Even in the easygoing, laid-back environment of modern-day Los Angeles, bringing Muslims and Jews together to talk about the Arab-Israeli conflict is viewed as playing with fire.
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For decades, “the Muslim-Jewish dialogue that existed in L.A. only took place at the leadership level, among a handful of left-leaning Muslim and Jewish leaders,” recalls Edina Lekovic, Director of Policy and Programming for the Muslim Public Affairs Council.
When it happened, the conversation would usually stick to religion and stay away from politics. “And then, anytime there was a political conflict overseas it would derail whatever was happening. People would walk away from the table and say ‘sorry, we can’t dialogue right now.’ It just really showed there weren’t really authentic relationships there,” says Lekovic, her blue eyes set off by her gray headscarf.
In 2007, Lekovic’s organization, together with a Jewish group, decided to change that, co-founding what would evolve into what is known today as NewGround: A Muslim-Jewish Partnership for Change.
When she first tried to rally Muslim and Jewish communities behind the idea, “people thought we were ridiculous. We were blatantly called naive,” says Lekovic, who chairs the board of NewGround.
But over the past seven years, the group has grown and thrived, proving the skeptics wrong. Lekovic describes a celebration of the Muslim Iftar feast during Ramadan hosted by the Wilshire Boulevard Synagogue, in which 250 Muslims and Jews sat together and listened to a Palestinian man describe his feelings of loss when visiting his family’s former home in Israel, and an American Jew describe being at the Hebrew University cafeteria just before it was bombed in 2002, and the trauma of losing a friend, Marla Bennett, in that terror attack.
“When they share the stories and are forced to recognize the suffering on the other side, and put themselves in the shoes of the other person, it becomes a transformational moment,” said Lekovic.
NewGround’s core program brings together a selected group of young professionals - 10 Jews and 10 Muslims - of varied ages, genders, and background, in both mosques and synagogues. In a carefully designed three-hour sequence of encounters twice a month, the group first discusses their religious identities as Muslims and Jews, learns about each other’s faiths, and participates in trust-building exercises. Subsequent sessions grapple with anti-Semitism and Islamophobia and how it affects them, as well as offering general communication training and conflict resolution work. After relationships are firmly established, they grapple with the tough issues - discussions of Middle East politics, and specifically, of Israel and Palestine.
Rabbi Sarah Bassin, NewGround’s executive director, explains that the program is designed so that participants first “build their relationship, and build trust with each other. So when the topics (of Israel and the Middle East) come up and they have ‘that’ conversation, they don’t walk away. They stay at the table because their relationships are meaningful.”
At the end of the project, each group is charged with taking on a joint community project. The projects are not just a way for the participants to stay connected, says Lekovic, but also a way to ensure “that we will not allow ourselves to be held hostage by events that are going on overseas. We are impacted by them and connected to them, but our zone of influence is here and we can work together to make L.A. a better place.”
Projects thus far have included film festivals, a community garden, and the creation of an organization called Muslim and Jewish Organized Relief, which has sponsored clean water projects overseas.
Other NewGround activities include the Iftar feast and a popular storytelling event inspired by the podcast, “The Moth,” which is co-sponsored by 23 Muslim and Jewish organizations. When they were asked by clergy to adapt their work to Muslim and Jewish high school students, the group founded MAJIC - Muslim and Jews Inspiring Change - a high school leadership council. After only 18 months of existence, the group was honored by the state governor as "California's 2013 Faith-Based Organization of the Year."
With funding from both Muslim and Jewish groups and strong support from the city, the organization maintains a firm policy on refusing to take any money that has political strings attached. “We are not willing to put limits on who we associate with, who participates in the program, and who sits on the board,” says Bassin. NewGround offices are located in City Hall.
Bassin grew up in an interfaith family in Kansas with one Catholic parent and one Jewish parent, and said that she knew even during her rabbinical training she would end up doing some kind of intercultural, interfaith work. She chose NewGround over offers of more conventional community relations departments of Jewish organizations because it was an opportunity to do something completely new and game-changing.
Indeed, no other organization devoted solely to building Muslim-Jewish relationships exists in the United States, she says. While both women have been invited to speak at national conferences and have had "nibbles" from other cities interested in adopting the model, they say they want to perfect their model before they attempt to replicate it.
As they’ve learned from their hard-won success of the past eight years, as well as the failures of the past, when dealing with sensitive interfaith “new ground,” it is always best to tread carefully.
This article is part of a special Haaretz series called "The new Jews of L.A.," about Jewish life in and around Los Angeles.