Ralph Fertig was a Jewish freedom rider who challenged the segregation on public buses during the civil rights era.
This year, on Nov. 14, Fertig sat not on a bus but in a wheelchair in the front row of the IMAN Cultural Center in Los Angeles as Leo Baeck Temple member Gary Stern read a passage from Fertig’s memoir, “A Passion for Justice: One Man’s Dedication to Civil Rights,” detailing Fertig’s experience as a white man standing up for African Americans.
It was an evening demonstrating the power of disparate groups standing up for each other and featured six Jewish and Muslim storytellers sharing stories of taking risks. The event was part of NewGround: A Muslim-Jewish Partnership for Change’s annual Spotlight Storytellers event. NewGround is a community-building organization that creates, connects and empowers Jewish and Muslim change-makers in America.
Around 200 people attended the event, where the readers spoke about their experiences as NewGround Change-Makers in 2017, a NewGround program for those 25 and older to engage in topics including anti-Semitism, Islamophobia and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
Among those who read at the event was Samara Hutman, the former executive director of the Los Angeles Museum of the Holocaust, who has a background in Holocaust education. She shared a story of how a Muslim in her group helped her come to terms with previous experiences of sexual harassment. Hutman addressed the power of the #MeToo movement and detailed her experience going to a #MeToo Shabbat service together with her Muslim peer.
Another of the storytellers, Ramy El-Etreby, spoke about being a gay Muslim and how he came into conflict with a Jewish person over gay rights in Israel and surrounding countries. He said they both eventually came to better understand each other.
Daisy Khan read an excerpt from her memoir, “Born with Wings: The Spiritual Journey of a Modern Muslim Woman.” The wife of an imam, she described herself as one of the most empowered Muslim women in the world who has grappled with whether to use her privilege to help other Muslim women find their voices. She is the founder and executive director of the Women’s Islamic Initiative in Spirituality and Equality, which convenes and promotes solidarity among Muslim women leaders so they can collectively pursue social change.
Gabriela Böhm, a documentary filmmaker from Buenos Aires, talked about being the daughter of émigré refugee parents who survived the Holocaust and her challenges in making a life for herself in the United States.
Finally, Seema Ahmad told a moving story about being a lawyer for undocumented citizens and the struggle to stay dispassionate when she feels her clients are being treated unfairly in the courtroom. She discussed a specific incident in which she had to keep all of her emotions at bay as a judge berated her client.
Punctuating the evening was Ani Zonneveld, who took the stage and sang the song “Prayer of Life.”
“O Allah! Grant me the light in my heart, light in my grave, light in front of me,” Zonneveld sang over soothing music.
In essence, the evening was about giving people the chance to use their voices, said Aziza Hasan, executive director of NewGround, who introduced the readers to the crowd and spoke of her own family’s experience being uprooted from their homes in the Middle East and their difficulty in finding a place to belong.
If just for one night, everyone felt like they belonged.