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.” 

N.Y. rabbis pull out of Muslim-Jewish twinning project

Two rabbis in western New York have pulled out of a Muslim-Jewish outreach effort, charging that the national sponsor is involved in Islamic fundamentalism.

The “twinning” project, which has been held each November since 2008, is a project of the Foundation for Ethnic Understanding in cooperation with the Islamic Society of North America, which was named as an unindicted co-conspirator in the 2007 Holy Land Foundation terrorist financing case.

Rabbi Irwin Tanenbaum of Temple Beth Am and Rabbi Alex Lazarus-Klein of Temple Sinai, both of Amherst, declined to participate in the twinning events this month, despite participating last year, citing concerns about the Islamic Society’s links to Islamic fundamentalist groups, the Buffalo News reported Nov. 11.

Rabbi Drorah Setel of Temple Beth El in Niagara Falls, N.Y., is the only area rabbi to go forward with the program, according to the newspaper.

“The conflict in the Middle East ends up affecting passions here,” Lazarus-Klein told the Buffalo News. “The issues are very close to people’s hearts, and it’s difficult to separate the world politics from local politics, and that’s unfortunate.”

A national group based in Boston last year warned Buffalo-area Jews that radical Muslims posing as moderates had infiltrated the area.

“What we found was that the entities behind the Buffalo interfaith effort are anything but moderate,” Ilya Feoktistov, research director of Americans for Peace and Tolerance, wrote in an online publication.

One event held last week in western New York had to be moved from a small synagogue to a private home after objections by members of the congregation, the Buffalo News reported.

Twinning builds friendships between U.S. and Israeli youth

The first time Sarah Blau, 17, visited Israel, she felt like a tourist. But her second trip to the Jewish homeland in March 2007 was quite a different experience.

“My second time there I was like, wow, I have a family here,” said the Oakwood School student, who also attends Los Angeles Hebrew High School. “I want to join the Israeli army or there’s a three-year ulpan I can do after college. I know I have to do something, because I really do have a connection to it now.”

Blau’s life-changing journey was part of The Jewish Federation’s Tel Aviv-Los Angeles Partnership’s school twinning program. The partnership, a 10-year-old program, matches Los Angeles and Tel Aviv schools to form a relationship between the two communities. American and Israeli students correspond via e-mail, online chats and video conferencing; share a joint curriculum, and participate in travel exchanges to meet one another and spend time in their mutual countries.

The goal is to maintain a strong bond between Jews in the United States and Israel. Currently, 18 Los Angeles schools participate in the program. Participating students, or “delegates,” range from fifth to 11th grade, depending on the school.

While Jewish day schools were among the first Los Angeles schools to participate, the twinning program recently expanded to include supplemental schools. The religious schools within Temple Judea of Tarzana, Temple Israel of Hollywood and Congregation Ner Tamid of South Bay are among the new participants.

“We want to reach those kids who are not in the day schools and who are less connected to Israel,” said Ahuva Ron, The Jewish Federation’s Tel Aviv-Los Angeles senior education director.

When Temple Judea’s religious school joined the twinning program three years ago with its Tel Aviv twin, Ironi Yud Daled, the shul community’s interest in Israel changed dramatically.

“Israel was a back-burner issue for a lot of our families,” said Rabbi Bruce Raff, the religious school’s education director, who travels with his students during the exchange. “Now there is tremendous enthusiasm about Israel that has become so pervasive in our religious school that children younger and younger can’t wait until I take them there.”

This communitywide passion has inspired the synagogue to organize other yearly trips to the Holy Land, including an adults-only trip and a family trip, not to mention the subsequent trips that former delegates often take with their families after their partnership experience.

While supplemental twinning programs are clearly transformational, they present a unique set of challenges. Since afternoon schools usually only meet once or twice a week, it takes more time for teachers to get through the curriculum.

“What we can accomplish in one week in day school, we need a month in afternoon schools,” Ron said.

At Los Angeles Hebrew High School, students must correspond with their Israeli counterparts in their free time because some of their classes are held at Pierce College, where they do not have access to computers for in-class chatting, video conferences or e-mail.

Because religious school students attend a variety of different public and private schools, conflicting vacation schedules can make travel schedules difficult. While Jewish day schools are very accommodating when their students travel to Israel for the partnership, other schools are not always as supportive.

“One of the challenges is that our kids are missing school, and they are missing schools that don’t sanction our trip,” said Raff from Temple Judea. “Many of the schools are not happy about the students leaving for an extended period of time.”

In addition to helping the delegates get permission from their schools, trips are sometimes planned over spring break so that students usually miss no more than one week of school. Consequently, this means that the trip takes place during the Israeli students’ school break. Because of these circumstances, these delegates spend only a day or so at their Israeli school.

Administrators at Temple Israel of Hollywood plan to assist their religious school students in gearing up for their April trip.

“We’ll be in close contact with the principals about what [the students are] set to gain from this experience and how their learning experience will outweigh what they’re missing,” said Eden Sage, the interim religious school director. “We’ll be working closely to make sure these kids have the support they need from their schools.”

While traveling to Israel makes history come to life for delegates, it is clearly the new lifelong friendships that solidify the students’ connection to Israel. For Ben Poretzky, a Temple Judea delegate from 2007, loving Israel is very much tied to his friendship with his former host, Lior Salter.

“Sitting in Lior’s basement playing Ping-Pong, noshing on chips and staying up until 4 a.m.” and playing early morning soccer with Lior are among the 16-year-old’s fondest memories. He is planning another trip to Israel either next summer or in college.

The students are not the only ones who benefit. When Bobbie Blau, an Encino parent, chaperoned her daughter, Sarah’s, partnership exchange, she developed strong friendships with the teachers she met at their twin school, Ironi Daled, with whom she remains close. In addition, Blau’s younger daughter, Emily, 15, hosted Israeli student last March and will travel to Israel in December to stay with her. The younger Blau, too, has begun to foster a lifelong friendship.

“They’re our friends now. It’s personal now,” Bobbie Blau said. “I don’t feel like I’m a tourist there either, now. My daughters have that feeling, and their children will have that feeling.”