(Left To Right): Rabbi Marc Schneier (President - Foundation for Ethnic Understanding), Russell Simmons (Chairman - Foundation for Ethnic Understanding), Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Consul General Sam Grundwerg, Mahomed Akbar Khan (Muslim community activist). Photo by Michelle Mivzari

An iftar … at the Israeli consul general’s house?

Sunset in West L.A. A swank little outdoor get-together, rosé and single malt at the bar, men in their Bonobos and Untuckits. The chat among a tribe of writers, managers and producers turns to that week’s plans.

“So, I’m going to this iftar,” one says. “At Wilshire Boulevard Temple.” An iftar is the traditional evening break-fast meal during the Muslim holy month of Ramadan.

“Oh,” says a young TV exec. “I went to the NewGround iftar there last year. I’m going to one in Culver City.”

Suddenly, the game was on — that competition that happens when men gather in small circles and compare. And I wanted to play.

“I’m going to two,” I said. “One at the Israeli consul general’s house.”

“Oh!” one guy said. “Wow.”

I was feeling good. Winning.

“I was invited to that one,” the producer countered. “Couldn’t make it.”

We were five Jews, standing in a circle, one-upping one another over who was invited to the better Muslim break-fast. Could it be, I wondered, that in Los Angeles in 2017, iftars are the new Oscar party?

The first one I attended this year certainly felt exclusive. It was billed as the Jewish Muslim Leaders Summit. There were a couple dozen Muslims and Jews, half and half, in a function room at the Islamic Center of Southern California on Vermont Avenue. A lot of lawyers and accountants — and I’m talking about the Muslims. 

“People ask me to describe the American Muslim community,” one lawyer told me. “I always say, ‘We’re boring.’ ” Muslims go to school, work, raise families, he shrugged. What’s to say?

Edina Lekovic, one of the Muslim conveners, said Ramadan is the perfect time to engage in what we Jews call tikkun olam

“The absence of food and water can mean the presence of something else,” she said. Plus, she added, when you have to fast from dawn to past sunset, “It’s good to have something to keep you busy.”

We spoke of the current state of division in America, the sense of discrimination and how we can work together to create better polity and politics.

At 8:06 p.m., the fast was over. We each ate a date stuffed with a walnut, the traditional break-fast treat (note to Jews: excellent post-Yom Kippur idea). Across the hall, the imam chanted the call to prayer. We all were invited to pray, or to wait until the prayers finished. Then we ate — a banquet of hummus, salads, kebab, falafel and pita with za’atar. 

It was Lebanese food, someone pointed out.

Two days later, I was at the home of Sam Grundwerg, Israel’s new consul general in Los Angeles. Grundwerg, his wife, Julia, and their children had just moved into their new home in Los Angeles and were hosting their first event, an iftar.

“Thank you for helping us open up our home for the first time,” Grundwerg said. “I think it’s really making a statement.” 

That was an understatement. For 69 years, Israel has worked toward more equality, more integration of its 20 percent Muslim population, with many ups and downs. But the message of this evening was one of welcome and acceptance. At a time when Muslims are feared and singled out in America, including by our president, the consul general of Israel made them the first guests in his new home.

Getting Muslims to come the first time, Grundwerg recognized, would be a challenge. He lit on the idea of inviting someone with a high enough profile to lead the way, like, say, the greatest basketball player who ever lived. 

“I thought it would be difficult to get him,” Grundwerg said of Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, the former Lakers and UCLA legend. “But he loved the idea right away.”

About 50 guests sat in white folding chairs in Grundwerg’s living room. Abdul-Jabbar, stately, serious, towering over the second-tallest guest (me) by a foot at 7 feet 2 inches, led a panel discussion on tolerance and Muslim-Jewish relations with music impresario Russell Simmons; Mohammed Khan, director of interfaith outreach at King Fahad Mosque in Culver City; and New York Rabbi Marc Schneier, president of The Foundation for Ethnic Understanding.  

“As a Muslim and as someone who loves my country,” Abdul-Jabbar said, “I’m really concerned about what’s happening in our country. People are at each other’s throats. This is avoidable if we can talk to each other and learn to respect each other.”

Abdul-Jabbar, author of several books on history, spoke of the Golden Age of Spain, when Muslims, Jews and Christians lived together and flourished.

“The beginning of the Renaissance came out of Spain and North Africa,” he said, “because Muslims, Jews and Christians cooperated and shared knowledge and shared solutions. That’s what I want to get back to, and that’s why I’m here this evening.”

Simmons, who identifies himself as a yogi, said he and Schneier have been doing Muslim-Jewish dialogue for 10 years, in 40 countries, but recently the need for it has become more urgent.

“Today it’s gotten so bad, it’s impossible to avoid a public discussion,” he said. “This idea of the children of Abraham being so separate is so disturbing. We need to give others what we want for ourselves.”

When the clock struck 8:06 p.m., marking the end of the fast, the consul ended the discussion. As the guests broke the fast with dates, consular officials and Julia Grundwerg hurriedly cleared the chairs and laid down a large rug. An imam issued the call to prayer, his voice echoing through the room. About a dozen of the Muslim guests then held a prayer service in the consul’s living room.

Allahu Akbar (God is great),” called out Khan, who led the prayer. “Allahu Akbar,” they repeated.   

There was a kosher buffet meal in the backyard: hummus, salads, kebab, braised lamb, stuffed grape leaves and pita with za’atar.

“Israeli food,” someone said.

The night wound down. Abdul-Jabbar took selfies and signed autographs. The Persian actor Navid Negahban, who played the Jew-murdering arch-terrorist Abu Nazir on the TV series “Homeland,” gave a moving, funny speech about empathy.

As I walked to the parking valet, it occurred to me that the surest path to empathy is experience — sharing one another’s lives, rituals and holidays, in person. Sure, we can imagine ourselves walking in someone else’s shoes, but it always will be more powerful to spend a few hours walking beside the person. May the competition for the best iftar invitations in L.A. only grow, I thought.

And as if I needed a sign that I was right, it was there on the booth where I picked up my car. The sign said, “Abraham’s Valet Parking.” 

Rob Eshman is publisher and editor-in-chief of TRIBE Media Corp./Jewish Journal. Email
him at robe@jewishjournal.com. You can follow him on Instagram and Twitter @foodaism
and @RobEshman.

Reuters/David W Cerny

Parashat Sh’lach: Curiosity over assumptions

was one of about 400 people in attendance last week at the NewGround: A Muslim-Jewish Partnership for Change iftar at Wilshire Boulevard Temple.

An iftar is the delicious, joyous evening meal eaten during Ramadan, when for a month each year Muslims fast from dawn to sunset, encouraging one another to focus even more on God, prayer, good deeds, study, charity, family and community. And NewGround is an award-winning, Los Angeles-based organization that holds yearlong training sessions for Jewish and Muslim high school students and millennials, bringing them together to build real relationships.

NewGround’s iftar not only was a tasty meal together, but an evening of learning about NewGround’s approach to relationship building. Among NewGround’s stated values is “Curiosity Over Assumptions.” 

While listening to the Muslim and Jewish NewGround fellows, I couldn’t help but think what the history of our religions might have been, or anyway what Judaism might have become, if the story told in Parashat Shelach Lecha had gone a different way.  

“Shelach lecha,” God says to Moses at the beginning of this week’s Torah portion. “Send, for yourself, men to scout out the land of Canaan, which I am giving to the Israelite people” (Numbers 13:2).  

Moses chooses 12 men — a leader from each tribe — and they return after 40 days with grapes so big it takes two men to carry a single cluster.

The scouts return bearing not only fruit but also tales of who and what they saw. While Israel’s modern Ministry of Tourism logo uses the giant grapes as a symbol of the plentiful reasons to visit the Jewish state today, 10 of the scouts in our Torah story use them to illustrate a more ominous idea — the giant grapes fed giant people: “All the people that we saw in it are men of great size … and we looked like grasshoppers to ourselves, and so we must have looked to them. And the whole community broke into loud cries” (Numbers 13:32-14:1).  

What if those scouts, or the community they reported to, had taken a page from NewGround’s playbook and put “curiosity over assumptions”? Suppose they’d attempted to meet the people instead of spying on them? Attempted to talk with them, rather than make assumptions about them?  

And suppose they’d done the same with one another, encouraging one another rather than belittling themselves. In one midrash, God says to the doubtful scouts, “I can forgive you seeing yourselves as grasshoppers, but did you know how I made you look to them? Who can say that you did not appear in their sight as angels? What have you brought upon yourselves?” (Numbers Rabbah 16:11).

Indeed, they bring great harm upon themselves. While in last week’s Torah portion, day after day of “nothing but this manna to eat” had some Israelites reminiscing (misremembering?) the fish, cucumbers, melons, leeks, onions and garlic they ate in Egypt (Numbers 11:5), now the report of the 10 pessimistic scouts has some saying, “It would be better for us to go back to Egypt … ” (Numbers 14:3). Infuriated by their fear of the future and their longing for a mostly imagined past, God kills the 10 scouts and condemns the entire first generation to die off before any may leave the wilderness: “You shall bear your punishment for 40 years, corresponding to the number of days — 40 days — that you scouted the land” (Numbers 14:34). God rewards only the two scouts Joshua and Caleb, imbued by God with ruach acheret, “a different spirit” (Numbers 14:24).  For attempting to encourage rather than frighten the people, they survive to enter the Promised Land with the next generations.

In a 2016 dvar Torah on Shelach Lecha, the esteemed British Rabbi Jonathan Sacks passed along a teaching from the Lubavitcher Rebbe Menachem Schneerson about where the 10 dubious scouts went wrong.

They liked the wilderness too much; they treasured God’s nearness there and didn’t want to leave that place. But, according to Rabbi Sacks, Rebbe Schneerson teaches: “That is not what God wants from us. [God] wants us to engage with the world … to heal the sick, feed the hungry, fight injustice with all the power of law, and combat ignorance with universal education. [God] wants us to show what it is to love the neighbour and the stranger … ”

No wonder the 10 scouts balked at the challenging future they imagined.

Of course, God doesn’t promise it will be easy, nor does Rebbe Schneerson, nor does NewGround.

Lest we find ourselves like our ancestors — crying out loud in fear and anger, unable to hear, let alone listen, to one another, longing to return to a time and place that existed only in our imaginations — perhaps we’d all do well to search for new ground, to find within ourselves ruach acheret, the “different spirit,” the angel that God plants within faithful, optimistic hearts and souls.

Rabbi Lisa Edwards is senior rabbi of Beth Chayim Chadashim (bcc-la.org), an inclusive Los Angeles congregation founded in 1972 as the world’s first lesbian and gay synagogue.

The NewGround Iftar in 2016. Photo courtesy of mjnewground.org

The Ramadan Project

After spending my formative years in Jewish day school, it was only natural that I’d rebel in college: I signed up for a class in the New Testament. Not because I was considering conversion, but because I was at an academic disadvantage. My professors assumed basic literacy in Christianity, while I had learned only about the persecutive aspects of the faith — blood libels, the Inquisition, the Crusades, Passion plays.

I never had such a primer on Islam; it never seemed quite as necessary. But in January the Trump administration’s proposed travel restrictions (or ban, depending on who’s speaking) on immigrants from Muslim-majority countries heightened debate over the treatment of Muslims. I realized that even those who would not consider themselves Islamophobic or who, like me, know a handful of Muslims, often came to a communal tables with more baggage than information. And that’s even without mentioning the Israel-shaped elephant in the room.

So, this year I decided to use Ramadan — the ninth month of the Muslim calendar and a month-long fasting holiday that ends this year on the evening of June 24  — as a learning opportunity, a chance to connect the dots and find the common DNA between Ishmael and Isaac, Esau and Jacob, and these two ancient faiths.

The internet and my network of friends and acquaintances seemed a good place to start, and both turned up a few good nuggets. For instance, while segments of Torah stories appear in the Quran, only the story of Joseph is told from start to finish, and it often is referred to as “the most beautiful of stories.” And when Muslims are preparing to address a crowd, they recite Musa’s Prayer — named after Moses, known for his leadership despite a speech impediment.

I also attended a June 7 community iftar at Wilshire Boulevard Temple, marking the end of that day’s fast and sponsored by NewGround: A Muslim-Jewish Partnership for Change. I listened to the presenters — NewGround board members, local city officials and graduates of NewGround’s interfaith fellowship programs — share their stories. As Muslim attendees knelt for Maghrib, the evening prayer, I stood at the back and realized how little I knew.

I did pick up on some comforting similarities. As a language nerd, I noticed that in Ramadan’s traditional greeting, “Ramadan Mubarak,” I barely had to squint linguistically to see a mevorakh (Hebrew for “blessed”). And I had read that the Ramadan fast is known as sawm; the Hebrew word tzom also means fast. My Ramadan project was working its magic already, connecting my Hebrew influences to their Arabic ones.

To guide me further into the semantics of Semitics, I reached out to my childhood friend Shari Lowin, now a professor of religious studies. In one example, she said, there are two words for charity (tzedakah in Hebrew): For Muslims, zakat is like a tithe — a portion of a Muslim’s salary donated to charity — and the language is about “making something pure,” similar to Hebrew’s zakh (shemen zakh, pure oil, is what fueled the miracle of Chanukah).

“According to Muslim scholarly theory,” Lowin said, “giving a portion purifies the rest of your money, makes it yours,” while the other word for charity, sadaqa, is from a root meaning “speak the truth, be sincere,” and denotes a voluntary giving of alms. And Maghrib means “sun” or “west,” phonetically similar to Hebrew words ma’arav (“west”) and Ma’ariv (the evening prayer).

Another friend I worked with about a decade ago, Dilshad Ali, managing editor of the Muslim channel at Patheos.com, filled me in on more worldly similarities between the adherents of our two different faiths — like concerns about assimilation’s impact on her teenage daughter.

“What are the foundations of faith inside of her? Is she strong in those foundations? I love the empowerment and [conversation around] owning your image and story, but I hope she’s still doing her prayers, still fasting, doing whatever is fundamental, and I hope [it] doesn’t get lost along the way,” she said.

The Ali family aims to “be respectful of differences and find similarities,” said Dilshad, whose parents are from India. “We try not to put ourselves in a silo. We are not only friends with people who are Muslim, or only people who are South Asian. I think that is a good model for them, having relationships and friends with people who are different.”

All of this dialogue inspired me, not just to learn more about the Muslim community but to build bridges to it, as well. Here are a few practical ways that I’ve decided to move my own Ramadan project forward — and you can, too.

1. Host Muslim friends for Shabbat dinner and other meals. I’ll account for dietary restrictions around food and alcohol, and strive for accessible conversation about the world, our faiths and our passions. When friends introduced me to my friend Marium, they told me she was “the Muslim Esther,” and that was pretty spot-on. Maybe there’s a “Muslim you” out there, too.

2. Learn about the Quran. Most Jews know very little about the Quran, even though Muslims know stories from the Jewish Bible. What is in the Quran, and how do its stories compare to those in the Torah?

3. Consider my own narrative in light of an interfaith (or multifaith) conversation. What do I need to tell Muslims about Judaism and what do I need to know about Islam for us to understand each other’s stories and be allies for each other’s communities?

4. Learn about programs that use education, dialogue and experiential discovery to connect Muslims and Jews. NewGround runs programs, as well as more in-depth fellowships. The Shalom Hartman Institute’s Muslim Leadership Institute invites North American Muslims to explore Judaism, Israel and Jewish peoplehood. Encounter Programs brings Jewish leaders to Israel for “transforming conflict through face-to-face understanding.”

As Dilshad noted, these relationships take honesty and time.

“It’s who you meet and engage with one on one,” she said. “It works slowly. Our world views expand one person at a time.”

Ramadan tours promote coexistence between Israeli Arabs and Jews

The group of Jewish-Israelis sat in a semicircle on the thick, red carpet of the mosque. The women wore headscarves; everyone’s feet were bare.

They had come to this Arab town in central Israel to experience a slice of Ramadan, the monthlong daytime fast observed by Muslims that ends this week. But before they left the mosque to visit Kfar Qasim’s Ramadan market — a nightly, open-air food bazaar — tour guide Shawkat Amer sounded a note of reassurance.

Amer told the crowd that just before the fast ended that evening, loudspeakers would sound calls of “Allahu akbar,” Arabic for “God is great,” across the city. Although it’s a phrase some Jewish-Israelis may associate with the final cry of terrorists before an attack, Amer urged his guests to remain calm. The call, he said, is in fact a message of goodwill.

“Don’t worry, it’s not a threat,” he said. “If I say it, you should feel pleasure.”

The nearly 50 men, women and children who joined the group on Sunday night were among some 1,500 Jews who have toured Arab-Israeli cities in the past month for a small taste of iftar, the nightly meal that breaks the Ramadan fast. In spite of tensions between the groups, it’s common for Jewish-Israelis to visit Arab towns for discount shopping or Middle Eastern food. But these tours aimed to take that experience deeper by teaching about Arab-Israeli culture and religion.

“If the only narrative is a Jewish narrative and the only history is Jewish, and you just buy hummus from Arabs, that’s not good,” said Ron Gerlitz, co-executive director of Sikkuy, the Jewish-Arab coexistence nonprofit that organized the tours in Arab cities across central and northern Israel. “I don’t object to people buying hummus in Kfar Qasim, but for relations between Jews and Arabs, you need more than that.”

A city of 21,000 residents adjacent to the West Bank border and the middle-class Jewish city of Rosh Haayin, Kfar Qasim is one of Israel’s poorer towns. The Hebrew signs on the shops lining its streets are meant to entice Jewish customers.

As Koranic verses signaling the break-fast echoed across the city, the tour group flooded into an open-air food market set up for Ramadan. Merchants sold the tourists delicacies such as sticky pastries, fruit, pickled vegetables and falafel, fried on the spot in a giant pan. Part of the idea behind the tours, Gerlitz said, is to boost the Arab-Israeli economy, which has less exposure to tourism dollars than Jewish cities.

“Tourism is a meaningful tool for economic development, and tourism right now is mostly in Jewish towns,” he said. “Government investment is mostly in Jewish towns. That means there aren’t investments in Arab towns.”

But the tours also aim to confront historical wounds. Near the center of town, an austere black-and-white monument that looks like an upside-down obelisk with the year 1956 emblazoned on top commemorates the Kfar Qasim massacre, when Israeli border guards killed 48 fieldworkers returning home at curfew. In 2007, then-President Shimon Peres formally apologized for the incident, but residents say they are still pained by its memory. Some said they value dialogue with Jews as a way to move past historical trauma.

The tour group “doesn’t make a difference for me — but for my kids it does, so they won’t say Jews are animals,” said Amer Amer, a vendor of pickled vegetables whose father died in the massacre. “I want Jews to feel trusted here, at home here. I don’t want them to just say, ‘Those are Arabs.’”

The tour provided few opportunities for informal conversation with residents, focusing more on basic information about Islam and Arab-Israeli culture. But Adi, a Hebrew tutor who declined to give her last name, said the group’s exposure to Arab culture and Islam was still more than Jewish-Israelis normally receive.

“I think it was at a more informative level, but as an Israeli I got more of a taste [of Arab-Israeli life] than I get day to day,” she said. “It gave more familiarity than what I’m used to.”

At the mosque visit ahead of their trip to the market, the Jewish group heard Eyad Amer, a local imam, alternate between outlining the basics of Ramadan and answering the group’s questions about Islamic worship. Was there space for women in the mosque? (Yes, in another room.) Does Islam have egalitarian movements, like Judaism? (No.) How many of the city’s 25,000 residents observe the fast? (80 percent, based on mosque attendance.)

“They just hear about extremist Islam,” the imam told JTA after the tour. “They don’t know what moderate Islam is. If we don’t talk about Islam, they’ll just have a negative outlook toward us because they’re just exposed to the dark side, not the enlightened side of Islam.”

Speaking to the group, both the imam and the tour guide complained of discrimination against Arabs in Israel. (In fact, in an interview, Imam Amer said he lived under Israeli occupation, despite being a citizen).

Still, there are hopes for improvement. A two-hour tour wouldn’t fix the longstanding challenges Arabs face in Israel, tour guide Shawkat Amer said — but he hoped that greater Jewish familiarity with Arab-Israelis could help chip away at tensions between the communities.

“I can’t fix the whole world, but even if I do 1 percent of good, it will get better and better,” he said. “The more Jewish people I bring to Arab towns, the happier I’ll be.”

Muslims and Jews forge friendships over dinner

Some Jews wore kippot, while Muslim fellows wore hijabs and niqabs as 300 members of the two religious communities came together over an iftar dinner June 25 during Ramadan at Wilshire Boulevard Temple. 

The break fast — which featured kosher and halal foods — was much more than a meal. The event was filled with interfaith dialogue and a practice known as “Two Faiths One Prayer” in which Muslims and Jews pray side by side. 

Organizers from NewGround: A Muslim-Jewish Partnership for Change said it was a gathering to make friendships, connections and harmony in order to help reduce Islamophobia and anti-Semitism in Los Angeles, the home of an estimated 600,000 Jews and 500,000 Muslims.

Aziza Hasan, executive director of NewGround, a community-building organization dedicated to strengthening Jewish-Muslim relations, told the Journal, “[The event] connects Jewish and Muslim communities. Each of them that we host, they have one-on-one conversations and build connection and relationships. … It really focuses on community building.”

Attendees participated in a Q-and-A session and shared different aspects of their culture, religion and experiences. 

Wilshire Boulevard Temple’s Rabbi Susan Goldberg said having such a dialogue in which both the Jewish and Muslim communities learn about their differences and commonalities is vitally important.  

“I think that both of our communities have experienced an incredible amount of discrimination. … Unfortunately for Muslims, Islamophobia is a really pervasive occurrence. So I think we have empathy for each other from those experiences,” she said.

“It is really important that we stand up for Muslims when they are dealing with a level of discrimination,” added Goldberg, who is also a NewGround board member. 

Through a number of initiatives, NewGround strives to transform Muslim-Jewish relations and advance a shared agenda for change. Its annual fellowship program this year elected students — half from one faith, half from the other — to participate in the nine-month program. 

Soraya Ahyaudin, a NewGround fellow and one of the recent graduates honored during the evening at Wilshire Boulevard Temple, said the program taught her how to engage in difficult conversations — and then how to take action. 

“It is just a skill that you learn during [the] sessions, but it is also a skill that you can implement in your life, in your career and in your relationships that you have outside the fellowship,” Ahyaudin told the Journal. 

She said she realized that being uncomfortable while listening to others is not a bad thing. 

“It is something that you should embrace because if you are unconfortable, that means you learn something new about other cultures, other religions and other people,” Ahyaudin said. 

“I had learned about how to engage better with people in conflict conversations. So, I definitely see this is [a] very useful skill to implement in my job that I’m applying for right now because I’m looking for work in interfaith and human rights fields,” continued Ahyaudin, who studied public diplomacy at USC.

Jewish independent filmmaker Eliyahu Ungar-Sargon, a NewGround fellow who graduated last year, echoed these sentiments.

“We learned how to [make] a really difficult conversation become [a] very productive conversation,” he said.

“You see on the news every day now a situation in which people are communicating violently,” added Ungar-Sargon, who just finished a documentary about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. “They are … lacking tools that are necessary to have important conversations to sort of move this thing in a nonviolent direction.”

Muslim and Jewish Jerusalemites break bread together

This article originally appeared on The Media Line.

As the call to prayer marking the end of the day-long Ramadan fast echoed from a nearby mosque, the two dozen people sat down and began eating. There were many traditional Arab foods, and conversation flowed easily. It looked like any post-fasting dinner table in the Arab world.

What was unique here is that most of the guests had never met the hosts, Bronka and Aref Tahboub, before this night. The Tahboub’s had opened their home to a group of Israeli Jews who wanted to experience the iftar meal.

“There are so many things here that we don’t control,” Aref told The Media Line in fluent Hebrew. “But Arabs and Jews have to live together. I’ve worked with Jews all my life and I want my children to get to know Jews.”

The meeting was organized by Kids4Peace, a grassroots organization that brings Muslim, Christian and Jewish children in Jerusalem together. About 25 Jewish families signed up to be hosted by Palestinian families, along with their children.

The Tahboubs have three children, two boys, age 14 and 11, and a daughter who is 9, and all three children are fasting.  While it is only compulsory to fast from puberty, many children choose to start earlier.

“They see all of their neighbors fasting, and they want to do it too,” Bronka, an English teacher told The Media Line. “Ramadan is a special time for us. We believe that the gates of hell are closed, and the sky opens the doors to our prayers.”

Ramadan also marks the time that Muslims believe Allah revealed the Qur’an to the Prophet Mohammed, who was illiterate. As it based on the solar calendar, rather than the lunar calendar, it rotates through the seasons. Muslims fast from dawn to dusk. Mohammed used to break his fast with a date, and Muslims today do the same.

At the Tahboubs in the upscale east Jerusalem neighborhood of Beit Hanina, the Jewish guests quickly feel at home.

“It starts with me being a citizen of Jerusalem,” Duel Peli, a lawyer whose daughter attends Kids4Peace told The Media Line. “Jerusalem is a mixed city with people from different ethnic origins and different nationalities. I live in this city I want to be friendly with as many of the different populations as I can.”

He says that being part of Kids4Peace, which divides the children into groups of one-third Jewish, one-third Christian and one-third Muslim, has been an eye-opening experience for him. The parents have parallel workshops to the children, who go to summer camp together in the US.

“I find myself in the minority which is an important feeling for me to have,” he said. “It makes me understand what it is like to be a minority in Jerusalem and in Israel.”

The population in Jerusalem is two-thirds Jewish and one-third Arab, divided between Muslims and Christians. The meetings have continued despite more than a year of tensions in Jerusalem, which began last June when Hamas terrorists kidnapped and killed three Israeli teenagers in the West Bank. Jewish extremists then kidnapped a Palestinian boy, Mohammed Abu Khdeir, from Shuafat, a neighborhood less than a mile from Beit Hanina. Bronka Tahboub says she knows Mohammed’s father well, and visited him after his son was killed.

His death, and the fighting between Israel and Hamas last summer in Gaza, during which several rockets were fired toward Jerusalem, has negatively affected her nine-year-old daughter Leen, who for the past year has refused to sleep in her own bed.

Yet Bronka says the tensions have only strengthened her resolve to reach out to her Jewish neighbors.

“When God created us He didn’t say “You’re a Muslim, you’re a Christian, you’re a Jew,” she said. “We are all humans and I wanted to share the good precious holy moments of Ramadan with other people. Everyone has a different view and perspective we need to share it together to remove the anger and the sadness in the area.”

After dinner, as the kids played soccer outside, Bronka took out a water pipe and began puffing on melon and mint scented tobacco. As the water pipe made its rounds, the tensions in Jerusalem between Arabs and Jews seemed far away.

Muslim, Jewish fellows celebrate Iftar together

What started off as a group full of professional yet skeptical Jews and Muslims ended with a bond as strong as blood. 

“There isn’t a boundary anymore, so we’re one big group of friends. It’s like we became a family,” said Deborah Tehrani, 31, a Jew from Sherman Oaks, one of 24 people who recently celebrated the conclusion of their time as NewGround Fellows. The program brings young Muslim and Jewish professionals together to help transform how the two groups relate to each other. 

As part of NewGround’s annual iftar — the Muslim break-fast during Ramadan — more than 200 people gathered on July 17 at Wilshire Boulevard Temple to listen to reflections from some of the fellowship’s participants. For those leaving the program, the event was a bittersweet moment.

“I’m excited and sad because the past seven months, we’ve become very close,” said Rumaisa Rahman, 35, a Muslim who owns a promotions and entertainment company and lives in Studio City. “It started with people holding back, and now we’ve become a family.”

Outgoing participants said they look forward to applying what they’ve learned. Rahman, for example, is excited about working on the Web series the group created that will be used to post videos focused on Muslim and Jewish issues. 

The event included a period during which attendees were engaged in an abbreviated version of the kind of exercises used in the program. At one point, everyone present was instructed to find someone they didn’t know. Then, in response to a question, they took turns talking for 90 seconds and listening for 90 seconds. This was followed by 30 seconds of silence during which everyone found a new partner with whom they pondered the answers of the previous one.

Topic included: Where do you find community? Who do you consider your people? What inspires you? With each new question, everyone found a new partner. 

Dinner was also part of the event, and everyone was allowed time to pray, eat or shmooze. 

Rabbi Sarah Bassin, executive director of NewGround, sees the outgoing participants as now part of a greater network of graduates who can use their influence to “help resolve future conflicts that may arise in the community and to act as bridge builders at a time when there is no bridge.”

NewGround currently is looking for its next fellowship cohort of Jews and Muslims. Those interested may apply at muslimjewishnewground.org. If they’re anything like Farah Abdulla, 33, a Muslim physician who lives in Pasadena, they should be ready for new ideas and growth.

“I’m looking forward to coming together with a common understanding that we’ve changed over the course of the last eight months, at least our worldviews,” she said. “I feel that I better understand the Jewish perspective and where they’re coming from.”

At joint iftar celebration, Muslim-Jewish High School Council launched

A recent break-fast meal, held in the courtyard of the Westside Jewish Community Center, began with the blowing of a shofar. The sun hadn’t yet set, so the baskets of pita and dried dates placed on every table remained untouched.

And Yom Kippur was more than a month away.

“Ramadan Mubarak,” said Rabbi Sarah Bassin to the 200-odd Jews and Muslims who had gathered on Thursday evening, Aug. 9, to participate in an iftar, the nightly meal that marks the end of each day of fasting during the holy month of Ramadan.

Bassin is the executive director of NewGround, a project aimed at creating an atmosphere of trust between American Muslims and Jews, rather than one of mutual suspicion. To that end, NewGround is in the process of assembling a fifth cohort of 20 young Muslim and Jewish professionals for its fellowship.

On Aug. 9, the organization officially launched a second, similar initiative, the Muslim-Jewish High School Leadership Council. During the coming academic year, eight Jewish and eight Muslim high school students will gather for biweekly seminars and other activities designed to foster relationships and teach them about Muslims and Jews in America.

But if the council’s work can be described in concrete tasks, at least some at the JCC spoke of far loftier goals.

“I want to prove them all wrong,” Natalia Jean Garatto, a member of the new council and president of her youth group at Temple Emanuel in Beverly Hills, told the gathering. “The people who believe that the wars and mutual intolerance will never end and those that think that teenagers have no influence or ability to impact our world.”

Rabbi Sharon Brous of IKAR began the evening by offering words of prayer, and acknowledged the poignancy of a group of Muslims and Jews gathering in the wake of the mass shooting that took place at a Sikh temple in Wisconsin earlier in the week. It was a chance, she said, for people of faith to stand in solidarity, not just with the Sikh community, but with the Muslim community that the killer believed he was targeting.

“We stand together tonight dedicated to realizing the triumph of light over darkness, and love over all else,” Brous said.

The iftar was sponsored by a handful of Muslim and Jewish groups and was choreographed to demonstrate how the council hopes to achieve its lofty goals, but also served to illustrate for the attendees — including the 14 fellows, their families and other members of the local Muslim and Jewish communities — a number of commonalities between the Jewish and Muslim faiths.

The Muslims broke the day’s fast with dried dates; Imam Rushdan Mujahid-Deen of Masjid Bilal Islamic Center explained it was customary for the first food eaten each evening of Ramadan to be a natural food. Some of the Muslims then went upstairs for the Maghrib prayer while a handful of Jews stood in a section of the courtyard for the Ma’ariv service.

What followed was a substantial meal, with the crowd serving themselves plates of vegetarian Indian food from a buffet. Then, under the night sky, Muslims and Jews sat down together. They talked, listened and ate.

“Food always gets people together,” said Mirvat Kamel, whose daughter, Maha, is taking part in the council this year, “that’s what we said.”

For Israel’s Muslims, Ramadan a time to celebrate Islam in the Jewish state

Last week, Muslim and Jewish soldiers gathered after a day’s training to eat a communal iftar, the traditional break-the-fast meal eaten after sunset during the month-long observance of the Islamic holiday of Ramadan.

“Ramadan isn’t just one day like the 17th of Tammuz or Tisha B’Av,” said Col. Ahmed Ramiz, head of the minority population directorate in the Human Resources branch of the Israel Defense Forces. “It affects an organization like ours to have so many people fasting for 30 days, because we’re the army. We don’t stop for 30 days, or even one day. But during times like these, we try to keep their needs in mind, and help out where we can.”

Ramadan—a month-long ritual during which Muslims are enjoined not to eat, drink, smoke or engage in sex during daylight hours—is formally recognized in Israeli workplaces as a religious holiday. Yet, like other Muslim holidays, it still isn’t part of the cultural map of a Jewish state more focused on Rosh Hashanah, Passover and Yom Ha’atzmaut, or Israel Independence Day.

“Sure, you get your days off and your short days during Ramadan. But there’s an issue of legitimization; Arab language and holidays and culture are marginalized,” said Amnon Be’eri-Sulitzeanu, co-executive director of the Abraham Fund Initiatives, which promotes equality and coexistence in Israel. “We have to legitimize Arab culture so that Arab citizens feel legitimized, so that they feel that Israel is their state, and that the Jewish citizens recognize their culture, heritage and tradition.”

In the Israel Civil Service, Ramadan is an accepted part of the annual calendar, figured into a combination of vacation and personal days like any other religious holiday, whether Jewish, Christian, Druze, Armenian or Greek Orthodox. Just as certain significant Jewish days – such as the summertime fast of Tisha B’Av, or the week of Chanukah, when kids are off from school—can be taken as personal days, so, too, with Ramadan. Because Islam, unlike Judaism, doesn’t have a leap month, Ramadan’s timing with the secular calendar varies from year to year and can fall in any season.

Muslims observing Ramadan generally require certain accommodations at the workplace. Some ask if they can come in late to eat sahar, the pre-dawn breakfast, or leave early to prepare for iftar, the after-sunset dinner. Representatives from Jerusalem’s municipal water company, Bank Hapoalim, and Hadassah Medical Center all shared with JTA details about the special accommodations they offer for observers of Ramadan.

In Jerusalem, the municipality announced the official start of the month with cannon shots fired from an eastern Jerusalem armory, and continued with shots fired off each day at sunrise and sunset to mark the beginning and end of the daily fast.

The municipality also sponsors an annual online Ramadan quiz that this year drew 800 participants from across Israel. Jerusalem also marks Ramadan by stringing festive lights along the Old City gates and supplying special Ramadan food to needy Arab and Christian families. In addition, various nonprofit organizations host a series of interfaith dialogues and iftar meals throughout the country.

At the President’s Residence in Jerusalem, President Shimon Peres has hosted iftar meals. On Sunday, he hosted Egypt’s deputy ambassador to Israel, Mustafa Al-Khani, and Jordanian ambassador to Israel Difla Ali al Faiz for the meal. Even Israel’s ambassador in Washington, Michael Oren, was scheduled to hold an iftar meal this week.

The IDF, which has hundreds of Muslim soldiers, primarily Bedouins, observing Ramadan, makes accommodations for them to pray and eat at the designated times, according to Ramiz.

“The army’s H.R. department handles the accommodations, and we also ease their physical training if necessary,” Ramiz said. “If you’re a combat soldier and you run 12 kilometers, you lose a lot of water, so we try to cut down on certain kinds of training, spending more time in classes during the month of Ramadan. Those working desk jobs can go home early for iftar.”

But the Abraham Fund Initiatives’ Be’eri-Sulitzeanu says Israel needs more nationwide celebration of a tradition observed in some way by one-fifth of its citizens. His organization works with one Jewish-Arab city or region each year, organizing a community iftar meal with local Jewish and Arab leaders. This year, the hosts were the Arab mayor of Rahat, a Bedouin town in the Negev, and local Jewish regional leaders.

“We’re not a production company,” Be’eri-Sulitzeanu said. “What we’re trying to do is raise awareness of and attentiveness to these cultural Arab events.”

Khaled Diab, an Egyptian-Belgian journalist currently living in Jerusalem, recently wrote a column in the Jerusalem Post in which he said that Jews and Muslims can find much in common in the fasts that are common to the three Abrahamic faiths. Diab noted that the words for fasting, tzom in Hebrew and saum in Arabic, are similar, as is the holiday etiquette, with non-observant individuals refraining from eating in public.

For Hassan Saym, a former Jordanian who employs about 10 young Arab men at his car wash on Bethlehem Road in the tony Jewish neighborhood of Baka, Ramadan can be a tough time to clean cars. He finds that his employees often have a hard time sustaining the physical labor during Ramadan. Those who are not as strictly observant as their families might think don’t want to bring food from home because they’re expected to fast, and they can’t buy food locally because of the price.

“Some just drink Coke and eat cookies while they’re here, because they can’t afford to buy the local food,” Saym said.

But his Jewish clients get it, Saym added.

“They always ask if we’re working when it’s Ramadan, and will often make do with just an outside cleaning,” he said. “I’m just thankful that Ramadan isn’t during Pesach, when everyone needs their car cleaned.”