On Wednesday night, June 17, a mélange of Angelinos gathered in the downstairs cafeteria of the Omar Ibn Al Khattab Foundation mosque. Some wore kippot, others kufis, some women wore their hair in long curls and others covered themselves in headscarves, but all united for a shared evening of conversation, dinner and Islamic and Judaic text study.
The dinner celebrated the completion of the second year of NewGround, a collaborative program of the Muslim Public Affairs Council (MPAC) and the Progressive Jewish Alliance (PJA), as well as the Center for Muslim-Jewish Engagement’s (CMJE) text-study pilot program. For four months, a cohort of multi-ethnic Muslims and Jews, selected through an in-depth application process, met to study the both Jewish and Islamic holy texts.
They focused on the prophetic narratives surrounding Moses, the creation story, the issue of inclusivity and exclusivity in relation to the “other” and finally holy laws and authorities.
The cohort was made up of Jews and Muslims of varying ages and degrees of faith. They ranged from ages 22 to 68 and were attorneys, clerics, graduate students, nonprofit advocates and pharmacists. Not all were born in the United States and not all were born to their religion. Kathy Kobayashi, for example, is a third-generation Japanese American from Texas who converted to Judaism 20 years ago, and César Dominguez was raised as a Catholic in Mexico and converted to Islam four years ago after moving to the United States.
“This was not a vaguely conceived, ‘feel-good’ project getting Muslims and Jews together to encourage dialogue or social interaction or the discussion of current affairs,” said Kobayashi. “Although any of those things could happen in the natural course of being together, our focus from the beginning — our common ground — was our love of text study and our desire to explore our texts together.”
When Jonathan G. Freund received an e-mail about the program, he knew that this was exactly what he had been looking for. Although he was familiar with Hebrew texts, “I had never read the Koran before,” Freund explained, “and I love, I mean, love text study and Torah study. The idea of doing this together with Jews and Muslims, many of whom, like me, hadn’t read the other texts, was amazing.”
There were other factors that held the group together as well. In the process of finding commonalities within the group, explained Muslim participant C. Reginald Taylor at the dinner, they found that there was a large contingent of Star Trek fans. “So to all you Trekkies out there ...” Taylor petered off, ending his sentence by raising his hand above the podium, fingers locked in the “live long and prosper” position. Raising arms from kebabs and hummus, numerous participants followed with the Vulcan salute, a gesture that was originally used by the kohanim as a blessing during Jewish services of worship.
The text-study program functioned as an intellectual hotbed as opposed to a political stomping ground.
“We all wanted to do something different with this, not to focus on political things but rather to just have the text speak to us and our hearts,” said Tahara Akmal, an Islamic woman who was inspired to join the group after a trip to Israel in 2003 in which she prayed with her “Jewish sisters” at the Western Wall. Akmal then vowed to learn more about the faith of a people whom she believes to be Islam’s religious counterpart.
“Texts that were divisive or exclusive changed, and things that could normally divide people really brought us together,” Akmal continued.
“There is a Jewish text that says that when two people study text together, God dwells between them,” said participant Rabbi Heather Miller in reference to Pirkei Avot 3:2, “and for so much of this experience, I have so candidly felt the presence of God within the other that I am really grateful for this experience.”
Iman Eletreby, a Muslim participant, likened the experience to parenting two children. In spite of a parent’s deep connection with each child individually, if there is an enmity between the two children, the duty of a parent is not complete. In the same vein, said Eletreby, “I can’t have a good relationship with God unless I am at peace with the other.”
Again and again, participants said that reading similar and diverging versions of their own biblical stories deepened their understanding of their faith and reawakened their senses of spirituality. “Sharing that moment with a Jewish partner,” said Eletreby, “I can’t begin to explain how overwhelming and how beautiful it really was.”
According to an e-mail from Rabbi Reuven Firestone, professor of medieval Jewish and Islamic studies at Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion and senior fellow at USC’s Center for Religion and Civic Culture, who led the studies on the Judaic texts, “We are thinking about developing curricula and training programs for Jewish and Muslim congregations to help them engage together in similar endeavors, for student groups in colleges and universities, etc.”
The program’s participants echoed the sentiment that this was a beginning rather than an end. With alumni coordinators already in place, they plan to meet throughout the summer and many hope to put what they have learned to good use and bring it back to their local communities.