At the Islamic Center of Southern California, each table had a word. There was "family," "social action," "prayer," "rituals" and "holidays." Participants were asked to move to the table that reflected how they viewed their faith.
The exercise was part of the second annual Jewish/Muslim Dialogue organized by the Raoul Wallenberg Institute of Ethics. About 120 people participated in the program, which included a screening of three clips from a new documentary that emphasizes ongoing cooperation between Israelis and Palestinians.
Last month's event was one of several recent interfaith programs across the city, including one through the Sholem Foundation, where progressive Jews and progressive Muslims met to commemorate the Martin Luther King Jr. holiday. There also was an interfaith Shabbat service last week at Temple Kol Tikvah.
"The majority of Jews I have met in Los Angeles over the past eight years ... have been extremely open and receptive about understanding Islam," said Mehnaz Afridi, who helped organize the event with the Wallenberg Institute.
She added that, by contrast, Muslims were not as willing initially to participate in interfaith exchanges. Then came Sept. 11, 2001.
"The only positive fringe benefit I can see out of Sept. 11 is that the Muslim community suddenly realized that they had to become open and visible and transparent," said Ruth Broyde-Sharone, a Jewish producer and director who has been active in interfaith work for 20 years. She stressed the importance of people learning not to fear "that every mosque in the city was a breeding group for terrorists."
While the people who took part expressed disagreements over Israel and Middle East policy, the prevailing sentiment was a desire for peaceful co-existence.
About the Middle East conflict, Bangladeshi Muslim Omar Huda said, "In my prayers, I keep saying, 'God, please make it go away,' because it covers the whole screen [of interfaith relations]."
Huda, who has known Broyde-Sharone for more than two years, said that although they have had disagreements when they talk about politics, there also is trust between them that solidifies their friendship.
"We have something established now that no political discussion could rent asunder, because we have created something as human beings," she said.
These interfaith dialogues remain works in progress. Huda said he does not feel comfortable, for example, talking about theology in the course of an online interfaith discussion with people he doesn't know. And at gatherings, Rabbi Lynn Gottlieb said that many dialogues suffer from "speaker syndrome," bringing in speakers and not letting communities actually talk to one another.
Despite the differences, however, "we have a common heart," said Abdul-Wahab Omeira, a Muslim chaplain for the L.A. County Department of Corrections. "We have a common goal. Help us further our cause, for it is your cause."
Both Muslims and Jews understand what it is like to be the outsider, said Muslim minister Tasnim Hermila Fernandez: "We have all had the concept of being 'the other.' We have worn the other shoe."