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July 31, 2013

A Jew and a Muslim?

L.A.-based NewGround wants to show we can all get along

http://www.jewishjournal.com/cover_story/article/a_jew_and_a_muslim_l.a._based_newground_wants_to_show_we_can_all_get_along

From left: NewGround Executive Director Rabbi Sarah Bassin and Program Director Aziza Hasan at Los Angeles City Hall. Photo by David Miller

From left: NewGround Executive Director Rabbi Sarah Bassin and Program Director Aziza Hasan at Los Angeles City Hall. Photo by David Miller

Most Jews and Muslims rarely talk — really talk — to one another. This is as true in the United States as elsewhere, a stark reality despite our nation’s vast diversity and the ability of so many different peoples to coexist. It is true also in Los Angeles, a city of strong ethnic identities, long drives and even longer cultural memories. 

Indeed, even here, the few encounters among Muslims and Jews often feel like head-on collisions: Protests and counter-protests — many triggered by events in and around Israel — are usually the most visible interactions, but they’re hardly the only instances of tension. 

Some recent examples: In June 2012, Pamela Geller, a New York-based Jewish blogger and co-founder of Stop the Islamization of America, an organization classified as a hate group by the Southern Poverty Law Center, was barred at the last minute from speaking inside the headquarters of The Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles — but not before local Muslim groups reportedly threatened to protest outside the Wilshire Boulevard building. 

In 2010, 11 Muslim students repeatedly heckled and interrupted Israeli Ambassador to the United States Michael Oren while he was speaking at UC Irvine, until the students were finally removed from the room. They were arrested, cited for disturbing a public event, and, the following year, 10 were convicted in a jury trial and sentenced to perform community service. 

Also in 2010, young supporters of Friends of the Israel Defense Forces, who attended a fundraiser at the Shangri La Hotel in Santa Monica, sued the hotel owner for violating their civil rights and allegedly saying, “I don’t want ... any Jews in my pool.”  In 2012 a jury awarded damages to the FIDF plaintiffs in a lawsuit over the incident.

In 2006, leaders of the city’s most prominent Jewish organizations opposed giving a Los Angeles County humanitarian award to Dr. Maher Hathout, who is among the local Muslim community’s most respected leaders, on grounds that he had once maligned Israel as a “racist, apartheid state.”

And each spring, the debate over what constitutes free speech at California universities is reignited on every campus that holds a so-called “Israel Apartheid Week” or considers a resolution to boycott companies doing business in the Israeli-occupied West Bank. Although students are the ones speaking out on campuses — on both sides — often they are being coached and encouraged by much larger Jewish and Muslim organizations.

Within the Jewish community, even the simple act of acknowledging the shared humanity of Muslims and Jews can be perilous. In 2012, when the conflict between Israel and Hamas in the Gaza Strip escalated into battle, Rabbi Sharon Brous, spiritual leader of IKAR, expressed sympathy for both Israelis and Palestinians in a message to her congregants and was immediately, fiercely and publicly attacked for doing so by Rabbi Daniel Gordis of the Shalem Center in Jerusalem. Gordis argued that when Israel is at war, Jews should express support only for the Jewish state. Hardliners in the Muslim community similarly silence moderate voices on their side, as well. 

And yet, as in Israel, Jews and Muslims in Southern California often live, if not side by side, then just down the road from one another. So it is not surprising that those few who attempt to cross the chasm separating these faiths and peoples often find that Muslims and Jews share not just the same neighborhoods, but many of the same values.

Enter NewGround, an L.A. group that has made its mission to bridge the gap. For the past five years, this emerging organization has been housed at the epicenter of the city — in Los Angeles City Hall — where it has been creating encounters among young Muslims and Jews. Its tactic is to prioritize conversation over solutions, active listening over public statements, allowing for honest exchange instead of superficial agreement. 

NewGround already has forged deep relationships within its ever-expanding, carefully nurtured community of Muslims and Jews. And while differing views may continue to persist, NewGround’s training allows participants to acknowledge the conflict taking place half a world away without letting it limit all discussions here. 

“NewGround was founded precisely to overcome the tendency for international conflict to disrupt relationships locally,” Rabbi Sarah Bassin, the group’s executive director, said. “We treat conflict as an inherent part of this relationship, as it is part of all relationships.”

Each year, NewGround trains a group of fellows from the Jewish and Muslim communities who spend months together before beginning to talk about hot-button topics like Zionism or the movement known as BDS, which seeks to boycott, divest from and sanction Israel. Those topics are raised during the second of two weekend retreats, toward the end of the 10-month program, by which time the fellows have learned crucial new communication skills and covered the (not entirely safe) subject of religion. The delay can, at least initially, be frustrating for those who came to the program specifically to talk to their counterparts about Israel. 

“I didn’t trust the process; I thought it was a waste of time,” Eliana Kaya, a fellow from NewGround’s third cohort in 2010, said in an interview. She is now executive coordinator at reGeneration, a nonprofit that supports the progressive Waldorf method of education for Israelis and Palestinians. “I would go up [to the leaders] at the end of every session and say, ‘Yala, when are we going to get to the real stuff?’ ” 

Shukry Cattan, a member of the most recent fellowship class, also wondered about the program’s structure. “There was all this buildup, and, for me, I kept thinking, ‘OK, what is this? Why are we waiting to the end?’ ” said Cattan, who is of Palestinian descent. “I thought the conversation was going to happen sooner.”

But Kaya, a practicing Jew, and Cattan, the son of a Christian mother and a Muslim father, both came to see the value of having relationships with the other members of their cohort in place before beginning such a difficult conversation. 

“When it actually did happen, I understood the process,” Cattan said. “Having built that relationship with people and having seen each other — not even as Jews and Muslims — but people who have lives and stories to share, hearing people’s perspectives and each other’s very difficult experiences with the conflict — you couldn’t just walk away and dismiss that person’s story because you knew that person.”

Already, more than 100 Jewish and Muslim professionals, most in their 20s and 30s, have graduated from NewGround’s yearlong, intensive and innovative fellowship program, which teaches communication skills, builds friendships and gives members of each faith a window into the beliefs, practices and politics of the other. For its efforts, NewGround has received accolades and awards from the Jewish, Muslim and interfaith communities, and groups in other American cities have begun attempts to adapt the NewGround model for their own Muslim and Jewish communities. 

As the Muslim holy month of Ramadan nears its Aug. 7 close, the world is closely watching the first meetings between Palestinian and Israeli peace negotiators in more than two years. Yet regardless of what happens on the international stage, there’s also hope in what’s happening on the ground here in Los Angeles, where NewGround is building a foundation for open, ongoing communication between adversaries. 

The members of NewGround’s 2013 young professionals fellowship cohort pose for a picture after receiving their certificates of recognition and appreciation from the City of Los Angeles Human Relations Commission. Photo by http://cbacarellaphoto.com/

There are precedents, to be sure. In the 1990s, leaders of L.A.’s Muslim and Jewish communities met regularly under an umbrella known as the Muslim-Jewish Dialogue. Since 2006, a group of progressive Jewish, Muslim and Christian faith leaders have convened under the aegis of the Abrahamic Faiths Peacemaking Initiative, for meetings and events. 

NewGround is itself the outgrowth of a partnership formed in the post-9/11 early 2000s between two L.A.-based nonprofits, the Progressive Jewish Alliance (PJA) and the Muslim Public Affairs Council (MPAC), whose leaders first hoped to convene other Jewish and Muslim leaders, but had little success. Rather than turn away in failure, they turned to younger Jews and Muslims — tomorrow’s leaders.

Joumana Silyan-Saba, interfaith activities policy adviser with the City of Los Angeles Human Relations Commission, awards Kadin Henningsen a certificate for his completion of the NewGround Fellowship as Shukry Cattan looks on. Photo by http://cbacarellaphoto.com/

“The idea was, younger people want to come together,” recalled Brie Loskota, managing director of the Center for Religion and Civic Culture at the University of Southern California. Loskota worked as an outside consultant for the founding partners from around 2004-05; neither Jewish nor Muslim, she collaborated with two other women, one Jewish and one Muslim, to research existing programs of Muslim-Jewish engagement — a small and still-developing field — to figure out what worked. 

A nationwide survey helped inform the basic structure for NewGround, Loskota said. As a veteran of inter-group dialogue in Los Angeles, she also helped link the group with the city’s Human Relations Commission.

“Young people want to understand who this other community is, they want to figure out how to have productive relationships, and they want to do something to help make Los Angeles better,” Loskota said. “And they also want to talk about Israel/Palestine. They don’t want to shy away from it, and they don’t want to pretend that it isn’t an issue.”

Nevertheless, NewGround’s launch in 2007 — at City Hall — was met with a great deal of skepticism. A cover story in this newspaper about the program in January of that year included reactions to the joint venture from Jewish leaders; most were negative, with one denouncing MPAC as “radical haters of Israel.”

Even NewGround’s supporters weren’t initially entirely sold on its viability. 

“Really? You’re going to find Muslims and Jews who are going to commit to meet with each other twice a month over 10 months?” Malka Fenyvesi, a consultant with a master’s degree in conflict analysis and resolution, recalled hearing at the time. She was hired in 2006 as the Jewish half of a facilitating team that would guide NewGround fellows’ discussions. “Who’s going to do that?”

Fenyvesi moved from Washington, D.C., to Los Angeles for the job, while her counterpart, Aziza Hasan, a Muslim who had spent part of her childhood in Jordan, moved here from Kansas to be a co-facilitator. Hasan also remembers the initial skepticism. 

“At other people’s events, or even at our launch event, we were definitely among people who believe in NewGround or interfaith dialogue,” Hasan said this spring during a conversation at the NewGround offices located in the city's Human Relations Commission on the 21st floor of City Hall. Yet even among supporters, she said, “There were plenty of people who looked me straight in the face and said, ‘You’re naïve, you know. Just give it up. Go find a real job.’ ”

But the project got national attention even from its early days. In 2009, for example, radio host Krista Tippett featured NewGround on her nationally broadcast American Public Media show. 

Then, in late 2010 and early 2011, with PJA in the process of merging with the national group Jewish Funds for Justice, NewGround’s supporters decided to spin off from MPAC and PJA; by July 2011, NewGround’s board of trustees had made it fully independent and brought in Bassin, newly ordained by the Reform Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion (HUC-JIR), as executive director. 

NewGround’s most recent cohort of young professionals graduated last month and included 24 Jews and Muslims who spent nearly a year learning about one another’s religions; they visited both synagogues and mosques, and they learned how to talk to one another. They are the fifth such group, all facilitated by Hasan and Fenyvesi. 

NewGround’s process is very deliberate, and it’s only about two-thirds of the way into the program, after the fellows have become skillful and sensitive “intentional listeners,” that Fenyvesi and Hasan allow the conversation to turn to the Palestinian-Israeli conflict. 

Johanna Solomon, a doctoral candidate in Political Science at UC Irvine, has spent the past two years studying the impact of NewGround’s fellowship. What NewGround does, Solomon says, is improve the fellows’ impressions of self-efficacy — their ability to speak effectively about the subject — in statistically significant ways. “To me, the real benefit of NewGround, as well as other types of programs like this,” she said, “is that it empowers the moderates.

“The fellows really feel like they know enough and have enough skills to go out and have difficult conversations about what’s going on,” Solomon said. 

NewGround also has become more than just a fellowship program, now producing public events, such as a Jewish-Muslim storytelling event each fall and an annual Jewish-Muslim iftar — a break-fast ceremonial meal during Ramadan (see sidebar).

Alumni fellows are also advancing the group’s mission with their own projects. Two run a two-day exchange including seventh- and eighth-graders from Sinai Temple’s Sinai Akiba Academy in Westwood and New Horizons, an Islamic school in Pasadena. Another NewGround alum has launched a joint text study group to examine Quranic and Hebrew biblical texts, and six alumni from the most recent fellowship have created a reading group for Muslims and Jews. More is in the works.

As she leads NewGround, Bassin has built her network, as well. She is one of just eight fellows receiving support from the Joshua Venture Group, a nonprofit that helps Jewish social entrepreneurs develop skills to grow their organizations; she is also a member of the ROI Community, a network founded by philanthropist Lynn Schusterman to support Jewish activists. 

And NewGround has also won accolades beyond the Jewish world. In May, Bassin and Hasan — who earlier this year took on the additional role of director of programs for NewGround — traveled together to Qatar as invited presenters at the 10th Doha Conference for Interfaith Dialogue. Also this year, NewGround set up a program for Jewish and Muslim high school students, MAJIC (Muslims and Jews Inspiring Change) that adapts the fellowship’s curriculum for younger participants. The program was named faith-based organization of the year by California Gov. Jerry Brown. 

Maintaining dialogue between Muslims and Jews can take a lot of effort. Sometimes it works for a while, and then falls apart, as did Abraham’s Vision, a program that brought together high-school-age Jews and Muslims in the San Francisco Bay Area and greater New York City. Abraham’s Vision also brought together college students from both faiths from all over the United States with Israeli and Palestinian students. Yet, it recently shut down after 10 years. 

“Conflict transformation work is exhausting, and not enough people in the communities with whom we worked supported it,” Aaron Hahn Tapper, one of the group’s co-executive directors, wrote in an e-mail. Tapper is also a Jewish Studies professor at University of San Francisco.

But there is hope — the desire to create dialogue appears to be on the upswing in recent years, and the venues for such interfaith dialogue are increasing in number. 

In 2012, 250 Jewish and Muslim organizations participated in the fifth annual Weekend of Twinning organized by the Foundation for Ethnic Understanding (FFEU); still more are expected to engage with that program this November, when the theme is: Standing Up for the Other.

“It’s about Muslims speaking out against anti-Semitism, it’s about Muslims speaking out against Holocaust denial, and it’s about Jews speaking out against Islamophobia,” Rabbi Marc Schneier, FFEU’s founder and president, said. “It’s not about conversation. It’s not about talk.” 

These days, without the imprint of MPAC (which some Jews see as too critical of Israel) and PJA (which some Jews see as too progressive), NewGround can be judged entirely on its own. And by focusing on creating local relationships among participants — before broaching the subject of the Middle East — NewGround fellows is hoping to become more resilient than participants in earlier efforts. 

For NewGround Fellows, the most significant unit of measurement is not the principle but the personal story. 

On a Friday night in May, Kadin Henningsen, a member of NewGround’s most recent fellowship class, led services at Beth Chayim Chadashim in West Los Angeles. During the service, he told stories he had heard from two other fellows over the course of the fellowship. 

Deborah Tehrani, a self-described traditional Sephardic Jew, was right outside the Frank Sinatra cafeteria at Hebrew University in 2002 when a hidden bomb exploded, killing nine people. 

“Eleven years later,” Henningsen told his fellow congregants, “she still asks: ‘Why would anyone want to kill me? They don’t even know me.’ ”

Henningsen also retold a story Cattan had related during the second NewGround retreat. Cattan’s mother was born and raised in Jerusalem. His mother’s family fled to Jordan in 1948, and, in 2010, Cattan returned to the place where her family’s house was. 

While Cattan was there, an Israeli police officer approached and asked why. Cattan explained he was looking for his mother’s house. 

“The officer said, ‘Can’t you see it’s gone?’ ” Henningsen told the congregants. “‘Go away; you don’t belong here.’ ”

For Henningsen, the two stories shared the same theme: In Israel and the territories it occupies, two distinct peoples lay claim to a single land, each telling the other — in more and less violent ways — that they do not belong. 

However, Tehrani, who works at HUC-JIR and said she is “very passionate about Israel,” said her motivation for sharing the story of her brush with Palestinian terrorism was to counter claims made by another fellow, a Palestinian Muslim. 

“He said something to the effect of, ‘I think I have the most at stake here out of anyone else in this room,’ ” Tehrani recalled. “I said, just, ‘No, no you don’t.’”

Tehrani shared her story with reluctance, she said. “I didn’t want someone to be sympathetic just because I went through something so violent.” Like many of the fellows, Tehrani said she was struggling with the question of whether, as American Jews and Muslims, they have the right to talk about the issue at all. 

But Tehrani ultimately concluded that she had as much right as her Palestinian co-participant to engage in the conversation. 

“Everybody’s allowed a perspective,” she said. “Everybody can share their feelings. The conflict has no boundaries.” 

To be sure, to discuss the Palestinian-Israeli conflict — sensitively, intelligently — is one thing; to achieve peace is another. 

Nobody can say whether NewGround or any program like it ultimately can impact the situation in the Middle East — now or ever — any more than they can predict whether current attempts at peace talks can yield results. In the 20 years since the signing of the Oslo accords, nobody has gone broke betting against Israelis’ and Palestinians’ ability to come to a peaceful settlement. 

Phillip L. Hammack, an associate professor of psychology at UC Santa Cruz, has written about the short- and long-term impacts of U.S.-based peace education programs working with Israeli, Palestinian and other youth, like Seeds of Peace in Maine and Hands of Peace in suburban Chicago. 

“These types of programs do show considerable effectiveness in the short term at getting individuals to challenge the stereotypes and prejudices they hold about the other,” Hammack wrote in an e-mail. “They humanize members of the rival group. However, studies (including my own) that have followed people over time show that the effects do not hold as long as the larger political reality remains unchanged.”

Still, in the weeks after the final meeting of his NewGround fellowship cohort, Cattan, who works at the UCLA Labor Center, said he believes that what Jewish- and Muslim-Americans say matters in the Middle East. 

“It makes a difference,” Cattan said. “I think our voices here in the U.S. are heard very loudly in the Middle East — on both ends. Whether you are a Jewish-American or a Palestinian-American, what you say here resonates there. And it’s important to know what Jewish Americans think and feel and believe about the region.” 

Further, as Bassin points out, part of what NewGround brings to Los Angeles has nothing to do with what happens in the land she now calls Israel/Palestine. 

“Because the focus is local, alumni experience real progress when they help Muslim and Jewish institutions build new partnerships,” she said. “That does not have to be interrupted when there’s fighting in the Middle East.”

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