Maytha Alhassan

Maytha Alhassen is currently in her third year of a doctorate program at USC, focusing on American studies and ethnicity. An emerging public intellectual, she writes for CNN and The Huffington Post often on themes of American Muslim identity. A growing list of her published works can be found on her trendy website that defies any stereotype one might have of the bland academic.

As a NewGround alumna, she has continued her writing, and has spoken on numerous panels about women from different faiths. Maytha has also explored other avenues of self-expression. She and Saria Idana, a fellow Jewish member of her NewGround cohort, became close friends and started collaborating artistically through spoken word, poetry, and music. They linked their shared stories and created pieces that they could perform together.

Maytha Alhassen first learned of NewGround from her brother, who was part of an earlier cohort. When she joined the program though, she didn’t discuss his experiences with him. This allowed her to go into the program with a completely open mind. Her only expectation was to learn more about the “insurmountable issues” between the two groups.

Being part of the fellowship exceeded any expectations Maytha could have had. The program allowed her to branch out, explore her artistic talents and her understanding of other people and their relationships to their faith.

Rebecca Berger

2010 Newground alumna, Rebecca Berger, is a Judaic Studies teacher at Sinai Akiba Academy where she is working with fellow alumnae to create an exchange program between her Jewish middle school students and the Muslim middle school students at New Horizon Day School. This partnership will give students the opportunity to understand each others’ religious traditions and gain insight into what it means to be a young Muslim or Jew in America today. “NewGround’s philosophy of ’embracing curiosity over assumptions’ is deeply compelling to me and it is something that I think is vital to share with the younger generation of Muslims and Jews.”

After graduating from Washington University in St. Louis, Berger entered the prestigious DeLeT (Day school leadership through teaching) fellowship at Hebrew Union College, where she earned her CA state teaching credential and learned the skills to become a teacher-leader. She continued at Hebrew Union College, earning her Masters in Jewish Education.

Berger is committed to the educational power of dialogue. While in college, she joined the student group Black Women Jewish Women. She later participated in the International Summer Program on the Holocaust, a month-long intensive dialogue exchange in Germany and Poland that included German, Polish, and American students from Christian and Jewish backgrounds. When Berger heard about NewGround, she immediately knew she had to get involved. “Change happens from the ground up- through forging relationships and understanding the so-called ‘other’. The fellowship has given me the tools and relationships needed to bring the transformative experience built into NewGround’s philosophy back to my students.”

Umar Hakim

Umar Hakim, alumnus of the 2010 NewGround cohort, recently received a prestigious fellowship with Jewish Funds for Justice’s Community Organizing Residency (COR) program. An adult convert to Islam, Hakim joins residents around the country from different faith backgrounds in faith-based social justice work.

Now working with LA Voice PICO in Los Angeles, Hakim had a head-start on understanding the interfaith landscape in Los Angeles. “NewGround helped me better understand the infrastructure of the Jewish community and enabled me to more effectively reach out to include my Jewish brothers and sisters in the issues that touch us all.”

After his experience with NewGround, Hakim drew upon relationships he built with Jewish NewGround fellows to collaborate on Humanitarian Day- a Muslim-initiated day of service to the homeless of Los Angeles. As an active leader of the ILM (Intellect Love Mercy) Foundation whose mission is to “teach life skills and replace social ills,” Hakim recognizes that faith-based initiatives ought not to be faith-exclusive. “If we are going to take on major issues of social justices, we need to build meaningful relationships across religious and ethnic boundaries and not let our differences prevent us from addressing shared concerns.”

Hakim hopes that the COR program will continue to build upon his skills in faith-based social justice work. He sees tremendous potential for the role of social media in this realm. He writes a blog-versation at www.createavoice.org on how to develop new strategies for social justice education and activism through social media. “My intention is to harness the creativity of new media and merge it effectively with non-profit work to create something new– a new ground for social justice education and collaboration.

See a feature on Umar Hakim and his work on a Los Angeles responsible banking ordinance in the Los Angeles Times.

Sarah Kelman and Hanan Beliak

As a newly engaged couple, Sarah Kelman and Hanan Beliak became involved with NewGround when they first moved to Los Angeles and were eager to meet other young Jews. The recommendation to participate in NewGround from Hanan’s father, Rabbi Haim Beliak, began as a social endeavor but morphed into an experience that impacted their life trajectory.

A Cultural Anthropologist now working for her PhD at UC Santa Cruz, Sarah went into the fellowship with an open mind, wanting to find a space for more Jewish understanding in her own life. Yet she felt a solidarity in her group that extended beyond just the Jewish participants. The experience of building close relationships with Muslims has shifted her professional interests. Academically, Sarah is now studying Malaysia and looking at issues related to politics and cultural identity as they relate to food and Islam.

Hanan also experienced a transformation in his relationship to the Muslim community—“NewGround has made me a more complete person. I think prior to NewGround, I had blindspots about the Islamic experience in America. I believe I also had some attitudes that weren’t productive or well-founded. I realized that those were superficial. Becoming genuine friends with people makes you think twice about the stereotypes that you sometimes unknowingly develop.”

“I looked forward to each and every session,” he continued. “You would think that after a long day at work that the last thing you would want to commit to is a session where you’re speaking about difficult topics with ‘strangers.’ But that totally isn’t the case; you bond with people so quickly that you become best friends . Then, I started looking forward to the conversations so that I could challenge others and be challenged myself.”

Hanan also saw the cohort as another way to explore and strengthen his relationship with Sarah. “Going through the program together positively influenced our connection. We learned so much about each other and how we handle conflict. But even more than that, the NewGround sessions spurred many important private conversations that Sarah and I realized we needed to have to fully understand each other and our religious beliefs.”

Since the fellowship, Sarah and Hanan have married, and many of their NewGround cohort attended their wedding. Hanan then completed an MBA program at USC’s Marshall School of Business and joined Sarah in San Jose.

Rachel Gandin

NewGround alumna Rachel Gandin recently returned from 4 months in Jordan where she produced the first Arabic-language feature film made by a major American studio. The United is a family sports film that tells the story of a reluctant Egyptian soccer coach who brings together a rag-tag team of teenage boys from across the Arab world to defeat his longstanding French rival. It will be released throughout the Arab world in early 2012. Raised as a Reconstructionist Jew, Gandin is fluent in Arabic has long been drawn to Arab culture.

As a freshman at UCLA she wanted to study a non-Western language and saw an extraordinary opportunity through UCLA’s exchange program in Cairo. Gandin displays an impressive resume on the intersection of Arab culture and film. Armed with a Master’s Degree in Arab Studies from Georgetown University with a focus on Arab Linguistics and Arab Cinema, Gandin has organized multiple Arab film festivals, even founding the Arab Film Festival in Los Angeles.

The NewGround fellowship was an essential part of her journey. “I wanted to do NewGround in part to strengthen my connections to the Arab Muslim community here in LA while working on the Arab Film Festival.” Soon into the program though, Gandin realized that most of the Muslim fellows weren’t Arab.” What was gained from NewGround was not was she had anticipated. “After years of immersing myself in Arab and Muslim culture, I had put my relationship to Judaism on the back burner. NewGround allowed me to re-engage while exploring it with Muslims and Jewish of differing beliefs. The safe space allowed me to bridge my two separate lives without having defend either one.”

Gandin has merged her extensive film background with her NewGround experience to help improve Muslim-Jewish relations here in the United States. She and fellow NewGround participant Farah Khan ran the first Muslim-Jewish film festival in the United States in 2009. “We programmed a series of diverse films reflecting both Muslim and Jewish perspectives from around the world and facilitated audience dialogue for each screening. The films served as an excellent entry point for discussing relevant themes and issues in a character specific framework. I believe our audiences gained a lot from the series.”

Gandin continues her commitment to NewGround. She is currently developing a podcast to share the NewGround fellowship experience with the public. “The fellowship was transformative for me,” says Gandin, “it’s important to me that I can share that experience with others.”

Tasneem Noor

When Tasneem Noor first began participating with NewGround, she was happy to see so many diverse and open-minded people, ready to discuss not only the topics important to all of them, but to get to know the people in the room and learn about how their faith was part of their everyday lives.

Born in Pakistan but raised there, in India, and in United Arab Emirates, she moved to Los Angeles when she was a junior in high school. She attended UCLA for both her Bachelors in English, and Masters in Education in Student Affairs. Now, as part of the student affairs division at Cal State Los Angeles, she is working with the student government to support student programming and advocacy based initiatives. Through various on campus and off campus initiatives, she continues to be involved in social justice and diversity trainings for the students. Through these trainings she facilitates dialogue and activities to raise self-awareness and understanding of different communities. With New Ground fellows, Rebecca Berger, Lana Daoud, and Andy Green she initiated an Education Exchange Program between Muslim and Jewish middle school students. The program is now in its initial phases of designing and implementation at the New Horizon School, Pasadena branch, and Sinai Akiba in West LA. She also sits on the board for Young-MALAC (Young Muslim Americans Leaders Advisory Council) as the Programs Manager. In this role, she hopes to use her skills to develop a diversity leadership training and retreat with a focus on faith and inter-faith dialogue. She believes that having an understanding of yourself and others is a prerequisite to affecting positive change in the broad community. For her, her faith has been her source of strength and motivation and Islam has truly become “the way of life.”

Tasneem credits NewGround with helping her to focus and polish her skills in working on faith-based issues. As she puts it, what sets it apart from other organizations is its’ progressive nature. It is not simply about an exchange of perspectives, but building something out of that exchange. “We were ready to address the difficult topics, but didn’t start out that way. In the consecutive sessions, we got to know each other as people. By the time we got to the trigger topics and the hot button issues, those conversations were easier to have. You felt a sense of growth and deeper understanding of both Muslim and Jewish communities.”

Amy Kolsky

Amy Kolsky is an adventurous spirit. During the NewGround experience, Kolsky was the only Jewish fellow who had not been to Israel or Palestine. “I didn’t have much of a connection to Israel or particularly strong views on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. I just knew that both sides experienced a painful past and both sides took a powerful stance now. I came to the realization that after NewGround, I wanted to learn more about the region.” So Amy took a position teaching at a summer school in the West Bank city of Nablus. After completing her teaching assignment, she spent a month traveling or more specifically, “Couchsurfing,” around Israel. “I came in to NewGround open-minded and the fellowship taught me how to take this experience to the next level- to encounter people as individuals not just as representatives of political entities. And that enabled me to engage with people across the spectrum.”

Kolsky found that the simple act of politely asking for directions to a place was an opportunity to connect. “I tried to ask in Arabic, ‘Do you speak English?’ and I would always say ‘Thank you’ in Arabic. This usually seemed to break the ice. Then, nine times out of ten they would ask ‘Where are you from?’ When I said America, they responded ‘Welcome, welcome! I have a brother who lives in California or …a cousin who lives in Pennsylvania.’ If most of the Palestinians that I encountered had some American connection, then how could they possibly hate me as an American or America itself? Prior to arriving in this region, I had concern about an overwhelming amount of anti-American sentiment by Palestinians. But the more I engaged with them through traveling in service taxis, shopping in the old markets (souqs), and sharing meals with locals and co-workers, I noticed they understood the difference between the average person and the political figure.”

After her time in Israel/Palestine, Kolsky went on to teach English and language arts to primary age children at an international school in the United Arab Emirates. She spent her free time traveling and meeting people from different countries through utilizing UAE based social networking sites. Ancient history and archeology became a passion when she connected with the Emirates Natural History Group. Amy learned about the foundations of the Gulf region’s civilization by exploring archaeological digs and other historical sites. Throughout all of her travels in the Middle East, one thing became clear to her. “Learning to be an active listener and less judgmental through NewGround was such an essential skill for my time traveling. Everyone I met, no matter their ethnic, national or religious background, have the same underlying drives as me – wanting simply to live well and take care of those we love. Even though we may have disagreed on specific political issues or had different opinions, we could still connect on the human level.”

Kolsky recently returned to the United States after more than two years abroad. Armed with an MFA in film from the University of Miami along with her teaching certification from Rutgers University, she is contemplating how best to share her experience of Israel/Palestine and the UAE. “I want to emphasize the universality of the human condition and express the human intersection of where East and West can meet.”

David Mattis

David Mattis is an alumnus of one of the first NewGround fellowship cohorts. Both before and after his involvement with the organization, he has been exploring his own personal path with Judaism and the various communities he calls his own.

After moving to Los Angeles eight years ago from New York, David enrolled in rabbinical school at the American Jewish University. He had heard about NewGround from many people, but his biggest influence in joining the organization was his interest in interfaith dialogue and religion. He saw his unique position as a rabbinical student as a valuable asset to the cohort, and believed that his prior experience with opening dialogue between Christian and Jewish communities would be helpful. With regard to the types of discussions that NewGround fosters, one might think that “it’s about Judaism and Islam, but it’s really about Jews and Muslims, where we are as people and humans. It’s about everyone learning from each other”.

David eloquently added, “There is so much misinformation about Islam that any true information is a step forward. Muslims and Jews in America can work together here, and that excites me”. His interest in the subject is obvious, and his continued dedication to enabling and encouraging conversations between communities is encouraging.

He has continued to be social with members of his own cohort— they have experienced so many life cycles together– marriages, deaths, and David himself is now engaged to a young woman that he met while studying abroad at a Conservative Yeshiva in Jerusalem.

David has formed a bond not only with other people from NewGround but also with the organization itself. A consistent fixture at NewGround events, he has gone on to work closely with the fellowship after his cohort ended, and has worked to recruit new participants.

David continues to work within many different communities, and I am excited to see some of the projects that we spoke about come to fruition. “It’s about creating opportunities,” he said, crediting NewGround for teaching him how to use this skill in interfaith settings.

Rashi Jackman

Rashi Jackman began his NewGround fellowship after realizing that, in life, if you hope to change anything, you have to be the catalyst..

Rashi went to the University of California, Santa Cruz, where he studied Philosophy and then to the University of Michigan, where he studied European History. He chose to pursue a career as a college professor. He is now teaching at both De Anza Community College and at West Valley College, teaching humanities and history.

Rashi’s humanist spirit is driven by a desire to understand vast existential and ethical concepts. Desire pushed him to work for several years at camps in the Balkans for children whose parents were killed during the Balkan Wars. There, he discovered the injustices that exist unbeknownst to much of the world. He learned much from the people he met, but most important was the idea that the only way to prevent horrific violence is to end tensions before they can lead to war. Unfortunately, after war starts, there is no turning back.

After his eye-opening experience in the Balkans, Rashi decided that he wanted to explore what he learned, but from a Jewish perspective. He soon found NewGround online after a futile search for a similar organization near his home in Palo Alto. As Rashi put it, “Jewish/Muslim relations is something of a perennial problem in the Middle East” and he felt captivated by this issue and felt that NewGround “seemed the way” to address it.

As a committed member of the NewGround program, Rashi drove down to Los Angeles from Palo Alto to experience what NewGround has to offer. Rashi explained that, in Palo Alto, there was a lack of a Muslim community and he did not personally know any Muslims, which, in his words, “[he] found ridiculous.” Today, Rashi continues to nurture the friendships that he made while a participant in the NewGround program.

Though not a radical by any means, Rashi is a firm believer in the Karl Marx quote: “The philosophers have only interpreted the world, in various ways: the point, however, is to change it.” These are words that he lives by.

Written by Eric Brook

Michael Schoenfeld

Michael Schoenfeld was raised in open-minded household in Seattle in a mostly Caucasian and Asian neighborhood. He studied Film Studies and Production at the University of Denver and currently lives in Los Angeles, working as the executive assistant for a documentary producer.

Michael found out about NewGround from a Muslim friend who was on the NewGround mailing list and told him to look into the organization. Upon joining the 2013 young professionals’ cohort, Michael saw that most of the Muslim NewGround fellows were very knowledgeable about their religion and its customs, which sparked his interest in experiencing and learning more about Jewish culture. Knowing that he wanted to “have intelligent discussions with other faiths” about his religion, he recognized that he needed to educate himself better before he could do so. NewGround thus became a portal for Michael to become more active in the Jewish community. He is now a member at IKAR.

Michael’s openness to different views allows him to connect with people even if he disagrees with them. A number of his friends are Jews with more conservative perspectives on Middle-Eastern politics. He brings into conversation with them the voices and stories of his Muslim counterparts from NewGround – adding a new level of diversity in perspective.

Michael has a simple philosophy: “If people are nice to you, why not be nice to them?” He believes that differences of opinion or a difference of culture should not divide people. It takes this level of tolerance to build bridges with other cultures and communities – something Michael regards as imperative. Michael states that the work of bridge-builders, like Jerusalem-based peace activist Eliyahu Mclean whom he learned about during the course of the fellowship, should be an inspiration to us all.

Michael aspires to be a documentarian himself and plans to display his pluralistic views in his films. He wants to create a work based on interfaith practices and believes having elements from both sides of the spectrum will help him to do so.