December 12, 2018

A groundbreaking day of prayer

For most people, the day started with a cosmic jolt.

But when a 3.8-magnitude earthquake hit the Los Angeles area shortly after 4 a.m. on May 3, around 20 members of the Muslim-Jewish fellowship called NewGround were already awake and preparing for a busy day — a marathon of prayer that would start at a beach and end on a rooftop.

The NewGround fellows decided they would pray together — offering their own faith’s prayers simultaneously, five times in five public places —  and film the experiment, taking public transportation and lugging their prayer books and prayer mats with them.

When they got to Santa Monica State Beach at 5 a.m. for their first prayer, participants said the moon was still out, round and full, and the waves were thrashing. When they finished, the sun was up and the day had officially started.

The concept behind this day of prayer, called “Two Faiths One Prayer,” came from a NewGround retreat held last November. Andrea Hodos, a Jewish fellow and NewGround facilitator, explained that the moment of inspiration came when Jews and Muslims prayed in the same space.

“What happened was we started to see how close the language is, and how similar the ideas are,” she said.

Omar Ashraf, who was leading the Muslim prayer during the retreat, reminisced, “As imam, you think you’d lose concentration hearing something else, but not at all. It flowed harmoniously. Our prayer finished earlier, and some of the girls from our fellowship joined the Jewish side.”

The fellows went on to receive a micro-grant from NewGround and raised $5,500 through a crowd-funder.

On the day of the event, the group headed from Santa Monica to Roxbury Park in Beverly Hills for its second stop. I caught up with the fellows around 3 p.m. at Exposition Park, where they already were setting up for their third prayer of the day, Mincha for the Jews and Asr for the Muslims. I was immediately recruited as the 10th member of the minyan by Tuli Skaist, a Jewish NewGround fellow wearing a yarmulke and glasses.

I wasn’t prepared for what happened next. I haven’t davened since I was 13 in Hebrew school, but here I was reading those ancient words I hadn’t read in so long. I was rocking up on my toes as I said, “Kadosh kadosh kadosh,” and bowing according to the text — not in an enclosed room as I’d been familiar doing, but out in the open for spectators to watch.

And to my right, our Muslim sisters and brethren were kneeling and bowing, following the calls of their appointed imam for this stop, Jason Velazquez (throughout the day, fellows took turns leading prayers). The Hebrew and Arabic somehow fit together like perfect puzzle pieces. 

A couple of days earlier, Velazquez said, he’d practiced for his role as imam in a park, underneath a tree. Born in Miami to a devout Christian family, he converted to Islam four years ago.

“They were less surprised when I came out as gay then when I came out as Muslim,” he said. With a clean-shaven head, Velazquez, now an architect in Los Angeles, recited the lovely tropes as his fellow cohorts prayed in accordance.

“If there’s one word I can say, it’s ‘acceptance.’ It’s not just tolerance, it’s acceptance of another faith and practice,” he said. “We may think differently in politics and the way we do things. Ultimately, at the end of the day, we’re praying to the same God.”

One Jewish fellow who said she experienced a complete change of heart because of NewGround was Carey Fried. After the war in Gaza last summer, Fried was despondent, confused and enraged. So she went searching for an interfaith dialogue, applying for a NewGround fellowship on a whim.

“I never thought I could sit down with a Muslim,” Fried said bluntly.

But on this day, she was doing more than sitting, she was praying. A mother of four, Fried said up until a month ago, she was living a frum lifestyle and wearing a sheitel (wig). Dressed conservatively in a long, flowing skirt, she combed her fingers through her tight corkscrew curls.

“My experience with NewGround has taught me that rather than retreating into myself, I want to expand into the world,” Fried said.

After Mincha, the fellows embarked onto the Metro escorted by a film crew, two hired security agents and an impressive amount of equipment, and headed to City Hall for the day’s fourth prayer. Because Muslims pray five times a day and Jews only pray three times, the Jewish fellows decided to improvise with psalms and piyyutim (liturgical poems) for the final two stops.

It was 6:30 p.m. when the fellows arrived at City Hall’s massive Spring Street entrance. They were setting up, taping signs to the building’s columns as the sun continued to sink lower, elongating slanted shadows onto the courtyard’s tiles.

The prayer here would start at 7:40 p.m. to mark sundown. This was the big one, where media was invited to participate, along with friends and family. There was no chance of not having a minyan here.

As time passed and the sun sank, the City Hall courtyard with its triumphant architecture, its granite staircase and columned portico, started to transform, looking less like a municipal building and more like a cathedral, a temple, a mosque. It felt ancient as Jews in tallitot and Muslims in hijabs convened and the street sounds started to peel away. Around 100 people prayed together in two different tongues — Arabic and Hebrew — their voices mixing together, rising up into the open sky.

After the prayer, Tasneem Noor, a NewGround alumna dressed in a watercolor-hued hijab, said the prayer was unlike anything she had ever experienced.

“I was listening to the Jewish prayers but following the instructions of the imam,” she said.

Jews and Muslims lingered after the prayer, hugging and talking intimately, sharing their insights on the evening. But the night wasn’t over for the fellows as they trekked onward to their final prayer stop at 9 p.m.

A full moon gleamed overhead, urging them on to one final stop  — a downtown rooftop that would bring the group even closer to the heavens.