July 31, 2013
A Jew and a Muslim?
L.A.-based NewGround wants to show we can all get along
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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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