L.A.’s Jews and Muslims partner in ‘twinning’ events


When Jews and Muslims came together for a “twinning” event on Nov. 16, the Pico Union Project was filled with jamming, rapping, rhetoric, dancing and more.

“It’s the only way we will ever find peace — through the arts and dialogue. So this is a really good start,” Genie Benson, Keshet Chaim Dance Ensemble executive director, told the Journal.

As she spoke, IKAR Chazzan Hillel Tigay’s band played, and dancing attendees — approximately 400 people turned out — swarmed the open space between the front row of the venue’s pews and the stage.

The event, titled “Together in the City of Angels: A Musical Celebration of Muslim Jewish Unity,” was part of the Weekend of Twinning, which is actually a monthlong season of events that involves faith communities around the world, as far away as Morocco. It involves social justice-oriented, educational and cultural events that promote dialogue between Jews and Muslims. It is the brainchild of the Foundation for Ethnic Understanding (FFEU), an organization founded by hip-hop mogul Russell Simmons, who serves as chair, and New York-based Rabbi Marc Schneier, who serves as president. In partnership with the Islamic Society of North America, it promotes Jews standing up for Muslims, and Muslims standing up for Jews. It also works on Jewish-Latino relations and Jewish-African-American relations.

The goal of the group’s work with Jewish and Muslim communities is to push back against anti-Semitism and Islamophobia, FFEU Muslim-Jewish Program Director Walter Ruby told the Journal during a reception following last weekend’s concert. To that end, faith leaders in Los Angeles recently created the Southern California Muslim-Jewish Forum (SCMJF). 

The event at the Pico Union Project also marked the launch of SCMJF, which includes leaders of synagogues and mosques advocating on behalf of one another. Members include Wilshire Boulevard Temple Rabbi Susan Goldberg, King Fahad Mosque’s Mohammed Akbar Khan, Malibu Jewish Center and Synagogue’s Rabbi Judith HaLevy and Imam Jihad Turk, the president-designate of Bayan Claremont, an Islamic graduate school of Claremont Lincoln University.

“The relation[ship] between Israel and its neighbors in the Muslim world is quite tense, and that sentiment spills over to relationships here,” Turk said in an interview at the Pico Union Project. “Our aspiration for events like this and for the many different Muslim and Jewish organizations that were represented here today is that religion is not tribalism, that religion is something that, when done right, calls us as human beings to our higher selves and, when we take religion and faith seriously, both of our faiths, Islam and Judaism, call us to combat immorality, criminality, violence, hatred, wherever it’s found.”

The group aims to serve as an umbrella body in L.A. that focuses on strengthening Muslim-Jewish relations locally — instead of, say, the Anti-Defamation League on the Jewish side and the Muslim Pubic Affairs Council, one of SCMJF’s partner organizations, on the Muslim side, Ruby said.

The concept of twinning in the Jewish community dates back to the time of the Soviet Union, when the country placed restrictions on the emigration of Soviet Jews. American Jews volunteered to be twins with Soviet-Jewish counterparts as a statement of solidarity. 

Last weekend, Jewish rapper Kosha Dillz made sure that hip-hop was part of the occasion in a performance that likely would have made Simmons, who was not in attendance, proud. Dillz joined Tigay and the IKAR cantor’s multicultural musical outfit, Judeo — which performs music in Hebrew and Aramaic — in a performance of “Hallelu.” 

Their song closed out the two-hour afternoon event. During Tigay’s performance, members of Keshet Chaim (Hebrew for “colors of life”), an L.A. dance ensemble, brought the crowd to its feet. 

The event was co-sponsored by FFEU, the interfaith nonprofit reGeneration, Claremont Lincoln University and the Pico Union Project 

Additional Los Angeles-area twinning events this year included a food-packing event on Nov. 9 at Wilshire Boulevard Temple in partnership with the Islamic Society of Southern California, and NewGround: A Muslim Jewish Partnership for Change organized a Muslim-Jewish storytelling event on Nov. 15, according to FFEU press materials. 

Rabbi Neil Comess-Daniels, spiritual leader of Santa Monica’s Beth Shir Shalom who attended the Pico Union Project event, said his community has been hosting twinning events since 2008, the inaugural year of the Weekend of Twinning. On Nov. 14, Comess-Daniels’ synagogue held a Muslim-Jewish Shabbat service in cooperation with the King Fahad Mosque. 

“It went beautifully. It was our first time twinning with the people from the King Fahad Mosque from Culver City. It was a really wonderful experience. It felt very shared, and they joined in just about everything we did. We had a lot of time for interaction, and people just very naturally went up and introduced themselves to people they didn’t know,” Comess-Daniels said in a phone interview. “It was really quite wonderful.”