November 18, 2018

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?