Interfaith Communal Living Project Finds New Ways to Co-Exist Under Quarantine

May 18, 2020
The first cohort of Abrahamic House Fellows (from left: Jonathan Simcosky, Hadar Cohen, Ala’ Khan and Maya Mansour) pictured at their retreat, held in Santa Barbara in early March; the four moved into their Koreatown shared living space in late February, before city-wide social distancing rules were enacted, and they’ve been quarantining together ever since. Courtesy of Abrahamic House

Multifaith relationships literally saved Mohammed Al Samawi, helping him escape from Yemen’s civil war to safety in the United States in 2015. The interfaith activists he met through internet forums and at conferences became his U.S. family, providing a support structure and an intensive speaking schedule at venues nationwide and internationally. His 2018 memoir, “The Fox Hunt,” was slated to become a film.

Each article written about him, each community member he met or speaking engagement he booked was a step toward achieving a dream: creating the Abrahamic House. The house would be a communal-living situation where people of varying faiths could learn one another’s cultures and religious traditions for greater understanding and community building. The plan was to make those changes first here in Los Angeles, and then … the world.

In late February, four Abrahamic House fellows from Christian, Muslim, Baha’i and Jewish backgrounds moved into their house in Koreatown. They were to develop and execute several months-long innovative community engagement programs, many of which were to be hosted at their home. A week after moving in, they gathered for a retreat in Santa Barbara. But when the March 26 coronavirus stay-at-home order was enacted, any in-person gatherings were off their newly established communal table. Like all programs, organizations and people devoted to bringing people together, they had to hold their gatherings in a virtual space.

This all happened at a time of religious convergence, as all four represented faiths had upcoming holidays. Passover began on April 8, then came Easter on April 12, the Baha’i holiday of Ridván on April 20, and Ramadan began on April 23. Independent of their required house programming, the four developed a “Religion 101” course: Each person represented his or her faith to the others. (They also created a multifaith holiday guide.)

Maya Mansour, the house’s Baha’i fellow and an editor of the multifaith youth spirituality magazine One Report, taught about Ridván, inviting the other fellows to share prayers. Christian fellow Jonathan Simcosky, a book editor and community builder, said it was challenging to make Easter “accessible and yet truthful … without church and [without] celebrating with fellow Christians.”

“Trying to bring people together to talk through difference and conflict, the bridge-building profession … it’s one of the fields or realms that is suffering right now. But it’s also an area for innovation and the fellows are doing thaT” — MAIA FERDMAN

“I think it was valuable and educational,” said the house’s Jewish fellow, Hadar Cohen, a multimedia feminist artist, writer and dancer originally from Jerusalem. “It helped us put the celebrations into context.” (Cohen currently is planning for her Shavuot-based project, Feminism All Night, May 27-31.)

Filmmaker Ala’ Khan, the house’s Muslim fellow, said the value was “to have understanding about each others’ faith backgrounds and hearing how each of us relates to our traditions and what’s specifically important to us personally.”

Maia Ferdman, who serves as part-time program manager for Abrahamic House said, “It just goes to show the personal commitment that all the fellows have to the mission of Abrahamic House, that they would do these additional things.”

The house was supposed to host events in several categories each month: “You Say Jumma, I Say Shabbat” events that feature weekly communal praying, stories and practices; “S’daqah,” organizing against hatred (especially anti-Semitism and Islamophobia) and creating projects serving marginalized neighbors; “Out of the Box,” potlucks and events about LGBTQ issues, learning more about different types of Islam and Judaism, and debunking racism; “Yalla Nights,” cultural and social events including film screenings, concerts, cooking classes and more; and joint holiday celebrations.

“Us coming together from such different life backgrounds is very appealing. Diversity [is] something this world is wanting and needing right now,” Cohen said.

Al Samawi’s original plan called for a second house to open this year with additional houses in other cities, drawing inspiration from the Moishe House young-adult communal-living model. Now, he and the board, which includes representation from Moishe House leadership, has decided to wait until 2022 to expand.

Although Al Samawi is grateful to those who continue to support the  projects, he said, “A lot of organizations, especially interfaith, are struggling right now. Nobody wants to help or donate for interfaith now. They are in the situation where they want to help themselves [in response to] COVID-19.”

“Trying to bring people together to talk through difference and conflict, the bridge-building profession … it’s one of the fields or realms that is suffering right now,” Ferdman said. “But it’s also an area for innovation and the fellows are doing that —  [discovering] how do you come together across differences, how do you learn together when you can’t physically be together?”

When Al Samawi worried about conducting interfaith work via Zoom, board member Jenna Weinberg told him it was an opportunity to “reach not just people in Los Angeles, but all over the world,” Al Samawi said. Since going virtual, the team has received inquiries about starting houses in Europe and in Maine.

Both the leadership and the fellows are looking forward to resuming their in-person programming and social interactions. “We’re all getting tired of Zoom,” said Mansour, who also has worked on reimagining incarceration. “We’re thinking of ways to offer people things that are in line with the mission and aligned with the reality of what we’re facing, to bring in some positivity.” As an example, she mentioned the first Abrahamic House offering: distributing care packages for the Baha’i holiday.

When it’s safe to gather again, Al Samawi said he is most looking forward to having dinner with the Abrahamic House Fellows to tell them how proud he is of them, and to hear more about their experiences. “We already see the seeds of what we’re trying to grow,” he said. “We hope the movement will continue.”

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