April 13, 2006
When Faiths Jam
At the Southern California Islamic Center last Saturday night, only Shawn Landres dared utter a four-letter word. That word was, "kumbaya."
Yes, the evening brought together about 150 Jews, Muslims and Christians for a night of prayer and music at the center, which had never before hosted such a gathering.
And yes, it began with a drum circle.
But if the faithful had one thing in common, underneath their kippahs and collars and hijabs, it was that not one of them wanted this night confused with those circa-1970-"Free to Be You and Me" warm and cuddly attempts at interfaith dialogue. No, this was Faith Jam 2006.
And the biggest difference between those previous attempts at ethno-religious harmony and this one? This one seemed to work.
Musician and community organizer Craig Taubman had wanted such an event to be part of the weeklong "Let My People Sing" celebration. The Passover-themed musical happenings took place in synagogues and community centers throughout L.A. An interfaith component, he told me, fit the theme: "Passover is about liberation, and we're enslaved by our hatreds."
Organizing took finesse. Taubman tapped Landres, director of research at Synagogue 3000, to use his ample interfaith Rolodex. He brought on 16 Jewish, Christian and Muslim groups as co-sponsors, including Abraham's Vision, IKAR, Muslim Public Affairs Council, the Omar Ibn Al Khattab Foundation, and the Progressive Jewish Alliance.
The Islamic Center came on board enthusiastically, according to its religious director, Jihad Turk. But there were conditions: grape juice, not wine, for Havdalah; no dancing; appropriate dress; and no overt mention from the Christians of Jesus as God or the messiah. The center vetted the gospel choir's songs, and in the program its name, The Christ Our Redeemer A.M.E. Church Choir, became COR A.M.E.
Another concern was overloading the event with Jews, a drawback of interfaith dialogues past. Landres compiled three R.S.V.P. lists and cut off the Jewish respondents in order to ensure equivalent amounts of Muslims and Christians. By 8 p.m. the place was full, the drumming had stopped, and Turk quieted the crowd with the traditional, piercing Muslim call to prayer.
The evening had three acts. First came ritual. Taubman and Rabbi Naomi Levy of Nashuva, another co-sponsor, lit the traditional Havdalah candle, woven together from three wicks.
"This night and nights like this are so long overdue," Rabbi Levy said. "Tonight we pray to come together to celebrate our differences and treasure our oneness." (The rabbi also happens to be my wife, but no person of any faith seemed to hold that against her.)
The Rev. Wilma Jakobsen of All Saints Episcopal Church in Pasadena gave a brief sermon, urging the audience members to work within their faith traditions to help the poor and oppressed.
Then Turk invited everyone to shed their shoes and join the center's men and women for the traditional evening prayers, or isha, men shoulder to shoulder in front, women behind them. "We hope to get a better understanding of who the Other is," Turk said.
Several Jews migrated over to the prayer room and lined up as the prayer leader led the worship. It was the full-on experience -- standing, kneeling, bowing -- just what you see on the evening news but with, yes, some Jews and Christians sprinkled in. I mentioned to a woman standing nearby that the young man leading the prayers, Abdelwahab Ben Youcef, was almost unnaturally handsome.
"Oh, he's an actor," she said. "He played one of the Palestinian terrorists in 'Munich.'"
After the ritual came the main program: the music. The Christ Our Redeemer gospel choir lit up the room, followed by Ani Zonneveld, a Muslim recording artist and head of the co-sponsoring Progressive Muslim Union. Then came the Yuval Ron Ensemble, whose Middle Eastern music, with its organic blending of Muslim and Jewish roots, enthralled the crowd (their CD table did brisk sales) and MC Rai, a Tunisian-born Muslim hip-hop artist. Two comedians, the Jewish Beth Lapidus and the Muslim Maz Jobrani provided comedy breaks.
And afterward came the mingling.
Why was this night different from all other attempts at interfaith dialogue?
First, the crowd skewed young. Because the agenda was largely musical, the night brought out young Jews and Muslims, the demographic that wanted a fun night out, not a lecture.
Second, the ritual wasn't dumbed down. People who knew their stuff conducted Havdalah and the Muslim evening prayer, without abridgment or reinterpretation. I asked Landres why that was -- and that's when he said the word.
"We're not doing 'Kumbaya' where we all get together and hug," he said. "This is the way a new generation does dialogue."
What Landres seemed to mean was: There was no dialogue. We didn't have to sit in a circle and look into the Other's eyes and tell him how we feel. No one led a pointless discussion about Mideast peace -- as if we have any say in it.
"It's just breaking the ice," Turk told me, "and music goes beyond words."
Actually, I noticed only a modest amount of real mixing. Most people hung with their own, enjoying the music, baklava, mint tea and enhanced bottled water beverage. The reviews were positive.
Islamic Center members Nadim and Gita Itani -- he's Lebanese, she's Iranian -- pronounced it good.
"It's unprecedented," said Nadim, a 30-something architect. "And it's about time."
The apparent success of the enterprise gave him hope.
"It's foundational," he said. "Singing beside a Jew as we close the Sabbath, that's when you get goose bumps."
A young Palestinian American who only wanted to give his name as Muhammed -- "I work in the entertainment industry," he explained -- said the Havdalah ritual he witnessed touched him, too.
"We have to all get together," he said. "People who are opposed to this kind of night, they shouldn't even be in this country."
Now that kind of intolerance? It's a beautiful thing.