Two weeks ago, we looked eastward and saw 60,000 Polish nationalists, with hatred in their hearts, marching against Jews & Muslims. And here too, in America, we know both the Muslim and Jewish communities are being targeted in a different ways. Despite forces trying to pit us against one another, as we approach Thanksgiving this year, we are grateful for the wide variety of partnerships being built between Muslims and Jews. These partnerships, no matter how small, accumulate to create deep and meaningful relationships, which reinforce and strengthen our ability to show up for each other. This is why we are especially grateful right now to have a front row seat to the flourishing relationships created through the work we do at NewGround: A Muslim-Jewish Partnership for Change, an organization working for over a decade to build relationships between Muslims and Jews to transform our communities through lasting partnership.
Over the past several years, the inquiry of one of our Change-Makers, Deanna Neil, afforded her and another one of our community members, Hadir Elsayed, the opportunity to build on extant relationships in a way that has impacted our individual communities, and gone on to impact our city beyond the border of our individual relationships.
Until this past spring, Deanna was the Director of Jewish Innovation, running a Sunday program at the Silverlake Independent Jewish Community Center (SIJCC). As one of her final projects this past May, nearly 200 kids and their parents from Jewish and Muslim Sunday Schools held a book drive, and met to share an inter-communal, interfaith experience. The event came into being a few years ago, as a result of her NewGround Change-Maker experience. Tasked with doing a project as part of the Change-Maker program, Deanna turned to the resources closest at hand: A school of secular Jews and their families. The staff at NewGround were able to connect her with Hadir, the head of the Sunday School at the Islamic Center of Southern California.
Hadir, relatively new to Muslim/Jewish engagement, enjoyed the sessions shared session for adults, and it changed her perspective on so many levels– allowing her to see both the differences and the many commonalities. She, like the students and parents who participated, was surprised by the parallels in both of our faiths, languages and experiences. As only one example, both the Jewish and Muslim traditions help those less fortunate through what is called tzedakah in Judaism and sadaqah in Islam. “Supporting the needy is not an optional good deed, but an obligatory act, like breathing or drinking. Over the past two years, our communities have found learning from one another priceless.” Hadir’s experience brought to life for her and her community this often-quoted Quranic verse: “People! Behold, We have created you all out of a male and a female, and have made you into nations and tribes, so that you might come to know one another. 49:13 Learning together makes us more conscious of the holiness in and around us.
In 2015, the launch year of the project, the Silverlake JCC community went to the Islamic Center of Southern California. Deanna had attended many NewGround meetings there, and was excited to share this connection with her community. She coordinated with Hadir, and together, they brought the entire SIJCC contingent to this, as yet, unfamiliar space.
While the kids learned with each other and made kits for the homeless, the adults also gathered, and the takeaways were profoundly simple – “Yes, there are differences, but you’re just like us. You’re parents in a secular American world, trying to connect to community and build religious identity for your kids at a relatively progressive institution.” In the second year, this past spring, the SIJCC hosted, and the experience was just as moving. Deanna and Hadir were amazed at the success of the program and how touched people were – just to be brought into an unfamiliar space, yet be made to feel safe and build relationships.
There is a verse in the Quran that instructs people of faith to hold constructive discussions with the people of the book *(Jews among them) weaving ideas together as if in a braid, creating a conversation and a relationship that is stronger and based on respect. “And do not argue with the People of the Scripture except in a way that is best, 29:46 Concluding that even when there are significant differences, we must focus on our common commitment to the values outlined in our traditions. The idea of using our resources to strengthen our own community, and the broader community in which we find ourselves, is clearly a value held by both our traditions.
Deanna and Hadir built a relationship out of their pre-existing relationship with NewGround. Together they reached out to their communities, helping to form new relationships, which are now invested in institutionalizing their work as conveners. Their project now serves to inspire similar projects between other institutions.
Although Deanna is moving on from her position, one of her greatest joys is knowing this experience will carry on after she’s gone. The project is now a staple of the year – expected by both Sunday Schools. The communities were so excited and only want more. The Jewish students will grow up and be able to say they’ve been to Muslim prayer space, or they’ve met a Jew. They asked questions they were afraid to ask anywhere else. And the same, of course, is true for the Muslim students. They know that together, they have addressed issue that impact people in the City of Los Angeles outside of either of our communities.
There is a saying in the Mishnah: “It is not your responsibility to finish the work of perfecting the world, but you are not free to desist from it either.” It is not each individual’s contribution alone that makes the difference. It is the accumulation of each act — and the multiplying effects of the relationships between these actors — that moves us toward change. Whatever your resources and relationships, it is time for each of us, with gratitude and purpose, to get to work.
NewGround: A Muslim-Jewish Partnership for Change empowers Jewish and Muslim change-makers with the skills, resources, and relationships needed to improve Muslim-Jewish relations and strengthen cooperation on issues of shared concern. Through a professional fellowship, high school leadership council and innovative public programming, NewGround impacts a broad political and religious spectrum of Muslims, Jews and the institutions. http://mjnewground.org/
Aziza Hasan, Executive Director of NewGround, has extensive experience in program management and coalition building. Aziza’s work has been featured in several outlets including Yahoo News, Public Radio’s “Speaking of Faith” with Krista Tippett, and the LA Times, among others. Aziza currently serves on Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti’s Interfaith Advisory Council.
Andrea Hodos is currently the Program Co-Director at NewGround, where she facilitates the High School Leadership Council and the adult Changemaker cohorts. She is also the Director of Sinai & Sunna: Women Covering, Uncovering and Recovering, a performance-based community venture harnessing the power of theater to move the Muslim and Jewish communities—literally and figuratively.