December 21, 2011
The big tent: Jews, Muslims, Christians celebrate spirituality in a shared sacred space
Whirling Dervishes, an elaborate feast and a lecture by a prominent Muslim scholar – Musallah Tauhid’s joyous celebration of its move to a new home in 2008 heralded good times ahead for the Sufi Muslim worship group. As a friendly gesture, the group invited its new neighbors for the occasion: members of both Village Lutheran Church, whose Brentwood facility Musallah Tauhid would now be sharing, and Ahavat Torah, a small Jewish congregation that also holds its services at the church.
But early in the festivities, a tense moment threatened the mood. As Muslim leaders called the gathering to prayer to bless the establishment, their opening invocation — “Allahu Akbar,” God is great — sent chills through Rabbi Miriam Hamrell, Ahavat Torah’s spiritual leader. Those words, she realized with horror, are the same ones that suicide bombers in Israel often shout before detonating themselves.
“When I heard those words again, I started to shake,” Hamrell, a native Israeli, recalled. “It was an immediate physical reaction. I literally looked around the room and thought, ‘Who is going to blow themselves up?’ ”
Images flashed through her mind of two friends from her days in the Israel Defense Forces who were killed in a blast, and of the time she arrived at the scene of a bombing just after an explosion. It all came back — the blood, the smoke, the victims lying injured on the street.
Soon it was Hamrell’s turn to address the group of Muslims, Christians and Jews gathered for the event. She decided to tell them about her emotional reaction and personal history of trauma.
“I believe that a good relationship has to be based on truth. So I have to share with you what just happened to me,” she told them.
Hamrell elaborated later, “I have always felt that fear and struggle should not hold a person back from moving forward or overcome good judgment. It takes time, patience, trust and understanding to build a relationship. It takes keeping your heart open. And sometimes it takes a lot of work to keep your heart open. I told them, ‘I’m working on myself. It’s not easy. I promise and commit to try to overcome this personal struggle.’ ”
Many guests at the assembly, touched by her words, offered their sympathy. One Muslim leader recited a blessing for her: “May it become easier.”
That episode — one of many turning points in an unusual partnership of shared space and shared experience among the congregations of Ahavat Torah, Musallah Tauhid and Village Lutheran Church — marked a profound step toward the understanding and harmony the three faith groups now enjoy. They have built friendships, included one another in holiday celebrations and in the process created a unique interfaith bond based on education and respect. What began as a convenient rental agreement has blossomed into what many call a family.
Each year since 2008, Ahavat Torah welcomes members of Village Lutheran Church and Musallah Tauhid (“place of unity”) for interfaith activities on Tu B’Shevat, Pesach and Sukkot, during which Jewish congregants teach the essence of holidays in accessible language. At the end of Ramadan, the Musallah invites the whole community for an Iftar, the evening meal that breaks the fast. For their part, church leaders host an interfaith Thanksgiving celebration and have created joint Chanukah and Christmas parties over the years.
This communal ministry was something of a happy accident, said the Rev. Janet Bregar, Village Lutheran Church’s pastor for the past 15 years – yet a confluence of elements set the stage. The church, founded in the 1940s, has always had an open-door policy toward other local spiritual and 12-step recovery groups, Bregar said. And she and Musallah Tauhid founder Noor-Malika Chishti had both participated in interfaith work before through Monks Without Borders and the international Parliament of the World’s Religions.
Still, sharing a worship space, the three spiritual leaders found, proved to be a richer and more textured endeavor than any of them could have imagined. They have reaped gratifying rewards both in what they have learned from one another and in lessons they can pass on to their congregations. They have also weathered surprises as the learning curve has dredged up anxieties and preconceptions that have had to be undone.
“It takes courage to go into places where you know you won’t feel comfortable,” Hamrell said. “The question is, how can change occur if you always go where it’s comfortable?”
Three faiths under one roof
Village Lutheran Church is a modest brick building on the border of the otherwise tony Westside neighborhoods of Brentwood and Westwood. Each weekend, its chambers witness three sets of prayers uttered in three different languages — English, Hebrew and Arabic.
On Saturday mornings, Jewish congregants from Ahavat Torah festoon the sanctuary with Israeli flags and set up an ark for Shabbat. Saturday evenings, Sufi Muslim worshippers from Musallah Tauhid spread out carpets and pillows on the social hall floor, remove their shoes and kneel for their weekly communal prayer group. And on Sundays, the church’s Lutheran congregation fills the pews for its own Sabbath service.
The arrangement’s beginnings were serendipitous. When the newly formed Ahavat Torah was looking for a spiritual home in 2003, Hamrell, who was ordained that year at the Academy for Jewish Religion, California, had just signed on to lead the 90-member, non-denominational congregation. The group’s cantorial soloist, Gary Levine, suggested they might rent space at a small church he’d heard about a stone’s throw from the 405 Freeway. A committee decided to approach the pastor and inquire.
The rabbi struggled with the prospect at first.
“It was quite difficult for me,” Hamrell recalled recently. Both her parents had been in concentration camps during the Holocaust, she said, and she grew up in an Orthodox household fiercely protective of her Jewish heritage. “I never set foot in a church. For me to lead my congregation into a church for services — I cried and cried. I told my congregation that I needed their help in order to overcome some of my barriers.”
All the worries dissipated when Hamrell met with Bregar, who then was serving as executive director of the Westside Interfaith Council; they “clicked” immediately, Hamrell said, and Bregar invited Ahavat Torah to rent space at Village Lutheran Church. The pastor now says she did so partly to offset facility costs and partly to honor the 70-year-old church’s founding mission — to be a place where “anyone who was spiritually seeking could worship.”
Ahavat Torah moved into the church, and the rabbi and pastor struck up a friendship. Eventually, Bregar even began asking Hamrell to stand in as a substitute pastor for the church community when she went out of town. “The same teaching I delivered to my congregation, I would deliver to her congregation, just not in Hebrew,” Hamrell said.
Little by little, an idea took shape: What if the two spiritual leaders could do more than speak to one another’s congregations? What if they could bring their fellow worshippers into the dialogue, too?
Around that time, several Ahavat Torah members invited Hamrell to join the West Los Angeles Cousins Club, a group of Jewish and Muslim women who meet monthly in one another’s homes to talk about spirituality. Again, Hamrell resisted at first.
“Me being from Israel and having the experiences I had there with Muslims — they were not very positive,” she said. “I didn’t want go into a volatile situation. I said, ‘I prefer not to. I’m not ready for it.’ But finally I went, and it was wonderful. I saw how they picked themes that everybody could to relate to. We found a thread that unites all of us.”
It was at one of those meetings that Chishti, a Sufi Muslim, came to Hamrell with a proposition. She was looking to start a prayer group for her community, and they needed a place to meet. Hamrell urged Chishti to approach Bregar about using the church. In doing so, the rabbi offered her Muslim friend the same open-minded welcome Bregar had proffered to her four years earlier.
But the union was not simple. It has taken time for the three faith groups to get to know one another — and not every lesson has been easy.
For example, Lutheran congregants questioned why Ahavat Torah covers the sanctuary windows — some of which are emblazoned with crosses — with Israeli flags for services. “It took a while for them to understand why they do that,” Bregar recalled. “You have to really learn what happened to people — that the image of the cross is painful, that it means suffering and oppression. Sometimes, what’s a celebration for one group is painful to another group.”
That notion hit home for Hamrell at Musallah Tauhid’s founding celebration. Yet the three congregations’ spiritual leaders now look back on fraught moments such as these as opportunities to break down walls.
“For me, who hasn’t endured the hardships that the rabbi has, the call to prayer is a beautiful thing,” said Bahauddin Kylberg, whose wife, Karima Kylberg, now heads the Musallah (insofar as the Sufi order, which typically eschews leadership titles, might have a leader). “When [Hamrell] told us how disturbing it was for her, it was shocking. But it was also an opening. We have to start the journey where we are. We started where we were, and she started where she was. It was an opening to see where we would go together.”
Over the years, Muslims, Jews and Christians began inviting one another regularly to holiday celebrations. The three communities share the task of putting up decorations and set aside time during events to educate their counterparts about the meaning of sacred rituals and customs.
Ahavat Torah observes the High Holy Days and Shemini Atzeret on their own, but most other holidays have become communal affairs. On Tu B’Shevat, for example, members of the three congregations all pull weeds, water and maintain greenery, and plant flowers on church grounds. On Pesach, Ahavat Torah hosts an interfaith seder, during which members teach lessons from the haggadah in universal terms. For Sukkot, Hamrell, Bregar and the Kylbergs build a “Sukkah of Peace” on the church’s lawn and hold a shared service under a canopy of palm fronds.
“As we got to know each other, we realized that we had so much in common and that there was so much we could do together,” Ahavat Torah president Rena Jaffe said. “Everything we can do that could be interfaith, we try to do.”
On Sukkot this year, a series of gestures by the clergy of the three congregations lent their relationship new spiritual depth.
Bregar read a letter she had composed to the Ahavat Torah community asking for forgiveness on behalf of Christians for “the many atrocities and harm” inflicted upon Jews over the centuries.
Each year on the Sunday between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, she said, “Our church … will be reflecting upon the historical hatreds, persecutions, the Holocaust and the many wrongs put upon the Jewish community in the name of God. We will be reflecting on the historical roots of Christianity in the faith of Judaism, and we will seek to understand our interrelatedness. We will be making plans to bring healing and truth to the world through our respect for and participation in the life of Ahavat Torah in the sacred space that we share together. By our actions we seek to atone and move toward rebuilding the world in the image and spirit of the love that the divine in every religion teaches.”
Many who were present said the letter brought tears to their eyes.
Meanwhile, Bahauddin and Karima Kylberg were preparing to make Hajj, the Islamic ritual pilgrimage to Mecca. Traditionally, Muslims readying for the journey must first ask forgiveness from their family and friends — much like the spiritual slate-cleaning required of Jews before Yom Kippur. Ahavat Torah’s Sukkot celebration offered the perfect opportunity to do that, Bahauddin Kylberg said.
It was also an opportunity for the Jewish congregation to give a meaningful gift.
When Hamrell heard the Kylbergs were going to visit the Kaaba, the stone shrine in Mecca that is considered one of Islam’s holiest sites, she felt a distinct sense of synchronicity. She ran to find the piece of Jerusalem stone she usually carried in her tallit bag.
“I said, ‘Wow, ancient rock from Saudi Arabia, ancient rock from Jerusalem,’ ” she recalled. “I thought they should have it. Instead of throwing rocks at one another, maybe with these two rocks we could build the cornerstone for our faiths to have a peaceful coexistence.”
An Ahavat Torah member offered her piece of the symbolic limestone to the Kylbergs. They took it with them on the Hajj, bringing it to some of the most significant places in Mecca and Medina. Surreptitious photos – photography is not permitted at many locations – show the stone in front of the Kaaba and at the Rawdah, the site of Muhammad’s tomb.
The couple brought the Jerusalem stone with them as they ascended Mount Arafat, the last stop on the Hajj, known as the “Mountain of Mercy.” There, they placed it on the sacred hill where Muslims believe Muhammad gave his last sermon.
“We believe that on Judgment Day, the places where we pray will witness for us that we did our prayer,” Bahauddin Kylberg said. “We thought, ‘Why not take the stone with us, as a witness for Ahavat Torah?’ Every year, the angels will be witnessing that that stone was there.”
Bahauddin Kylberg showed pictures from the Hajj at the church’s interfaith Thanksgiving celebration last month, which drew about 60 attendees from all three communities to the church’s social hall for a potluck holiday lunch. Kosher and halal cuisine steamed in adjacent glass bowls on a buffet table.
“What I’m going to ask you to do is to not sit with your familiar group,” Bregar told the roomful of guests before the meal. “Find someone you don’t know and sit with them and get to know them.”
Interfaith events give Muslims a chance to learn more about their religion’s similarities to Judaism and Christianity, said Rabiya Zeeshan, who worships at Musallah Tauhid with her husband, Zeeshan Masood, and their 1-year-old daughter, Aminah. Conversely, she added, it’s an opportunity to show others “what is Islam and what are Muslims” beyond what the mainstream media portrays.
“Before coming to this group, we had a lot of misunderstanding,” Masood said. “Usually, people don’t learn much about other religions. We know Judaism from a Muslim perspective — we know the prophet Moses and the ancient stories — but what we don’t know is, what is Judaism right now in its current state? That was a big reason we started coming.”
Masood recalled how the first time he heard the Shema chanted, he was struck by the realization that the Hebrew Adonai Echad and the Arabic Allahu Ahad were nearly interchangeable ways of saying, “God is One.”
“I was in a group, and I was singing the Muslim part and another lady was singing the Jewish part, and I could not hear the difference,” he said.
That isn’t an accident, said Karima Kylberg. “The God that I believe in is the same as the Christian and the Jewish God,” she said. “We are all people of the book.”
But the clergy of the three faith groups don’t try to downplay or whitewash major contrasts between their religions, Bregar stressed.
“There are real theological differences,” said the pastor, a religious studies professor at California State University, Fullerton. “We try to keep our own belief systems intact. But while there aren’t always bridges between beliefs, we can create understanding, and this is what we try to do.”
The letter she wrote designating the church’s annual day of reflection upon wrongs done to other faiths “didn’t happen overnight,” Bregar said. “It has taken years to set the stage for that. That’s why I think this is really a long-term commitment to trying to understand other peoples’ points of view. It’s like building any relationship — it’s a process.”
The Ahavat Torah community has watched Hamrell’s personal transformation with support.
“If you had told her eight years ago where she’d be today, she would have been shocked,” said Michael Stevens, one of the congregation’s first members. “Over all this time, it has been amazing to see how she has opened her mind to untraditional circumstances, bit by bit.”
Rabbi Hamrell herself sometimes can’t believe it, she said.
“I am amazed that these gifts have fallen into my lap,” she mused, shaking her head. “I thank God for putting me in places where I don’t always feel comfortable — for putting me in places where there is a chance to grow.”