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Jewish Journal

Interfaith teens win award

by Jonah Lowenfeld

May 29, 2013 | 4:26 pm

Muslims and Jews Inspiring Change (MAJIC), a program that brings together Jewish and Muslim high school students for a yearlong fellowship, has been named the faith-based organization of the year by California Volunteers, the state office charged with encouraging Californians to engage in service and volunteering. 

The award, one of eight presented by California Gov. Jerry Brown this year, honors a program that was launched just one year ago by the Jewish and Muslim nonprofit NewGround, a group founded in 2007. 

Following the model that has made NewGround’s young professional fellowship successful, MAJIC created a forum for a small group of young Muslims and Jews to talk about difficult issues and learn about one another’s faith, while also building relationships and leadership skills. 

Like every NewGround group, the 16 teens in the 2012-’13 MAJIC class are evenly divided — eight Jews, eight Muslims — but the reason they won the governor’s award had to do with what they were able to accomplish together. 

Presented on May 22, the award honored MAJIC for engaging volunteers and responding to community needs, particularly through the teen-organized Carnival Against Hunger. On April 28, between 100-150 people came to Masjid Bilal, a mosque in South Los Angeles, where they played carnival games (which had been tweaked to incorporate educational content), planted fruit trees and packaged food for local anti-hunger organizations. MAJIC fellows engaged with hundreds more Jewish and Muslim youth at four other sites around the city throughout the day. 

Rabbi Sarah Bassin, executive director of NewGround, who oversees the MAJIC program with Soha Yassine of the Islamic Center of California, accompanied four of the fellows to receive the award in Sacramento last week. 

NewGround, which was founded by Progressive Jewish Alliance and the Muslim Public Affairs Council, has been an independent organization for about two years. In that time, it has grown in scope and its programs have become more diverse, but the young professionals’ fellowship still sits at the heart of many of its activities. 

But adapting a curriculum designed for fellows in their 20s and 30s to meet the needs of high school students brought with it questions, chief among them whether to engage the teenagers in a conversation about the land that some call Israel and others call Palestine. 

The initial plan, Bassin said, was to skip the topic, but the teens of MAJIC approached her and Yassine and asked them to mediate the discussion. The conversation went well enough, Bassin said, that next year’s cohort of teens will discuss the conflict as well.

When it came time to identify a service project, however, the MAJIC group focused on matters closer to home, choosing to work on combating hunger in Los Angeles. 

Bassin said the decision made her proud. 

“ ‘This is about who we are as Americans, ’ ” she said, recalling the   teens’ conclusion. “ ‘This is not about the conflict defining us.’ ” 

Plans for next year’s high school group are already in the works, and Bassin said that NewGround has already received a dozen applications to join the cohort. The application deadline is June 15.

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