As representatives of NewGround, we were invited to speak at a gathering of Servas about our experience as members of NewGround’s first cohort in 2007. Founded in 1949, Servas works on building understanding, tolerance and world peace, in part by providing a international network of lodgings for Servas members. Dennis Mogerman, a Servas leader, had contacted NewGround about having alumni speaking at a Servas after reading a piece featuring NewGround in a recent issue of the Jewish Journal. Mogerman saw a natural alliance between Servas’ mission and NewGround’s work in Jewish-Muslim relations.
The event opened by recounting our experiences to the members, starting with a discussion of the origins of NewGround as a cooperative venture by the Muslim Public Affairs Council and the Progressive Jewish Alliance (which has since evolved into Bend the Arc) to bring together the Jewish and Muslim interfaith communities. This convening occurred after tensions arising from the war between Israel and Hezbollah in the summer of 2006 led to a breakdown in interfaith dialogue.
We made a point to explain that NewGround was not about trying to come up with solutions to Middle Eastern conflicts or to even discuss such sensitive issues at first. To us, NewGround was really about providing a space for members to really get to know one another first, by building leadership and conflict mediation skills and participating in discussions with experts in Islam, Judaism, and non-governmental organizations. The trust and respect built through months of sessions culminated in a retreat, where we spent a weekend discussing the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
Servas members were curious to hear about the current state of NewGround. We explained how NewGround had become its own independent organization and how several alumni had continued their involvement in NewGround and related projects. As a testament to the power of the experience, two alumni, David Weiner and Rehan Chaudhry, now sit on the board of NewGround.
We closed by discussing how NewGround had affected our lives in ways we did not expect. I, Ben, was able to apply the conflict mediation and discussion techniques I learned at NewGround in addressing tensions between in students in the high school where I work. Similarly, I, Fares, found those same skills useful in my work in service organizations. The program may be about creating the space for Muslims and Jews to create a collaborative relationship, but at its core, NewGround is about personal transformation that shapes who are in the world- as Muslims, as Jews, as professionals, and as Americans.
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.
A Jew and a Muslim…
…sounds like the beginning of a joke or the beginning of an unpleasant story. Yet the recent Jewish Journal article with aforementioned setup tells a different tale altogether. It’s a great read on NewGround – the Muslim-Jewish fellowship percolating within the Los Angeles community that is making strides at challenging perceptions inside and outside the respective communities.
The article itself starts off from identities rooted in Muslim and Jewish perspective then ends with an almost exclusive focus on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. While it does detail NewGround’s unique methodolgy, the article does not hone in on what the organization emphasizes most strongly- the fact that here in the United States, that relationship between Muslims and Jews is much broader than Israel and Palestine.
I myself am part of the most recent group of NewGround fellows, and while I am Muslim, I am not Palestinian. I identify as South Asian. I was born in Pakistan and moved to the US when I was two years old. But my grandparents were all born in India and migrated after 1947 to Pakistan. I have extended family in India and Pakistan. What I find ironic is that Pakistan and Israel were, in essence, created with the same purpose- to house a particular religious group that felt unsafe and uncertain about its future.
The Israeli-Palestinian conflict, however, cuts beyond the Palestinian ethnic and national identity. The repercussions of the conflict even go beyond Arab identity and affect the relationship of Jews with the greater Muslim world. That plays out here in Los Angeles and across the United States.
But what is surprising to many Americans is that Arabs only make up 12% of the worldwide Muslim population of one billion followers. The vast majority of Muslims in the world live in South East Asia, South Asia, Africa and Central Asia, including China. Here in the United States close to 30% of the American Muslim population are of South Asian ancestry- Pakistani, Indian, Kashmiri, Bangladeshi and Afghan. And while we South Asians don’t have direct involvement of any sort in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, it still affects the relationship with the Jewish American community because of our religious connection to the land.
Going into the fellowship I felt that I had very little to offer to the discussion in terms of the conflict. As a Civil Right activist, for me it’s a human rights issue but I didn’t have personal stories or family history to share in the fellowship discussing the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
Yet I learned a great deal from the Jewish fellows. I also got a chance to have a meaningful space to discuss and challenge norms and ideas within the group of Muslim fellows. It was a space we created for that purpose, very few opportunities like that exists in our increasingly polarized environment.
I also got a chance to finally share what I wanted the Jewish American community to hear from me: I don’t hate Jews. I want to visit Israel. I want to pray in my Holy space and visit the graves of my prophets. I recognize the insanity and cruelty and brutality of the Holocaust. It happened. It was real.
These were important stories to hear. Many of them were stories we wouldn’t share in the normal course of building acquaintances with people without the container provided by the fellowship. They were challenging. They were real. They were at times uncomfortable stories to listen to.
The thing the Jewish Journal missed was that it’s not about achieving peace “over there.” It’s about building peace “over here” regardless of what’s happening “over there.” When something does happen, we as fellows should be to be able to reach out to each other, ask about the well-being of family, discuss and find a way to assist our respective communities- because that’s what humans should do. The ability to have conversations and break bread is the first step to having very difficult and uncomfortable conversations. We, as fellows, choose to try this revolutionary thing. Unfortunately, the status quo of tension and fighting has defined our two communities not because it’s better or more productive but simply because it’s familiar.
As fellows, we may not agree on everything, but we can respect each other’s opinions and still find the means to work constructively together on common issues. Through the course of the fellowship, we discovered so many commonalities and shared concerns that grew into community projects. I expect to write about many of these projects and share them with you here. Because, it’s not a joke (or a shock) that a Muslim and Jew can work together; it’s my reality and I am intentionally working to achieve it with all the wonderful fellows from NewGround.
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
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.”
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
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!