and homelessness issues. He has chaired the Martin Luther King, Jr. Westside Coalition and the Interfaith Holocaust Service and also serves on the boards of the Western Region of the Jewish Federation Council and the Westside Interfaith Council. A graduate of UCLA, Rabbi Comess-Daniels was ordained in 1979 at the Hebrew Union College. He is married and has two children.

Sara-Jean Lipmen, Temple Emanuel of Beverly Hills
Sara-Jean Lipmen is the regional advisor for the Southern California region of the National Federation of Temple Youth where she oversees the Reform Jewish movement’s teen initiatives.

Rabbi Michelle Missaghieh, Temple Israel of Hollywood
Rabbi Michelle Missaghieh has served as Temple Israel of Hollywood’s Associate Rabbi since her ordination from HUC-JIR in 1996. Rabbi Missaghieh also holds a BA in Art History and Women’s Studies from University of Michigan (1989) and a Master’s Degree in Jewish Education from HUC-JIR, LA (1994). She enjoys teaching people of all ages and empowering them to participate in Jewish living. In the greater community, Rabbi Missaghieh serves on the board of LA Family Housing, the Executive Board of the Sandra Caplan Community Bet Din (the only pluralistic Bet Din in the United States) and the Southern California Muslim Jewish Forum. She is also on the Rabbinic Advisory Board of the Shalom Hartman Institute in Jerusalem and a member of the ARZA Rabbinic Counsel.

Mindy Tauberg , UC Irvine
Mindy Tauberg began thinking about issues of identity in 4th grade, when a teacher at her Jewish day school asked her to write about whether she was a Jewish American or an American Jew. In her undergraduate honors project, Mindy researched the effects of interfaith marriage on Jewish identity. Interviewing two students who had one Jewish parent and one Muslim parent piqued Mindy’s interest, and she began to learn more about Islam. In 2012 she began working towards her Ph.D. in Anthropology at UC Irvine. Mindy’s primary research interest is the interaction between participation in interfaith youth groups and Muslim American identity.

Cantor Richard Schwartz, Temple Beth David
Cantor Schwartz received his Bachelor of Arts in vocal performance from the University of Massachusetts at Amherst and subsequently studied with cantors Samuel Kelemer, William Sharlin and Nathan Lam to prepare for a career in the cantorate. He is a commissioned and invested member of both the American Conference of Cantors (Reform) and the Cantors Assembly (Conservative) and a fellow of the Institute of Jewish Spirituality having completed their Cantorial Leadership program in 2005. In 2011 Cantor Schwartz received a Masters of Arts in Education and Bachelor of Hebrew Letters from American Jewish University in Los Angeles.

Rabbi Ron Stern, Stephen S. Wise Temple
Rabbi Ron Stern of Stephen S. Wise Temple is originally from Morristown, New Jersey. He graduated cum laude from the University of Rochester and was ordained at Hebrew Union College in New York. He also attended HUC in Los Angeles. Rabbi Stern joined the clergy staff at Stephen S. Wise Temple in 1998 after serving as Associate Rabbi at Temple Ahavat Shalom in Northridge. Rabbi Stern serves on the Executive Committee of the Southern California Board of Rabbis and the Interreligious Affairs Council and the Energy Independence committee of the American Jewish Committee. He is also a pioneer member of the award-winning Jewish Family Service Rabbi-Social Worker Roundtable and a member of the Council on the Environment and Jewish Life`s “Kitchen Cabinet” of religious leaders engaged in community advocacy to fight global warming.

Zvi Smith, Teacher at Yeshiva University of Los Angeles
A magna cum laude graduate of Princeton University with a degree in Politics, Zvi is fluent in Hebrew and Arabic and has a wealth of community organizing experience including in Lebanon and Libya. A doctoral candidate in Politics at New York University, Zvi was awarded the MacCraken Fellowship. With a background in mediation and facilitation, Zvi Smith serves as the co-facilitator for MAJIC along with Samia Bano.

Muslim Communal Advisory Board Members

Marwa Abdelghani, MAJIC Alumni Representative
Marwa Abdelghani, a recent graduate of Crescenta Valley High School, is pursuing a double major in Political Science and Earth System Science at the University of California, Irvine. Abdelghani has held multiple leadership positions both at her high school and as a part of the Muslim Youth Group (MYG) at the Islamic Center of Southern California (ICSC). In her junior and senior years, she was the president and founder of her Muslim Students Association and the vice president and co-founder of the My Generation club. Abdelghani served as the MYG’s Spiritual and Educational Director in her last year of high school. She is currently the MYG’s summer interim coordinator, working as the director of the youth group under the leadership of the ICSC. Abdelghani was one of the first council members of Muslims and Jews Inspiring Change (MAJIC).

Samia Bano, King Fahad Mosque
Samia Bano oversees the youth group at King Fahad Mosque in Culver City. She is a long-time interfaith activist and an alumna of the NewGround Fellowship for Temple Emanuel of Beverly Hills and King Fahad Mosque.

Halim Dhanidina, Los Angeles County Superior Court Judge
Halim Dhanidina, is the first Muslim-American judge appointed in California. In the past, he has served as a deputy district attorney in the Los Angeles County District Attorney’s Office since 1998. He earned a Juris Doctorate degree from the University of California, Los Angeles School of Law and a Bachelor of Arts degree from Pomona College. He fills the vacancy created by the conversion of a court commissioner position.

Karim Gowani, Aga Khan Ismaili Council
A graduate of California Lutheran University, Karim Gowani holds a Masters of Business Administration in Finance, and works for the Northrop Grumman Corporation’s Investments & Trust Department as a manager. He is part of the team, which is responsible for managing various retirement plan assets and investment vehicles totaling over 45 billion in assets, including defined benefit plans, defined contribution/401(k) plans, and global pooled investment funds. He has been a Community Ambassador and volunteer for the Aga Khan Ismaili Council for the Western United States for over 10 years. Karim supports and directs I-CERV (Ismaili Community Engaged In Responsible Volunteering), the Ismaili community’s service initiative. In addition, as part of a focus on community bridge-building, he supports numerous outreach activities of the Ismaili community in California.

Edina Lekovic, Muslim Public Affairs Council
As MPAC’s Director of Policy & Programming, Edina leads the MPAC team of staff and volunteers on strategic initiatives in government relations, media outreach and interfaith collaboration, while also coordinating the organization’s approach to domestic and international affairs. Additionally, Edina acts as a spokeswoman for the American Muslim community to media outlets, government officials, interfaith leaders, academic institutions, and community groups. From 2004-2010, Edina served as MPAC’s Communications Director. Edina has appeared on national media outlets, including CNN, BBC, and MSNBC. Since joining MPAC, Edina’s work has also been featured in several leading newspapers, including the Wall Street Journal, Washington Times, Chicago Tribune, and Los Angeles Times. Named one of the Top 500 Influential Muslims in the World in 2009, Edina is a proud graduate of the American Muslim Civic Leadership Institute, and has participated in conferences hosted by the United Nations as well as the Organization of Islamic Conference (OIC).

Imam Rushdan Mustafa Mujahid-Deen, Bilal Center
Imam Rushdan is the associate imam of Masjid Bilal Islamic Center. From 2001-2005, he worked with the National Young Adult Association (NYAA) as the Western Sectional representative and vice president. As a member of the NYAA, he was invited to be a part of the World Council of Religion & Peace national discussion on global youth issues. In 2005, he moved to Gary, Indiana and enrolled in Imam W Deen Mohammed’s class located in Hazel Crest, IL., where he studied Qur’anic Arabic, Islamic Studies, and Comparative Religion. Imam Rushdan currently resides in Los Angeles, CA. and is active in community outreach for Masjid Bilal Islamic Center.

Jihad Turk, Bayan Claremont
Jihad Turk serves as Dean of Bayan Claremont, an Islamic graduate college designed to educate Muslim scholars and religious leaders. He is also a founding Board Member of Claremont Lincoln University, a multireligious graduate school. Jihad has served as the Director of Religious Affairs at the Islamic Center of Southern California, the oldest and largest mosque in the Los Angeles area. Jihad actively engages in interfaith dialogue with Jewish and Christian communities and serves on the boards of several interfaith peace organizations. Additionally, he was featured in the Los Angeles Times, and in films and documentaries on Islam and has appeared on CNN and the History Channel representing Islam. His current interests also include identity formation in the American-Muslim community, interfaith relations, Islamic reform movements, and community leadership and development with a focus on youth.

Soha Yassine, Islamic Center of Southern California
Soha Yassine is the Youth and Volunteer Coordinator at the Islamic Center of Southern California. In her capacity as Youth Coordinator, she oversees the Muslim Youth Group of the ICSC and fulfills her personal commitment towards cultivating strong young leaders to serve as ambassadors for the American Muslim experience. She received her BA from UCLA in the Study of Religion in 2005, and an MA in Islamic Studies from Claremont Graduate University in 2011. Soha is an amateur photographer and the happy aunt of five nieces and nephews.

Community Advisory Board Members

Anthony Marsh Interfaith Inventions
Anthony Marsh is the Executive Director of Interfaith Inventions. A graduate of Stanford University, he holds a Masters of Arts in Religion from Princeton University. He is a National Mellon Fellow and has completed advanced studies at the Fielding Graduate University in Organizational Development in Santa Barbara. From 2001 to 2004, he directed community relations and college counseling at Pilgrim School and coordinated the 90th Anniversary National Conference for the Fellowship of Reconciliation, the largest peace organization in the United States.

Joumana Silyan-Saba City of Los Angeles Human Relations Commission
Joumana Silyan-Saba is a Policy Advisor for the City of Los Angeles Human Relations Commission with a focus on Community-Government Relations as it pertains to addressing areas of discrimination and exclusion. Ms. Silyan-Saba works directly with communities to promote healthy inter-group relations. Prior to that Ms. Silyan-Saba was a Program Director for Community and Inter-group Conflicts at the Asian Pacific American Dispute Resolution Center. Ms. Silyan-Saba completed an M.A in Negotiation and Conflict Management at California State University Dominguez Hills (CSUDH) in December 2002. She has since taught graduate courses at CSUDH on conflicts management and peace building.

Advisory Board

MAJIC: A High School Leadership Council Advisory Board

Communal Advisory Board Members

Merrill Alpert United Synagogue Youth
Merrill Alpert is the Regional Youth Director of Far West United Synagogue Youth. She received her degree in Jewish Studies from UCLA and returned to Valley Beth Shalom, her childhood synagogue to serve as the youth director for 18 years. Merrill a masters in Jewish Communal Service from Hebrew Union College before accepting the position as regional director where she now oversees more than 1600 students. She is the mother of four.

Rabbi Sarah Bassin (Chair)
Rabbi Sarah Bassin of Temple Emanuel of Beverly Hills. She traveled to Iran in November 2008 as part of a civilian diplomacy delegation. From 2009-2011, Sarah served as the program manager at the Center for Muslim/Jewish Engagement where she implemented the first comprehensive survey on Muslim-Jewish relations in the United States. She received a certificate in Jewish Non-Profit Management in August 2010 and was ordained as a rabbi in May 2011 by Hebrew Union College.

Rabbi Neil Comess-Daniels Congregation Beth Shir Shalom
Rabbi Neil Comess-Daniels serves as the rabbi of Congregation Beth Shir Shalom in Santa Monica. He is known for his stng personal commitment organizations that deal with interracial, interfaith, and homelessness issues. He has chaired the Martin Luther King, Jr. Westside Coalition and the Interfaith Holocaust Service and also serves on the boards of the Western Region of the Jewish Federation Council and the Westside Interfaith Council. A graduate of UCLA, Rabbi Comess-Daniels was ordained in 1979 at the Hebrew Union College. He is married and has two children.

Sara-Jean Lipmen Temple Emanuel of Beverly Hills
Sara-Jean Lipmen is the educational director at Temple Emanuel of Beverly Hills. Prior to Joining Temple Emanuel, Sara-Jean served as the regional director of the National Federation of Temple Youth.

Saaliha Khan Islamic Society of West Valley

Saaliha is a passionate bridge-builder who seeks to lead a life of service, foster transformative change and empower communities. Saaliha is a proud Angeleno who studied Government, Arabic, and Justice & Peace Studies at Georgetown University in Washington, DC.  She currently works as the Government and Community Relations Manager at the Northeast Valley Health Corporation, and formerly worked as the Communications and Project Manager at NewGround: A Muslim-Jewish Partnership for Change, housed with the LA City Human Relations Commission at LA City Hall. Saaliha is the Youth Group Coordinator at the Islamic Society of West Valley, and the Community Engagement Director for the San Fernando Valley Young Democrats.

Rabbi Larry Scheindlin Sinai Akiba Academy (emeritus)
Rabbi Scheindlin is a graduate of the University of Pennsylvania and holds Master’s degrees from UCLA and the Jewish Theological Seminary, where he was also ordained as a rabbi. Since 1977 he has led faculty, parents and students toward the advancement of education, religious life and institutional development at Sinai Akiba Academy. Under his direction Sinai Akiba Academy has grown from 170 to 700 students. Rabbi Scheindlin is a recipient of the Milken Outstanding Jewish Educator Award. He has published numerous articles, conducted workshops and taught courses on varied subjects including curriculum, school governance and administration, and in his area of unique expertise, the significance of emotions in both general and spiritual education.

Cantor Richard Schwartz Temple Beth David
Cantor Schwartz received his Bachelor of Arts in vocal performance from the University of Massachusetts at Amherst and subsequently studied with cantors Samuel Kelemer, William Sharlin and Nathan Lam to prepare for a career in the cantorate. He is a commissioned and invested member of both the American Conference of Cantors (Reform) and the Cantors Assembly (Conservative) and a fellow of the Institute of Jewish Spirituality having completed their Cantorial Leadership program in 2005. In 2011 Cantor Schwartz received a Masters of Arts in Education and Bachelor of Hebrew Letters from American Jewish University in Los Angeles.

Zvi Smith Teacher at Yeshiva University of Los Angeles
A magna cum laude graduate of Princeton University with a degree in Politics, Zvi is fluent in Hebrew and Arabic and has a wealth of community organizing experience including in Lebanon and Libya. A doctoral candidate in Politics at New York University, Zvi was awarded the MacCraken Fellowship. With a background in mediation and facilitation, Zvi Smith serves as the co-facilitator for MAJIC along with Samia Bano.

Rabbi Ron Stern Stephen S. Wise Temple
Rabbi Ron Stern of Stephen S. Wise Temple is originally from Morristown, New Jersey. He graduated cum laude from the University of Rochester and was ordained at Hebrew Union College in New York. He also attended HUC in Los Angeles. Rabbi Stern joined the clergy staff at Stephen S. Wise Temple in 1998 after serving as Associate Rabbi at Temple Ahavat Shalom in Northridge. Rabbi Stern serves on the Executive Committee of the Southern California Board of Rabbis and the Interreligious Affairs Council and the Energy Independence committee of the American Jewish Committee. He is also a pioneer member of the award-winning Jewish Family Service Rabbi-Social Worker Roundtable and a member of the Council on the Environment and Jewish Life`s “Kitchen Cabinet” of religious leaders engaged in community advocacy to fight global warming.

Communal Advisory Board Members

Marwa Abdelghani MAJIC Alumni Representative
Marwa Abdelghani is currently pursuing a bachelor’s in Literary Journalism at the University of California, Irvine. She works for the Muslim Public Affairs Council as the Community Outreach Fellow.  Abdelghani has been published on publications such as The Islamic Monthly, Coming of Faith, Patheos, AltMuslimah, and OnFaith. She has been featured on news networks speaking about Islam and Muslims in America on FOX News, KTLA 5, and NBC 4. She works for Coming of Faith, a women’s empowerment venture, as the Secretary of the board, as well as a weekly columnist. Her public speaking skills led her to being invited to speak in front of the Los Angeles County school administration about her vision of implementing educational summits in high school curriculums. She is highly involved in the youth group of the Islamic Center of Southern California as a youth mentor. In her free time, Marwa loves to read, write, and sing.

Samia Bano Academy of Thriving
Samia is the Happiness Expert & Founder of www.AcademyOfThriving.com. She is on a mission to eliminate suffering from the world by empowering people to live with inner peace and joy through transformative education that shifts us from just surviving to thriving in life! Samia serves as a co-facilitator of MAJIC (Muslims And Jews Inspiring Change) which is NewGround’s High School leadership council. She is proud and excited to be a part of MAJIC because it is planting seeds for a better tomorrow by providing a safe space for our youth, our next generation of leaders, to build relationships between Muslims and Jews that can transform their communities through lasting partnership.

Karim Gowani Aga Khan Ismaili Council 

A graduate of California Lutheran University, Karim Gowani holds a Masters of Business Administration in Finance, and works for the Northrop Grumman Corporation’s Investments & Trust Department as a manager. He is part of the team, which is responsible for managing various retirement plan assets and investment vehicles totaling over 45 billion in assets, including defined benefit plans, defined contribution/401(k) plans, and global pooled investment funds. He has been a Community Ambassador and volunteer for the Aga Khan Ismaili Council for the Western United States for over 10 years. Karim supports and directs I-CERV (Ismaili Community Engaged In Responsible Volunteering), the Ismaili community’s service initiative. In addition, as part of a focus on community bridge-building, he supports numerous outreach activities of the Ismaili community in California.

Edina Lekovic Muslim Public Affairs Council
As MPAC’s Director of Policy & Programming, Edina leads the MPAC team of staff and volunteers on strategic initiatives in government relations, media outreach and interfaith collaboration, while also coordinating the organization’s approach to domestic and international affairs. Additionally, Edina acts as a spokeswoman for the American Muslim community to media outlets, government officials, interfaith leaders, academic institutions, and community groups. From 2004-2010, Edina served as MPAC’s Communications Director. Edina has appeared on national media outlets, including CNN, BBC, and MSNBC. Since joining MPAC, Edina’s work has also been featured in several leading newspapers, including the Wall Street Journal and Los Angeles Times. Named one of the Top 500 Influential Muslims in the World in 2009, Edina is a proud graduate of the American Muslim Civic Leadership Institute, and has participated in conferences hosted by the United Nations.

Imam Rushdan Mustafa Mujahid-Deen
Bilal Center Imam Rushdan is the associate imam of Masjid Bilal Islamic Center. From 2001-2005, he worked with the National Young Adult Association (NYAA) as the Western Sectional representative and vice president. As a member of the NYAA, he was invited to be a part of the World Council of Religion & Peace national discussion on global youth issues. In 2005, he moved to Gary, Indiana and enrolled in Imam W Deen Mohammed’s class located in Hazel Crest, IL., where he studied Qur’anic Arabic, Islamic Studies, and Comparative Religion. Imam Rushdan currently resides in Los Angeles, CA. and is active in community outreach for Masjid Bilal Islamic Center.

Jihad Turk Bayan Claremont
Jihad Turk serves as Dean of Bayan Claremont, an Islamic graduate college designed to educate Muslim scholars and religious leaders. He is also a founding Board Member of Claremont Lincoln University, a multireligious graduate school. Jihad has served as the Director of Religious Affairs at the Islamic Center of Southern California, the oldest and largest mosque in the Los Angeles area. Jihad actively engages in interfaith dialogue with Jewish and Christian communities and serves on the boards of several interfaith peace organizations. Additionally, he was featured in the Los Angeles Times, and in films and documentaries on Islam and has appeared on CNN and the History Channel representing Islam. His current interests also include identity formation in the American-Muslim community, interfaith relations, Islamic reform movements, and community leadership and development with a focus on youth.

Anthony Marsh Interfaith Inventions
Anthony Marsh is the Executive Director of Interfaith Inventions. A graduate of Stanford University, he holds a Masters of Arts in Religion from Princeton University. He is a National Mellon Fellow and has completed advanced studies at the Fielding Graduate University in Organizational Development in Santa Barbara. From 2001 to 2004, he directed community relations and college counseling at Pilgrim School and coordinated the 90th Anniversary National Conference for the Fellowship of Reconciliation, the largest peace organization in the United States.

Joumana Silyan-Saba City of Los Angeles Human Relations Commission
Joumana Silyan-Saba is a Policy Advisor for the City of Los Angeles Human Relations Commission with a focus on Community-Government Relations as it pertains to addressing areas of discrimination and exclusion. Ms. Silyan-Saba works directly with communities to promote healthy inter-group relations. Prior to that Ms. Silyan-Saba was a Program Director for Community and Inter-group Conflicts at the Asian Pacific American Dispute Resolution Center. Ms. Silyan-Saba completed an M.A in Negotiation and Conflict Management at California State University Dominguez Hills (CSUDH) in December 2002. She has since taught graduate courses at CSUDH on conflicts management and peace building.

“A Muslim Take on Pew’s Poll on Jewish American Identity” by Affad Shaikh

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A recent Pew Research Religion & Public Life Project study on Jewish life in America got the cogs turning in my head from conversations I had during NewGround. While Pew has done a few of these, the most recent one dealt with the intertwining issues of identity and spirituality today in the Jewish community.

The Pew Study statistically reinforced what I heard during NewGround. I found the figure that 93% of Jews in the aging Greatest Generation identify as Jewish on the basis of religion; just 7% describe themselves as having no religion (which I think, for Muslims, is probably how my generation would view themselves today). By contrast, among Jews in the youngest generation of U.S. adults – the Millennials – 68% identify as Jews by religion, while 32% describe themselves as having no religion and identify as Jewish on the basis of ancestry, ethnicity or culture.

In light of the PewResearch on Jewish identity, I think that if the Jewish community is grappling with too much flexibility in identity, the Muslim community is grappling with too little.

Pew suggests that the shift in Jewish self-identification reflected a broader change in American society, which as a whole is abandoning religious affiliation. And as Muslims grow in population and experience, I wonder if this is the trend that awaits us.

In conversations with Jewish fellows, I couldn’t understand the idea of young Jews having a connection to the “culture” but not to the “Jewish religion.” As a young Muslim, in a post-9/11 environment, I had worked hard to define my identity around my American and spiritual experience. In that personal context I couldn’t quite understand the dichotomy in Jewish identity amongst my peers. The American Muslim experience has been quite the opposite; it’s been about reining in the identity into a very solid entity, sometimes constricting the diversity of experiences.

The last Pew Research study on American Muslims brought to light the strong desire of Muslims to acculturate and engage in politics, but it didn’t touch on the idea of how American Muslims define their identity. But it did suggest that in spite of the extremely diverse ethnic and cultural make-up of Islam, Muslims overwhelmingly defined themselves by religion.

The idea of creating a spiritual identity is exacerbated by the fact that spirituality is something that is in flux and a person’s faith can take on different manifestations based on their experiences. An interesting example of the struggle to reconcile faith and sense of identity was this post I stumbled upon on Reddit: Confessions of a (former) Hafiz, by Muslimun.

Muslimun writes about being 31 years old and struggling to pray regularly, not having a spiritual connection for several years. Having memorized the Quran by 15, he explains that he is not spiritually connected to God or ritual. In Muslimun’s story there is a lesson about how the struggle with spirituality, its constant nature of flux, makes defining an identity based on it difficult. But it also highlights the communal nature of identity and spirituality in Islam, because Muslimun turns to the Muslim Reddit community for help.

I can relate to his experience, in that I find that I struggle to connect with the community on many levels, or specifically to a particular mosque. I can’t claim that I am affiliated to a particular mosque or a particular current of theological thought found in “American Islam.” These “movements” are working hard, at times against each other, to define an “American Muslim” identity.

And Islam is a communal religion- from communal prayers to sermons, or the emphasis placed on visiting those who are sick and helping the poor and needy or those oppressed. I find my spirituality is forced at times out of the desire to keep myself engaged with these practices in order to be a better Muslim. Through this forced engagement I participate in the process of identity formation. But there are many that are left out of this communal process, either through self-marginalization or through imposed exclusion.

There are groups that aren’t part of this conversation, or an after thought. The question for Muslim leadership, and activists alike, is whether there is a broader inclusive definition of Muslim identity or will it be narrowly defined to exclude.

Framed in that perspective, I found Noah Feldman’s piece in Bloomberg about Pew’s report, very enlightening. He states that each “generation of Jews has in common is the conviction that it will be the last” but “[w]hat matters for the continuity of Jewish life is quality, not quantity.”

American Muslims have a history of a wave of Muslims arriving either through slavery in the early part of American history, or later on in the late 19th century, having established and then lost their Muslim identity. This reality is a palpable fear. It motivates some of the strong responses that make adhering to a certain interpretation of Islam as the only way to preserve a Muslim identity in America attractive. This guardianship over identity, however, has to be negotiated if Muslims are to create a vibrant dynamic identity.