Interfaith program joins Muslims and Jews in prayer

On Feb. 7, at Shabbat services at Temple Beth Hillel (TBH) — a Reform shul in Valley Village — a small, attractive woman sang religious songs she had coauthored. In a sweet, self-assured voice — with undertones of depth and strength — Ani Zonneveld, brimming with heartfelt energy, sang about light and prayer and soul, words the 50 or 60 congregants had often heard during Jewish services. 

There was one word, however, that stuck out, one word that most weren’t used to hearing in the shul’s sanctuary: Allah. “Oh, Allah, increase my light everywhere. … Oh, Allah, Oh, Allah.”

TBH Senior Rabbi Sarah Hronsky — flanked by overhead screens projecting Zonneveld’s lyrics — suggested that congregants, if they wished, could substitute whatever word or phrase they felt most comfortable with: Elohim or Adonai or HaShem.

In another song, Zonneveld — born and raised a Muslim and devoted to the religion — used “Allah” and “Adonai” interchangeably: “Allah one love … Adonai one love. …” In yet another lovely piece of music, Zonneveld sang that Adonai and Allah are the same, and that “prayer should bring us to an altar where there are no walls.”

Indeed, “no walls” could be the motto for the Ishmael-Isaac Program, which has brought TBH — the San Fernando Valley’s oldest Reform shul — together with Muslims for Progressive Values (MPV), a group Zonneveld founded in 2007 and still leads. 

When TBH’s rabbi emeritus, Jim Kaufman, met Zonneveld several years ago, both realized that they — and the Jewish and Muslim communities each led — shared many of the same values: openness, inclusiveness, mistrust of theocracy, support for LGTB rights, equality of men and women, freedom of choice in religious ceremony and acceptance of the validity of others’ paths.

Both also realized that their respective groups are dismissed by factions within their own religions, factions that see Reform Judaism or progressive Islam as illegitimate or dangerous. 

Kaufman and Zonneveld also became aware that they shared a love of music, especially the kind that attempts to bring both the musician and the listener closer to inner light and soul and other ineffable spiritual concepts. 

As a result, for nearly two years, TBH and MPV have prayed together occasionally, studied sacred texts together and performed acts of tzedakah (charity) together. 

Prior to the joint Feb. 7 Shabbat service, Kaufman reflected on how unusual the evening’s prayer program was — not just because Jews and Muslims were about to pray together at the same service, but also because Zonneveld would be performing her songs. 

“In traditional Islam,” Kaufman said, “you don’t hear a woman’s voice. There’s no woman singing in a mosque. Of course, that was true of traditional Judaism until not that long ago.”

Zonneveld smiled impishly. “Yes,” she said, “there are several layers of revolution going on here tonight.” Apparently, this would not be the first time Zonneveld would break stereotypes. 

“My father was Malaysian ambassador to a number of countries,” Zonneveld said, reflecting on her unusual life path. “So when I was two and a half, we left Malaysia, where I was born, and moved to Germany, then Egypt, then India, for a total of 16 years. Then back to Malaysia for a year and a half, then I came to the U.S. to go to college and have been here ever since.”

Zonneveld has been a singer, composer and music producer, has released a number of her own musical albums and has produced music for others. A song she co-wrote even won a Grammy. 

A committed Muslim, over the last decade Zonneveld has devoted much of her creative energy to composing and performing songs with Muslim content. These songs speak of universal spiritual longings, resonating with those from any — or no — religious tradition.

Zonneveld stressed that her songs, her alliance with TBH and her progressive views are not inconsistent with Islam and do not in any way indicate that she is a “self-hating Muslim,” as she put it. “I’m not,” she said. “MPV is not composed of self-hating Muslims. We’re addressing issues important to us, rights enunciated in the Quran: freedom of expression, freedom from religion, gender equality, LGTB rights. … You have a right to be whoever you want to be — that is in the Quran.”

And at TBH, Zonneveld has found a group that’s in synch with MPV’s fundamental beliefs.

“With Temple Beth Hillel,” Zonneveld said, “we have a very deep love for each other, and the connection with them is very sweet and very meaningful. The fact that we can do religious services together indicates that it’s not a superficial relationship. It’s not a superficial interfaith event, like many of them are. When you’re actually praying together, it’s a different animal. …

“It really goes to our commonness. … What we’ve really been enjoying is studying about our faith traditions, and the similarities are just amazing, especially when it comes to the roots of our faith.”

Rabbi Jim, as Kaufman is known to the congregation, is retired from active leadership of TBH, but he spoke at the recent Shabbat service in which MPV participated and played a key role.

“There is so much healing needed in this world,” Kaufman told the congregation, “especially between Muslims and Jews.” 

Acknowledging sadly that the relationship between Muslims and Jews everywhere, including in the United States, has been frayed by the Arab-Israeli conflict, Kaufman pointed out that “theocracies, Muslim and Jewish, [have been] complicit in sustaining the conflict.” He added that, because of the Arab-Israeli situation, as well as other reasons, Muslims and Jews harbor prejudices against each other: what he called Islamophobia and Judeophobia.

But then Kaufman called attention to the bridges that connect the two peoples. Both have “written and oral traditions that blend God’s will with the human experience.” He pointed out that “both are monotheisms, both believe in frequent prayer and tzedakah, in fasting as a means of self-improvement, in pilgrimages to Israel and to Mecca. …” 

And Kaufman pointed out that the two share the same ancestor, Abraham, father of both Isaac and Ishmael. “As half-siblings, we share not only a common parent, but many shared principles and values.” 

Toward the end of the service, the two groups drew together, arms around one another, and sang — appropriately — “Hineh Mah Tov.”

While watching Muslims and Jews swaying together, singing a song that extols the virtues of brothers and sisters dwelling together in harmony, it’s easy for an observer to be cynical about how much one tiny candle of Muslim-Jewish goodwill can achieve. But then one’s eyes stray to the text above the ark, above the singers whose arms wrap around the others’ shoulders.

Written in Hebrew is a well-known quote from Rabbi Hillel: V’eem loh achshav, eimatai?

And if not now, when?

Moving and Shaking: JWW presents Survivors’ Legacy Award, TBH hosts Feed the Hungry Feast

From left: Janice Kamenir-Reznik, JWW president and co-founder; JWW honoree Mukesh Kapila; Rabbi Harold Schulweis, JWW co-founder; and Michael Jeser, JWW executive director. Photo by  Brian Swann

Jewish World Watch (JWW) presented its Survivors’ Legacy Award — which recognizes activists who honor the legacy of the Holocaust by responding to genocide wherever it occurs — to the Rabbi Jacob Pressman Academy on Nov. 17.

Receiving the organization’s I Witness Award that same day was Mukesh Kapila, a Darfur genocide whistleblower and former United Nations resident and humanitarian coordinator for the Sudan. He was one of the first public figures to bring international awareness to the Darfur genocide of 2003.

In giving the Survivors’ Legacy Award to the Pressman Academy, JWW highlighted student participation in the organization’s annual Walk to End Genocide, its work to pressure elected officials to take action against mass killings overseas, fundraising and more. 

Over the last seven years, Pressman, which is affiliated with Temple Beth Am and the Conservative day school movement, has raised more than $32,000 for JWW with its annual Jump for Darfur campaign. Pressman alumna Michelle Hirschorn, who was also honored, started the campaign when she was in fourth grade at Pressman.

The I Witness Award “recognizes leaders who have made contributions to the fight against genocide by raising awareness and spurring activism,” according to a JWW statement. During the event, held at Temple Isaiah in West Los Angeles, the congregation’s Rabbi Zoë Klein interviewed Kapila. The U.K.-based diplomatic figure, author and university professor discussed his experience serving in the United Nations and speaking out about the crimes in Sudan, despite the pushback from the then-members of the Sudanese government. 

More than 200 attendees turned out for the event. From JWW, there was Janice Kamenir-Reznik, president and co-founder; Rabbi Harold Schulweis, co-founder; and Michael Jeser, executive director. Students and administrators from Pressman Academy were present as well. They included Pressman’s Rav Beit Sefer (head school rabbi), Chaim Tureff, middle school principal Inez Tiger, interim head of school Rabbi Joel Rembaum and Judaic studies principal Jill Linder.

Founded in 2004, the San Fernando Valley-based JWW describes itself on its Web site as a “leading organization in the fight against genocide and mass atrocities,” with a focus on the “ongoing crises in Sudan and eastern Congo.”

Guests enjoy a holiday meal at the 13th annual Temple Beth Hillel Feed the Hungry Thanksgiving Feast outdoors on the temple campus. Photo courtesy of Temple Beth Hillel

Valley Village synagogue Temple Beth Hillel (TBH) fed more than 800 needy people, including the homeless, seniors and mentally ill individuals, during its 13th annual Thanksgiving Day Feed the Hungry Feast on Nov. 28.

“It was nice to see our community come together,” TBH Senior Rabbi Sarah Hronsky said.

The annual event took place in the synagogue’s parking lot and drew more than 200 volunteers on Thanksgiving Day. They helped with cooking, hosting and waiting tables at a gathering that featured restaurant-style service. Volunteers also helped with delivering meals to those in need.

Additional volunteers came from Muslims for Progressive Values, whose Web site indicates that its goal is to be a voice for “human dignity, egalitarianism, compassion and social justice.”

 Hronsky emphasized the need for free holiday meals such as these, noting that a line of hungry people formed around the block prior to the event. The Reform congregation open its doors early to accommodate the crowd.

Preparation took place over the course of several days, with temple members cooking more than 1,000 pounds of turkey, 250 pounds of cornbread stuffing and 400 pounds of vegetables, as well as apple cobbler and other items.

Organizers included the temple’s Brotherhood and Women of TBH clubs, as well as congregant and professional caterer Scott Tessler. A presentation honored Tessler’s longtime involvement with the event.

Opposition continues despite new Boy Scout policy

In 2001, Temple Israel of Hollywood (TIOH) overwhelmingly decided to end its sponsorship of Cub Scout Pack 1300 to protest the Boy Scouts of America’s (BSA) policy banning openly gay scouts and leaders. It ended a nearly 50-year tradition of scouting at the Reform congregation.

Now, in the wake of BSA’s decision last month to end that policy for children — but not openly gay scoutmasters — the question remained: Will TIOH and other synagogues that acted similarly re-establish ties?

“Until they change their policy, all around, we would never even consider it,” TIOH Rabbi John Rosove said. 

Rosove was one of 500 rabbis and cantors — 24 of whom were from the Los Angeles area — who signed a letter that was delivered by the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism (RAC) to the National Council of the Boy Scouts of America on May 21 urging leaders to change its membership policy for children and adults. BSA made its partial change two days later.

For A.J. Kreimer, former chairman of the National Jewish Committee on Scouting (NJCOS), that change was a victory — one that he, like Rosove, hopes soon extends to adults as well. 

The NJCOS has, since 1926, been an officially chartered BSA committee. Among other things, it helps grow Jewish membership in the Scouts, develops programming for Jewish troops and packs around the country, and works with the national BSA to schedule major events so that they don’t conflict with Shabbat and holidays.

[Related: Jewish scouts say lifting of ban on gays is ‘momentous’]

Kreimer, speaking by telephone from his home in New Jersey, recounted how he has opposed the Scouts’ membership policy since the Supreme Court, in 2000, ruled 5-4 in Boy Scouts of America v. Dale that the Scouts, as a private organization, has a First Amendment right to set its own membership standards, including its exclusion of openly gay scouts and leaders.

Until BSA’s leadership completely amends the policy, Kreimer said, he will use his influence and position as president of BSA’s Northeast Region board to “continue to advocate for full inclusion.” But he and the NJCOS insist that efforts to reform the Scouts are more effective from within rather than from the outside. 

The Reform movement has taken a different position. As Ellen Aprill, a professor at Loyola Law School and a TIOH member who was the congregation’s president when it voted to end its sponsorship of Pack 1300, told the Journal, “We were convinced by everything we knew that there was no way we could fight from within.”

Since the Reform movement called for its synagogues to break with BSA in 2001, scouting in Reform congregations has dropped to the point where “now the number is infinitesimally small,” according to Barbara Weinstein, the RAC’s associate director.

“There were plenty of congregations that had those relationships,” Weinstein said. “Now there are very, very few that do.”

One of the few Reform synagogues to sponsor the Scouts is Temple Beth Hillel (TBH) in Valley Village. It never ended its sponsorship of Troop 36 and Pack 311, but it also effectively wrote into its charter that the congregation could disregard BSA’s policy restricting membership to openly gay scouts and leaders.

Although BSA has the power to revoke the charter of a sponsoring organization that de facto rejects its membership policy, Rabbi Sarah Hronsky said that it has never taken any action against the synagogue. Like NJCOS, Hronsky thinks pressure from the inside is more likely to change BSA than external pressure. 

“They tried to change it from without. They went through the court system,” she said, referring to the Dale case. “You can’t change something from without.” 

Hronsky said that to the best of her knowledge, the RAC has never pressured TBH to break from BSA and did not ask her to sign on to its recent letter.

The decline in Jewish scouting in general has not quite matched the pace of that in Reform synagogues, but in the last few decades it has declined significantly, according to Kreimer and Rabbi Peter Hyman, the national Jewish chaplain for BSA. Kreimer estimates that there were around 75,000 to 100,000 Jewish scouts in the 1950s. Now, he thinks there are closer to 40,000.

Hyman, who lives in Maryland and is the spiritual leader of a Reform synagogue, said, “There were times when there were troops in almost every synagogue, coast to coast, irrespective of theological leanings.” 

Both Kreimer and Hyman are lifelong Scouts and have reached the highest attainable rank — Eagle Scout. The latter spoke about the intersection of Jewish and scouting values. 

 “Don’t we want our kids, as Jews, to be trustworthy, loyal, to acknowledge God and to embrace tradition?” 

Trust and loyalty are two elements of the “Scout Law,” which is composed of 12 virtues that every scout is expected to uphold.

According to Kreimer, Hyman, and current NJCOS Chairman Bruce Chudacoff, several congregations that had been boycotting the Scouts have expressed interest in re-establishing a connection following the May vote on membership.

[From our archives: Rob Eshman — Scout’s honor]

Chudacoff, who lives in Wisconsin, said that one possible explanation for the decline in Jewish scouting is opposition to BSA’s policy. The recent change, he thinks, “is a good foundation for us to build and increase membership.” 

In Los Angeles, TBH and at least two other synagogues — Beth Jacob Congregation in Beverly Hills and Shaarey Zedek Congregation in Valley Village, both Orthodox — sponsor Scout troops and packs. 

Jeff Feuer is the Cubmaster for Pack 360 at Beth Jacob and the chairman of the Jewish Committee on Scouting for the West Los Angeles County Council. He has been Cubmaster for 13 years, and one of his main tasks in his role as chairman is to organize events among the Jewish units that also include Jews from the non-Jewish units. In Los Angeles, as nationally, most Jewish scouts are not in Jewish units. For the handful of observant Jews in scouting, though, a Jewish unit is a must.

“It’s very difficult for an observant Jew to participate in scouting unless it’s in a Jewish unit,” Feuer said. “Non-Jewish units meet on Shabbat, they meet on chagim [holidays], they serve non-kosher food.”

From describing a 200-scout Memorial Day weekend campout in the Santa Monica Mountains to a pinewood derby (a race involving handmade wooden model cars), to any number of activities designed to build character, leadership and survival skills, Feuer’s position is that synagogues that are holding out until BSA further reconsiders its sexual orientation policies should reconsider.

“I understand the objection,” he said. “But the loss to the community is a great one.” 

Scouting, Feuer thinks, does for boys what few other institutions can do in terms of building character, and though he understands some synagogues’ objection to scouting’s historical position on gays, he hopes they “weigh in their own minds what they think the trade-off is” and become more accepting of the Scouts. 

In 2000, the Orthodox Union Advocacy Center — the Orthodox equivalent of the RAC, representing nearly 1,000 Orthodox synagogues in America — issued a press release supporting the Dale decision that protected BSA’s membership policy as a First Amendment right. Unlike the RAC, the OU Advocacy Center has not been particularly vocal about BSA’s policy. It did not release a comment following BSA’s recent vote and has not publicly issued any memoranda to its member synagogues advising any position vis-à-vis the Scouts.

In the fall, Feuer and the local branch of the NJCOS will, as they do every year, try to bring local synagogues into the scouting fold. He is hopeful that some that have recently given BSA the cold shoulder may warm up. 

For now, he acknowledges that what could be a strong relationship between the Scouts and many congregations is “tarnished by this big political problem,” one that, if it disappears, could reopen the doors to a renaissance of Jewish scouting.

“It’s so much in keeping with Jewish values generally, you’d think every synagogue would want one.”