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.”

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