November 19, 2018

Moving & Shaking: NewGround Honors; Teens’ Relief Work

From left: NewGround Executive Director Aziza Hasan; NewGround honoree Sadegh Namazikhah; Muslim Public Affairs Council President Salam Al-Marayati and NewGround honoree David Myers attended the NewGround Trailblazer Award Dinner. Photo by Salim Lakhani

The nonprofit interfaith organization NewGround: A Muslim-Jewish Partnership for Change honored David Myers, Sadegh Namazikhah, Julia Meltzer and the Zeno family during its Suzy Marks and Wally Marks Jr. Trailblazer Award Dinner on Feb. 13 at the Iman Cultural Center.

The honorees represented a cross section of the Muslim and Jewish world.

Myers is the president and CEO of the Center for Jewish History in New York City and a professor of Jewish history at UCLA. He is involved with the NewGround Change-Makers fellowship and teaches about anti-Semitism to participants of the program.

Namazikhah is the founder of the Iman Cultural Center and has supported NewGround since its inception.

Meltzer is an American-Jewish film director who partnered with Mustafa Zeno, a Syrian-American Muslim, on a film about members of Zeno’s family displaced by the Syrian conflict. The film, “Dalya’s Other Country,” which premiered on PBS in June, follows a Muslim teenager and her mother as they acclimate to life in the United States.

Attendees included former L.A. County Supervisor Zev Yaroslavsky; NewGround’s Executive Director Aziza Hasan and its Program Co-Directors Andrea Hodos and Tasneem Noor; Muslim Public Affairs Council President Salam Al-Marayati and Director of Policy & Public Programming Edina Lekovic; and Rabbis Jonathan Klein and Aryeh Cohen.

NewGround was established to improve relations between Muslims and Jews through a professional fellowship, high school leadership council and public programming. The Trailblazer Award is named after Suzy Marks and her late husband, Wally Marks Jr., who provided seed funding to NewGround when the organization was in its infancy.

From left: David Lehrer, president of Community Advocates; Temple Israel of Hollywood Senior Rabbi John Rosove; former L.A. County Supervisor Zev Yaroslavsky; Washington Post columnist Jennifer Rubin; and former Congressman Mel Levine discuss “The Challenges of Trump’s America.” Photo by Robert Lurie

President Donald Trump is dangerous for American Jews, Washington Post conservative columnist Jennifer Rubin said during a Feb. 20 appearance at Temple Israel of Hollywood (TIOH).

“When I’m asked, ‘Is Trump so bad?’ Of course he is so bad,” Rubin said while participating on a panel titled “The Challenges of Trump’s America: A Conservative’s View on Trump.” “He has undermined the basis for American democracy and with that the greatest protection, the greatest support, the greatest freedom the Jewish people in the Diaspora have ever experienced.”

The panel also featured former Democratic Congressman Mel Levine and former Los Angeles County Supervisor Zev Yaroslavsky. TIOH Senior Rabbi John Rosove moderated the discussion, the third program in a series called Community Conversations.

Sponsors of the event included Community Advocates, the Jewish Journal, Jews United for Democracy and Justice, Stephen Wise Temple and Valley Beth Shalom.

Stephen Wise Temple Senior Rabbi Yoshi Zweiback was among those in the audience.

“Why is the Republican Party enabling this man to the extent they are doing it?” Levine said.

Rubin, a former TIOH member, was visiting L.A. from Washington, D.C., where she writes the Post’s “Right Turn” column. Her opinions could have come from Trump’s strongest critics on the left. She characterized the president as an authoritarian who “does not understand what America is about and what it means to be an American.”

“Without that basic understanding, without the appreciation of what America is and what defines America and what the Israel-and-America relationship is built on, we are in very, very deep trouble as Americans and as Jews,” Rubin said.

From left: Jewish Graduate Student Initiative (JGSI) CEO Rabbi Dave Sorani, Walt Disney Studios Chairman Alan Horn and JGSI COO Rabbi Matt Rosenberg attend the Jewish Executive Leadership Conference. Photo by Ari Praw

The Jewish Graduate Student Initiative (JGSI) held its seventh annual Jewish Executive Leadership Conference on Jan. 28 at the Fairmont Miramar Hotel and Bungalows in Santa Monica.

The conference, which drew more than 360 Jewish graduate students and young professionals, featured keynote speaker Alan Horn, chairman of Walt Disney Studios, along with approximately 50 other top executive panelists from various industries. During the conference, the graduate students and young professionals learned from the industry leaders and exchanged contact information in the hopes of keeping in touch to help empower their careers.

“This year’s conference was undoubtedly our best ever,” said  JGSI Chief Operating Officer Rabbi Matt Rosenberg. “Each panel room was filled to capacity with standing room only, all of the speakers were fantastic, and we had hundreds of young Jewish professionals networking with one another throughout the day.”

Additional speakers included Scott Adelson, co-president and global co-head of corporate finance at Houlihan Lokey; Michael Kohn, general counsel at Dick Clark Productions; Doug Mankoff, CEO of Echo Lake Entertainment; Jana Winograde, West Coast president of business operations at Showtime Networks; and Lee Zeidman, president of the Staples Center, Microsoft Theater and L.A. Live.
The conference also featured a networking hour showcasing nonprofits — including the Gift of Life Marrow Registry, the Anti-Defamation League, the American Jewish Committee and Moishe House — whose representatives presented volunteering and leadership opportunities to conference participants.

“We are quite excited at the fast-paced growth of this conference,” said Rabbi Dave Sorani, CEO of JGSI. “It is the only event of its kind in the country. We see it growing bigger and bigger each year. And we are extremely proud of its success.”

Mati Geula Cohen, Contributing Writer

Tzedek America’s teen disaster response team, including Avram Mandell, founding executive director of Tzedek America (back row, far left), deconstructs a house in Port Arthur, Texas. The house was flooded during Hurricane Harvey and the water rose to four feet high in the home. Photo courtesy of Tzedek America

Fifteen teenagers from Los Angeles traveled with Tzedek America to Houston and spent several days engaged in relief efforts benefiting Hurricane Harvey victims.

Tzedek America’s Teen Disaster Response Team organized the Feb. 15-19 trip.

“The trip was a huge success,” said Avram Mandell, founding executive director of Tzedek America, a Los Angeles-based Jewish gap-year and social justice program. “We gave over 350 hours of service to the cities of Port Arthur and Houston, Texas. The teenagers worked tirelessly without complaining and celebrated Shabbat with the Jewish community of Beaumont, Texas.

“At the conclusion of the five days, the teenagers said it was a great trip and they only wished they could have had more sleep,” Mandell added. “They are eager to do more service work. They feel that helping people is part of being Jewish, and being part of the Tzedek America Teen Disaster Response Team was a great way to do that.”

The teens spent two days demolishing two houses in Port Arthur and a day rebuilding a house in Houston. They represented three synagogues — Kehillat Israel, Leo Baeck Temple and Temple Israel of Hollywood — all of which are active in social justice work. Two of the teens were unaffiliated, Mandell said.

One of the partners on the project was Nechama: Jewish Response to Disaster, which in February kicked off its rebuilding project in Houston.

“Just thinking about the fact that there are still tens of thousands of houses that stand in disrepair, almost all belonging to poor and elderly people with nowhere else to go, saddens my heart,” said one of the participants, Noam Ginsburg, a 17-year-old junior at Westview Academy. “But I am so grateful that Tzedek America was able to help me help others.”

A Feb. 10 gala at Shomrei Torah Synagogue honored Shomrei Torah Rabbi Richard Camras (second from left). He is joined by his wife, Carolyn (third from left), and flanked by their children, Talya, left, and Noah. Photo courtesy of Shomrei Torah Synagogue

Conservative community Shomrei Torah Synagogue honored its Rabbi Richard Camras on Feb. 10 during a “Hamilton”-themed gala at its West Hills campus.

“It was an overwhelming experience being honored and recognized for the 18-years-plus that I have served my community,” Camras said in an email. “While I know that I am deeply valued by the members of Shomrei Torah Synagogue, and together we have accomplished so much over the years, it was incredibly meaningful to experience and comprehend the deep appreciation the membership has for their rabbi.”

More than 475 guests attended — including gala chair Judy Groner; the synagogue’s Cantor Ron Snow, Cantorial Soloist Jackie Rafii and President Rob Schreiber; and Camras’ wife, Carolyn, and their children, Talya and Noah — to celebrate Camras, who has served as Shomrei Torah’s rabbi since 1999.

“In just 18 years,” Groner said, “Rabbi Richard Camras has experienced a rabbinic evolution, from taking on his first senior pulpit rabbinic position at Shomrei Torah to becoming a passionate, wise, religious leader, both within our congregation and in the greater Jewish community.”

A Jew Walks into a Mosque in the Middle of the Night

Photo courtesy of NewGround.

As I listened to the speech of Imam Shahin in Davis several weeks ago, my heart sank and my anger burned. Anger for the violence of the words themselves, being addressed to my community and my people, but also because of the violence done to the Islam I have learned from my Muslim friends across many different communities. And my heart sank knowing how much work it was going to take to repair the rifts — both in the Davis community, and down here in Los Angeles.

My mind wandered to sermons I heard in synagogues struggling righteously with the Torah portion which commands us to to wipe out Amalek. There were inflammatory ones, too.  I once had to leave the Bratslav shul in Jerusalem because my Hebrew was good enough to understand the equation being made between the Arabs and Amalek. Another time my husband felt compelled, during synagogue announcements to stand and say, “The sages say there are 70 faces of the Torah. I am sure that was not one of them” in response to a drash arguing the Biblical basis for total war against the Palestinians. I remembered the confusion, shame and anger at seeing the texts I love being used in such hateful ways.

Last week I watched my Facebook feed fill with fear and indignation from Jews, and with clear and unequivocal condemnations from Muslim friends and colleagues, expressing sentiments reflecting a similar combination of shame and anger as I had when my texts were being used to inflame. Behind the scenes I watched the Muslim Jewish network activate to confront the unacceptable rhetoric that had been derived from a tradition that Muslims loved too, challenging in the strongest possible terms and leveraging relationships to create a process of healing.

Our texts can be used to divide or heal.  As the final days of Ramadan approached this year, a 17 year old girl, Nabra Hassanen, was murdered in Virginia. It was a difficult time for my Muslim friends. I found myself pulled toward the Islamic Center of Southern California for Taraweeh prayers — not only to support my friends, but for my own experience and understanding, as well.

Taraweeh is a set of late night prayers recited after breaking fast during Ramadan. I had been at other Muslim prayer services, but never this one. I imagined it might have a similar feel to the slichot prayers Jews recite late a night or early in the morning before the High Holidays.  

I arrived a little late alongside other stragglers.  As Program Co-Director at NewGround: a Muslim-Jewish Partnership for Change, the ICSC has become a second home to me. I am there for Fellowship sessions and meetings at least twice a month. I knew I would be warmly welcomed as I had been any time I stepped across the threshold of the building on Vermont and 4th.

As I stepped into the women’s section, the evening’s sermon was already in progress. I worked my way to a corner from where I could respectfully witness. As I settled in, I heard the speaker say “Many of these verses talk about women, but this one talks about the Torah.”

What?! I had just stepped into a mosque. Why are we all of a sudden talking about the Torah?

The speaker, Dr. Laila al-Marayti, continued: “‘There is a parable: those who were graced with the burden of the Torah failed to bear this burden; it is like of a donkey that carries a load of books.’ So what good are books to an animal that can’t read them? Often we look at this as an admonition for the Jews, but this is really for all of us, lest we take our Quran for granted and we get used to just using it in a ritualistic fashion without really reading or understanding it.”

She had taken a verse that has been deployed against Jews, and turned it into an opportunity to explore the universal experience of failing to search for deeper understanding. Dr. Al-Marayati’s remarks were framed by the larger question about how we “balance mercy and justice” in our daily relationships, a question so familiar to me from repeated Jewish sources advocating that God and humans balance “rachamim” with “din” (compassion with judgement).

Perhaps, as according to both our traditions, herein lies the key.  We certainly need justice. We need to hold one another accountable — and hold our own communities accountable — for the ways in which we speak about one another. But that accountability must be balanced with compassion. Compassion comes through relationship. In building empathetic and vulnerable relationships we begin looking not only for one another’s culpability, but beyond it, as well. These relationships may offer us the gift of catching one another off guard — in acts of compassion. And it is in the context of these relationships that we, like those who delve meaningfully into the Quran and into the Torah, can learn to read and understand one another on a deeper level.

Andrea Hodos is Program Co-Director at NewGround: a Muslim-Jewish Partnership for Change and along with Tasneem Noor facilitates the Professional Fellowship. They are accepting applications for the 2017-18 cohort through August 18th.

When a Jew reaches out to an Imam

Sheikh Ammar Shahin of Davis, CA. Translation provided by

Sheikh Ammar Shahin, or the “Imam from Davis,” as he is now known, is a young Egyptian-born Imam who recently came under fire for delivering a sermon that included remarks that were anti-semitic. I came across this piece of news while scrolling through my Facebook feed. In a post, a friend of mine wrote, “This guy needs to STFU.” This caught my attention and I began to read the article posted, with the headline, “US Islamic preacher calls on Allah to annihilate the Jews.”

As I read the headline I thought, yes, this guy should keep quiet. Judging by the comments, so did many others. Yet something did not feel right and I could not help but wonder if the collective reaction to these hurtful words was unproductive. Yes, the Imam clearly used language that was wrong and inflammatory, yet was our reaction not adding fuel of confirmation bias to the Islamophobic fire that rages in parts of our community? What if instead of assuming the worst intentions, we engaged in dialogue? I sent him an email:

Subject: A Love letter from a Jew (Seriously)

Dear Sheikh Ammar,

Assalam Aleikum.

Given the words that have been published about your recent sermon in the press, I’m going to guess that you’ve received some angry responses. The truth is that I feel angry myself. As a Jew who has found a lot of beauty in the teachings of Islam, it is difficult for me to believe that you’d choose such hateful rhetoric to share with your congregation in your khutbah (friday sermon). Perhaps it is not true?

In these turbulent times, with so much hate in the world, it seems to me that faith leaders ought to be in the firefighting business. We must fight the inflammatory flames of hate with the sweet waters of love. We must fight intolerance in the world by urging our people to be more kind and more tolerant. *

With Respect and Peace,


It did not take long for the Imam to respond:

Thank you for your respectful words as they are the first since the accusation of MEMRI, they have cut and pasted only 2 minutes of my 50 minute sermon to use against me and create hate with the Jewish community with whom I have very good relations.

The Imam continued by attaching the initial statement released by the mosque, and telling me they have an open door policy, and that I’d be most welcome any time. I thanked him for his response, but continued to challenge him on the way in which he chose to present his ideas, especially given the anti-Semitism that is all too prevalent in the Muslim world.

Again, his response did not take long:

Thank you for your comments and concerns, I will keep them in mind. As you know, when we speak with emotion, words might not be put in the right places or understood correctly.

My apology to all your community for any harm that my misinterpreted words might have caused.

In a subsequent press conference, the imam further apologized and acknowledged allowing his emotions to get the better of him.

Let me be clear: the Imam was wrong; his words were dangerous and inexcusable. Such words should not be tolerated by his community or any other. At the same time, here is a man that is not full of hate, but who simply got carried away with passion, used words that he shouldn’t have, and had them distributed to the world in a two minute “got you” sound bite.

The truth is that if it weren’t for my experience with the NewGround Fellowship, I don’t know that I would have had the courage and awareness to react this way. At NewGround, Jews and Muslims are given the opportunity to engage with one another in an open and productive way. To learn from each other and tell our stories. To ask questions from a place of curiosity and not from a place of judgement.

I am not exaggerating when I say that the NewGround model of open dialogue can save the world. Imagine what the world would look like if we’d assume the best in each other instead of the absolute worst. Imagine if instead of yelling and screaming about “that anti-semite Imam” we emailed him and asked him what he meant.  We may disagree with each other, but if we engage in respectful dialogue we will accomplish more and be a lot more productive in building bridges and bringing peace to the world.

I encourage you to try it. I think you will be pleasantly surprised.

Tuli Skaist is an activist and educator living in Los Angeles.

Parashat Sh’lach: Curiosity over assumptions

Reuters/David W Cerny

was one of about 400 people in attendance last week at the NewGround: A Muslim-Jewish Partnership for Change iftar at Wilshire Boulevard Temple.

An iftar is the delicious, joyous evening meal eaten during Ramadan, when for a month each year Muslims fast from dawn to sunset, encouraging one another to focus even more on God, prayer, good deeds, study, charity, family and community. And NewGround is an award-winning, Los Angeles-based organization that holds yearlong training sessions for Jewish and Muslim high school students and millennials, bringing them together to build real relationships.

NewGround’s iftar not only was a tasty meal together, but an evening of learning about NewGround’s approach to relationship building. Among NewGround’s stated values is “Curiosity Over Assumptions.” 

While listening to the Muslim and Jewish NewGround fellows, I couldn’t help but think what the history of our religions might have been, or anyway what Judaism might have become, if the story told in Parashat Shelach Lecha had gone a different way.  

“Shelach lecha,” God says to Moses at the beginning of this week’s Torah portion. “Send, for yourself, men to scout out the land of Canaan, which I am giving to the Israelite people” (Numbers 13:2).  

Moses chooses 12 men — a leader from each tribe — and they return after 40 days with grapes so big it takes two men to carry a single cluster.

The scouts return bearing not only fruit but also tales of who and what they saw. While Israel’s modern Ministry of Tourism logo uses the giant grapes as a symbol of the plentiful reasons to visit the Jewish state today, 10 of the scouts in our Torah story use them to illustrate a more ominous idea — the giant grapes fed giant people: “All the people that we saw in it are men of great size … and we looked like grasshoppers to ourselves, and so we must have looked to them. And the whole community broke into loud cries” (Numbers 13:32-14:1).  

What if those scouts, or the community they reported to, had taken a page from NewGround’s playbook and put “curiosity over assumptions”? Suppose they’d attempted to meet the people instead of spying on them? Attempted to talk with them, rather than make assumptions about them?  

And suppose they’d done the same with one another, encouraging one another rather than belittling themselves. In one midrash, God says to the doubtful scouts, “I can forgive you seeing yourselves as grasshoppers, but did you know how I made you look to them? Who can say that you did not appear in their sight as angels? What have you brought upon yourselves?” (Numbers Rabbah 16:11).

Indeed, they bring great harm upon themselves. While in last week’s Torah portion, day after day of “nothing but this manna to eat” had some Israelites reminiscing (misremembering?) the fish, cucumbers, melons, leeks, onions and garlic they ate in Egypt (Numbers 11:5), now the report of the 10 pessimistic scouts has some saying, “It would be better for us to go back to Egypt … ” (Numbers 14:3). Infuriated by their fear of the future and their longing for a mostly imagined past, God kills the 10 scouts and condemns the entire first generation to die off before any may leave the wilderness: “You shall bear your punishment for 40 years, corresponding to the number of days — 40 days — that you scouted the land” (Numbers 14:34). God rewards only the two scouts Joshua and Caleb, imbued by God with ruach acheret, “a different spirit” (Numbers 14:24).  For attempting to encourage rather than frighten the people, they survive to enter the Promised Land with the next generations.

In a 2016 dvar Torah on Shelach Lecha, the esteemed British Rabbi Jonathan Sacks passed along a teaching from the Lubavitcher Rebbe Menachem Schneerson about where the 10 dubious scouts went wrong.

They liked the wilderness too much; they treasured God’s nearness there and didn’t want to leave that place. But, according to Rabbi Sacks, Rebbe Schneerson teaches: “That is not what God wants from us. [God] wants us to engage with the world … to heal the sick, feed the hungry, fight injustice with all the power of law, and combat ignorance with universal education. [God] wants us to show what it is to love the neighbour and the stranger … ”

No wonder the 10 scouts balked at the challenging future they imagined.

Of course, God doesn’t promise it will be easy, nor does Rebbe Schneerson, nor does NewGround.

Lest we find ourselves like our ancestors — crying out loud in fear and anger, unable to hear, let alone listen, to one another, longing to return to a time and place that existed only in our imaginations — perhaps we’d all do well to search for new ground, to find within ourselves ruach acheret, the “different spirit,” the angel that God plants within faithful, optimistic hearts and souls.

Rabbi Lisa Edwards is senior rabbi of Beth Chayim Chadashim (, an inclusive Los Angeles congregation founded in 1972 as the world’s first lesbian and gay synagogue.

Moving and shaking: Dodgers, ICRF Women of Action gala and more

In front of thousands of baseball fans on a recent evening in Chavez Ravine, Uri Herscher, founding president of the Skirball Cultural Center, threw out a ceremonial pitch before the Los Angeles Dodgers squared off against the Colorado Rockies, who ended up winning 6-1. 

Before the throw, a short video highlighted “Chasing Dreams: Baseball and Becoming American,” an acclaimed exhibition at the Skirball that highlights the Jewish contribution to the game of baseball and how the sport has served as a means for assimilation for Jewish immigrants into the fabric of American society. It is on view through Oct. 30.

Herscher, 75, who also is a board member for TRIBE Media Corp., the parent company of the Journal, waved to the crowd while wearing a Dodgers baseball cap, a fleece emblazoned with the Skirball logo and Nike sneakers.

Muslims and Jews came together June 8 for the seventh annual community iftar — the meal eaten to break the fast during the Islamic holy month of Ramadan — organized by NewGround: A Muslim-Jewish Partnership for Change. 

A June 8 community iftar included prayers for Jews (left) and Muslims. Photos by Lakshna Mehta

The event at Wilshire Boulevard Temple also served as the graduation for the organization’s professional fellows. NewGround was started 10 years ago to facilitate conversations between Muslims and Jews through different programs. 

Amid prayers — Salat for the Muslims and Ma’ariv for the Jews — and a meal that was kosher and halal, 350 people discussed their lives and caught up with old friends and acquaintances. 

“When we started, there were maybe a 100 people at the graduation dinner,” said Farah Khan, a fellow from NewGround’s inaugural cohort in 2007-08. “Now there are hundreds. They have built a very supportive network.”

Among those who attended were current board members Rabbi Susan Goldberg of Wilshire Boulevard Temple, Rabbi Sarah Bassin of Temple Emanuel of Beverly Hills and Brie Loskota; Aziza Hasan, executive director of NewGround; and NewGround facilitators Tasneem Noor and Nina Berenfeld. 

As part of the professional fellowship, participants have conversations about their lives, learning about each other’s styles of resolving conflict, and personal experiences related to religion and anti-Semitism.

—Lakshna Mehta, Contributing Writer

The Israel Cancer Research Fund (ICRF) held its 2016 Women of Action gala May 19 at the Beverly Hilton. The event drew approximately 400 attendees, including ICRF board member and Spago Beverly Hills co-founder Barbara Lazaroff; ICRF board member Michael Rosenmayer; Sinai Temple Rabbi David Wolpe; businessman and philanthropist Stanley Black; Factor’s Famous Deli co-owner Susie Markowitz; and others, who enjoyed cocktails, a kosher dinner, live auctions and more.

From left: ICRF Los Angeles President Martin Finkelstein; ICRF 2016 honorees Myra and Dr. Nicole Nourmand; Saeed Nourmand, Myra’s husband and Nicole’s father; ICRF Los Angeles Board Chairman Benjamin Bonavida; and ICRF National Executive Director Eric Heffler. Photo by Michelle Mivzari

Also in attendance was Martin Finkelstein, ICRF regional president and Jewish Journal advertising executive director, whose father, Edward, died of renal cell carcinoma. “I believe the cure to cancer is in Israel cancer research,” Finkelstein told the crowd.

CNN anchorman Wolf Blitzer delivered a prerecorded video message congratulating the honorees, mother and daughter Myra and Dr. Nicole Nourmand, principal at real estate company Nourmand & Associates, and founding partner of Premier Pediatrics, respectively.

“I can’t think of a better way to honor my grandmother’s memory than to support Israel through this incredible organization,” Nicole Nourmand said upon accepting her award.

The evening raised more than $300,000 to fund the efforts of Israeli scientists working toward curing cancer. The ICRF was established by American and Canadian researchers, physicians and other medical professionals who were determined to utilize the wealth of scientific resources in Israel to combat cancer. The organization seeks to stem the departure of scientists from Israel to other countries and fund Israelis’ research through post-doctoral fellowships. 

The event followed an ICRF Rachel’s Society reception on April 20 at the Four Seasons hotel in Beverly Hills. Beverly Cohen, the chairwoman of Rachel’s Society, and her husband, Robert Cohen, hosted the April event with keynote speaker Ran Taube, associate professor at the Shraga Segal Department of Microbiology, Immunology and Genetics at Ben-Gurion University of the Negev in Beer Sheva, Israel. In his talk “A Breakthrough in Infant Leukemia,” Taube detailed the similarities between the disease and the Human Immunodeficiency Virus (HIV). Also in attendance was Benjamin Bonavida, professor of immunology and the Chairman of ICRF Los Angeles chapter. 

Ryan Torok, Staff Writer and Avi Sholkoff, Contributing Writer

Amal Khan, a Daniel Pearl Fellow from Lahore, Pakistan, has joined the staff of the Jewish Journal for the summer, beginning June 9.

Daniel Pearl Fellow Amal Khan has joined the Jewish Journal for the summer. 

Khan is currently the editor of the features desk at the Pakistani English-language publication The Nation and previously served as the op-ed editor there. Khan studied government as an undergraduate at Smith College in Massachusetts and has a master’s degree in international relations from the University of Warwick in the United Kingdom.

Daniel Pearl Fellows are journalists who are citizens of Muslim-majority countries who come to the United States, work at U.S. newsrooms “and experience the dynamics of a free press environment first hand,” according to The fellowship, a partnership between the Daniel Pearl Foundation and Press Partners, was established in the aftermath of Wall Street Journal reporter Daniel Pearl’s kidnapping and murder by terrorists in Pakistan in 2002.

Moving and Shaking highlights events, honors and simchas. Got a tip? Email

Moving and shaking: Janet and Jake Farber honored; Aziza Hasan appointed by Obama and more

The inaugural Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles’ Jewish Community Lifetime Achievement Award Gala honored Janet and Jake Farber on Oct. 1 at the Skirball Cultural Center. The award was in recognition of their setting the “highest bar for philanthropy and leadership in our community,” according to a Federation statement. 

Jake Farber, a World War II veteran, is a former Federation chairman, and his wife is a former president of Builders of Jewish Education in Los Angeles. Their daughter is Federation Valley Alliance Chairwoman Rochelle Cohen

The event raised approximately $1.2 million for Federation’s new L.A. Jewish Teen Initiative, a figure that includes a dollar-for-dollar matching grant courtesy of the Jim Joseph Foundation, according to Mitch Hamerman, Federation senior vice president of campaign management and communications.

Among the evening’s 450 attendees were Federation leaders Jay Sanderson, CEO and president; board Chairman Les Bider, who presented the award to the Farbers, and Julie Platt, general campaign chairwoman. Rabbi Jonathan Jaffe Bernhard of Adat Ari El, where the Farbers are members, was on hand as well.

Laurie Davis Gray and Steven Gordon; Amy and Harold Masor; Jill and Steven Namm; Virginia and Frank Maas; and Sharon and Leon Janks co-chaired the evening.  

Next year’s honorees will be Dorothy and Ozzie Goren, according to Federation.

Los Angeles interfaith pioneer Aziza Hasan, executive director of NewGround: A Muslim-Jewish Partnership for Change, has been appointed to President Barack Obama’s third Advisory Council on Faith-Based and Neighborhood Partnerships, according to a Sept. 24 White House statement. 

Aziza Hasan Photo courtesy of Aziza Hasan

“It is an honor to serve in this capacity,” said Hasan, who is Muslim, in a Sept. 25 email. She works to bring together Muslim and Jewish teenagers through NewGround, the award-winning organization she co-founded.

Hasan said she learned it is possible for people of different faiths to work together during her childhood.

“In many ways, my upbringing prepared me to join a team of change-makers to collaborate in building NewGround into the incredible organization that it is,” she said. “Striving to build a future where Muslims and Jews transform communities through the power of lasting partnerships.” 

The president’s council is charged with advising the government on issues related to “the work of faith-based and neighborhood organizations” according to Currently, there are 18 members on the council, including Rabbi Steve Gutow, president of the Jewish Council for Public Affairs.

In a statement, Obama said all of the appointees would work together to affect positive change: “I am confident that these outstanding men and women will serve the American people well, and I look forward to working with them.”

About 60 people, including members of the Latino community and members of the egalitarian congregation IKAR, turned out to Proyecto Jardin, a community garden in Boyle Heights, for a festive Aztec-influenced Sukkot celebration Oct. 4. 

“It’s a wonderful thing to see different people participating,” said Alisa Schulweis Reich, co-chair of the IKAR Green Action team, which is part of the IKAR Minyan Tzedek program and which co-organized the event. “It just has morphed in three years of doing it from an exercise in cultural diversity to feeling like a family coming together.”

Marcia Brous, mother of IKAR Rabbi Sharon Brous, blew a shofar at the event, which also featured live dancing by Danza Tlaltekuhtli. Other activities included creating Sukkot decorations, reciting blessings in English, Spanish and Hebrew, and the passing around of the lulav and etrog. 

Marcia Brous blows a shofar Oct. 4 at a festive Aztec-influenced Sukkot celebration. Photo courtesy of IKAR Green Action team

Erica Huerta, captain of the Danza dance team and a Mexican Jew, discussed traditions and values shared by both Jews and Aztecs, such as a commitment to “social justice, equality and care of the earth,” Schulweis Reich said in an email. 

Other attendees included Devorah Brous, Rabbi Brous’ sister, who is founding executive director of food justice organization Netiya.

IKAR is a synagogue that emphasizes social action. The synagogue’s Green Action team and Proyecto Jardin are frequent collaborators, according to Schulweis Reich. 

Los Angeles Museum of the Holocaust (LAMOTH) President Randy Schoenberg offered a crash course in genealogy research Oct. 11 as part of an event organized by 3G @ LAMOTH. 

L.A. Museum of the Holocaust President Randy Schoenberg leads a recent genealogy workshop. Photo by Ryan Torok

Schoenberg, an attorney who won a famous case involving a Gustav Klimt masterpiece that was stolen by Nazis from a Jewish family during World War II, addressed a crowd of approximately 50 people and reviewed a variety of genealogy websites that help people build family trees. The websites include,, and more. These sites offer assistance to those interested in discovering their roots in Poland, Hungary, Russia and elsewhere. 

Among those in the audience were Samara Hutman, LAMOTH executive director, and Jordanna Gessler, director of LAMOTH education programs. Gessler, a third-generation survivor, serves as co-chair of the 3G executive board. 

The event kicked off with sushi and wine in the museum’s atrium, with attendees gathering underneath the permanent exhibition, “Tree of Testimony,” which hangs on the wall in the lobby. Schoenberg’s lecture followed and lasted about an hour.

Moving and Shaking highlights events, honors and simchas. Got a tip? Email 

At Rosh Hashanah and Hajj, bridging two cultures through common roots

“Use words. Help me understand.” As mothers, we have both found this phrase useful from time to time in helping our children navigate the terrain of conflicting emotions. As people deeply engaged in conflict resolution and building relationships among Jews and Muslims, we also find the articulation of emotion through thoughtful language central to our work at NewGround, which convenes public programs and sponsors a professional fellowship and a high school leadership council (MAJIC: Muslims and Jews Inspiring Change). These programs empower participants with the skills, resources and relationships to strengthen Muslim-Jewish relations in America and advance a shared agenda of being able to work on areas of common concern.

This year, the Jewish Aseret Yamei Tesh-uvah (10 Days of Repentance) from Rosh Hashanah to Yom Kippur coincides with the hajj (annual Islamic pilgrimage to Mecca) and Eid al-Adha (the Festival of Sacrifice). We wrote the following piece together, because we believe this convergence in our calendars provides a fruitful opportunity to explore wisdom from each of our traditions about how best to use our words.

During the Days of Repentance, Jews reflect upon the missteps we’ve made over the past year. Words are most frequently at the heart of what needs repair: Words we used, words we misused, and even words we failed to use. Jews use language in different ways as part of our teshuvah to apologize to one another and to accept apologies — in liturgy, we repeat lists of countless things for which we might need to atone. 

As it happens, Muslims are also moving into a time of deep reflection, also requiring humility — and proper speech. This year, between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, 2 million Muslims will perform the hajj, a requirement for all who are able to afford the journey. Prior to the journey, pilgrims employ language to explicitly ask for forgiveness from others. This is followed with a declaration of intention, prayers, atonement for past sins and asking for God’s mercy. This ritual journey ends with Eid al-Adha, commemorating the time — also deeply resonant to Jews during this period — when our mutual forefather, Abraham, painstakingly agreed to sacrifice his son and was granted the offering of an animal instead. 

For Jews, the story of Abraham and Isaac is a many-layered story of their relationship to God, a story of loyalty, faith and covenant. For Muslims, it is a story that challenges them to be willing to give up what they love the most in service of selfless love of the Almighty, to fix their communication with one another through acts of selfless repentance. To illustrate how we work together in bringing our different perspectives to the same text, we begin with the foundational stories of our common ancestors.

Torah reflection: 

The beginning of the Torah provides models of how to use language to build, as well as cautionary tales. God creates through speech. God begins with, “Let there be light,” and the universe unfolds from there. Through speech, God creates a world of order and deems it “very good.” By the time Adam and Eve have been ejected from the Garden (as a result of their response to the snake’s speech), we find ourselves embroiled in the story of entrenched sibling rivalry — which leads to the first murder — perhaps through a failure of speech.

The story of Cain and Abel, our common ancestors, can teach us to control anger and find better ways to work toward common interests. 

In the story of Cain and Abel, the brothers each bring a sacrifice to God. Cain’s comes first — but it is not of his first or best (according to Rashi); Abel’s comes second, but it is “from the choicest” of his flock. Cain is understandably disappointed. God reminds Cain that he can choose to improve himself, but he should be mindful of the pitfalls if he doesn’t. As Cain comes to address his brother, the Torah presents us with a grammatical problem: “Cain said to his brother, Abel … and when they were in the field, Cain set upon his brother Abel and killed him” (Genesis 4:8). The Torah uses the word vayomer, which functions like the word “said,” as opposed to the word vayidaber, best translated as “spoke” — the former demanding a direct quote of some sort. But the Torah provides none in our case. The midrash pours almost every human conflict imaginable into this pregnant gap: They were fighting over land and property, over the location of the Temple, over their mother’s love. Rashi adds that the reason itself doesn’t matter because, “Cain was only looking for a pretext to kill his brother.” These are all useful possibilities. 

Perhaps the reason Torah does not include Cain’s words, however, is because there aren’t any. In this scenario, Cain approaches his brother with the intent to talk. He stammers, stutters, sputters and then — instead of expressing frustration, anger, jealousy, resentment, guilt, remorse — his emotions erupt in action … and then Abel is dead. Perhaps God felt this cautionary tale of conflict resolution might be an instructive story for humans, right here at the beginning of the book — shedding light on the notion of “using our words wisely.” We might draw out from it the lesson Rambam teaches at the opening of his letter to his son: “Habituate yourself to always speaking gently to everyone; this will prevent you from anger.” Cain’s mistake wasn’t necessarily in approaching his brother to talk through his anger and resentment — a crucial element of building strong relationships is learning to talk through conflict. Cain’s mistake was in moving from “gentle” language right past “violent” language to physical violence itself. We need to be very conscious of how we engage one another through word and through action — especially in the most heated moments. In Rambam’s estimation, it helps to practice nuanced speech so that we are ready to take on those heated moments.

Quranic reflection:

According to the Quran, human beginnings start with God naming all creation and then commanding Adam to name all animals and all things (Quran 2:30-39). After Adam and Eve disobey God, God shows Adam how to use words and actions to repent, and grants him forgiveness: “Thereupon Adam received from His Lord certain words [of guidance], and He accepted his repentance.” (Quran 2:37). God literally gives Adam words to seek forgiveness of the Almighty. Modeling and telling Adam to practice saying those words — first by naming creation and becoming comfortable with language and then using specific words to seek forgiveness. To err is human. And yet when one falls into error, God coaches Adam through meaningful repentance. It requires both speech and a shift in behavior — an attempt to make it right. In both of these instances, the Almighty stresses the importance of language and discernment: first in identifying creation and then in purposefully asking for forgiveness. God models for us first, that as humans we have the power to identify issues, naming them as we see them. God’s second lesson is that when we misstep, an important part of being in a relationship is respectfully asking for, and granting, reconciliation. 

Contemporary Quranic scholar Fathi Osman illuminates the cause of the violence between Adam and Eve’s children. He is concerned that they were caught up in a conflict of “power due to superiority/inferiority complexes” (Osman 70). “And convey to them truthfully the story of the two sons of Adam: When each offered a sacrifice [for God], and it was accepted from one of them, whereas it was not accepted from the other, ‘I will surely kill you,’ said one. [The other] said ‘God accepts only of those who are conscious of Him. Even if you stretch out your hand to kill me, I will not stretch my hand to kill you: I fear God, the Lord of all the worlds (Quran 5:27-31). One brother kills the other because his gift is rejected by God — evoking deep feelings of hurt and pride that lead to rage. 

We have an extraordinary opportunity, as did Cain and Abel. Although the Quran does not specify which brother made an offering from the earth, it is clear the Quran is upholding the model of the brother whose offering was accepted. He both brings his best and, when provoked, does not take the bait, even if the consequence is death. The example is to offer your best to those around you, and even when they try to hurt you, use words instead of force, and remain conscious of God — the consciousness being a deep awareness of your own motivation, so that you do not respond from a place of pride and rage. 

Lessons from the text:

At NewGround: A Muslim Jewish Partnership for Change, we use words to build relationships and work through differences of opinion. We draw from the wisdom of Muslim and Jewish tradition, as well as contemporary conflict resolution strategies, in helping us to illuminate how to listen deeply, hear the other, offer value to the relationship and problem-solve together. 

L: Andrea Hodos, R: Aziza Hasan

For all of us, just as in the stories of biblical human beginnings above, it is incredibly challenging to overcome our own pride and self when we feel that what we have offered was rejected. It hurts, and it can paralyze our curiosity and language — the very tools we need to better understand how we wronged another party and how we might actually, meaningfully rectify the situation. Cain went to his brother to talk, but he couldn’t use his words. Many times, when in a charged and heated moment, we lose our ability to reason and find words. In these moments it is best to pause and give ourselves time to find the language — to ask questions that are curious instead of provocative — to both advocate for ourselves and make sure we fully understand the concerns of the other. We express our understanding as we see it, ask questions that lead to greater clarity around how the other sees the same situation differently, and ask more questions about how we might offer a solution of value to one another — recognizing that it hurts when we feel that what we have already offered is not adequate or enough. A hurt that requires us to look past our own egos in service of a greater goal can lead to reconciliation. Indeed, it can make our relationship deeper and stronger.

In both of our traditions, the story of Adam and Eve’s children leaves us with some important models for overcoming our egos in our interactions with one another. In both contexts, the story reminds us to watch for the obstacles that might stand in the way of slowing down our reactions and modulating ourselves in the heat of the moment. Ultimately, when provoked, it is a choice to take the bait or not, and we can choose the path of forgiveness and mercy. 

The rituals associated with each of our holidays also give us clues about how to tame our egos and speak with one another from a place of reflection. The hajj, the most important pilgrimage in Islam, incorporates an exercise of running in another’s shoes. All pilgrims, from every corner of the earth, must run between two hills, the Safa and the Marwa, seven times, to relive the sacrifice of Hagar, a mother, chasing mirages in search of water to quench the thirst of her baby, Ishmail — a humbling exercise required of all who seek to cleanse their spirit. Muslims will be cleansing their souls anew through intention, words and action — and literally running in the shoes of another. After engaging in this exercise of empathy, they will ask for the forgiveness and mercy of the Almighty. They emerge pure, as if newly born. 

As Jews stand in synagogue, from Slichot services to Yom Kippur, pounding their chests, uttering the famous formula, “For the sin which we have committed before You …” they will bear in mind Rambam’s method for achieving full repentance: identifying the sin, removing it from one’s thinking, resolving never to do it again, declaring it out loud and, finally, when faced with the same situation again, making a different choice. As part of their cleansing process, they will need to speak words of reconciliation out loud — both to people with whom they need to make amends, as well as to God. When the gates of repentance close for the year, they will emerge cleansed and ready to engage the world and one another more productively and clearly.

It is a blessing for us that, during this time, every individual from both of our communities — Muslim and Jewish — has the opportunity to reflect and make changes to begin anew. To think about how we use our words for good, to heal rather than to harm, as building blocks rather than as weapons.

Aziza Hasan is the executive director of NewGround: A Muslim-Jewish Partnership for Change, a community-building nonprofit organization that creates, connects and empowers Jewish and Muslim change-makers.

Andrea Hodos is an alumna of NewGround’s professional fellowship and the Jewish facilitator for MAJIC: Muslims and Jews Inspiring Change. She also directs “Sinai and Sunna,” a performance-based project designed for Muslim and Jewish women to collaboratively explore the intersection of their traditions and contemporary society.

Muslims and Jews forge friendships over dinner

Some Jews wore kippot, while Muslim fellows wore hijabs and niqabs as 300 members of the two religious communities came together over an iftar dinner June 25 during Ramadan at Wilshire Boulevard Temple. 

The break fast — which featured kosher and halal foods — was much more than a meal. The event was filled with interfaith dialogue and a practice known as “Two Faiths One Prayer” in which Muslims and Jews pray side by side. 

Organizers from NewGround: A Muslim-Jewish Partnership for Change said it was a gathering to make friendships, connections and harmony in order to help reduce Islamophobia and anti-Semitism in Los Angeles, the home of an estimated 600,000 Jews and 500,000 Muslims.

Aziza Hasan, executive director of NewGround, a community-building organization dedicated to strengthening Jewish-Muslim relations, told the Journal, “[The event] connects Jewish and Muslim communities. Each of them that we host, they have one-on-one conversations and build connection and relationships. … It really focuses on community building.”

Attendees participated in a Q-and-A session and shared different aspects of their culture, religion and experiences. 

Wilshire Boulevard Temple’s Rabbi Susan Goldberg said having such a dialogue in which both the Jewish and Muslim communities learn about their differences and commonalities is vitally important.  

“I think that both of our communities have experienced an incredible amount of discrimination. … Unfortunately for Muslims, Islamophobia is a really pervasive occurrence. So I think we have empathy for each other from those experiences,” she said.

“It is really important that we stand up for Muslims when they are dealing with a level of discrimination,” added Goldberg, who is also a NewGround board member. 

Through a number of initiatives, NewGround strives to transform Muslim-Jewish relations and advance a shared agenda for change. Its annual fellowship program this year elected students — half from one faith, half from the other — to participate in the nine-month program. 

Soraya Ahyaudin, a NewGround fellow and one of the recent graduates honored during the evening at Wilshire Boulevard Temple, said the program taught her how to engage in difficult conversations — and then how to take action. 

“It is just a skill that you learn during [the] sessions, but it is also a skill that you can implement in your life, in your career and in your relationships that you have outside the fellowship,” Ahyaudin told the Journal. 

She said she realized that being uncomfortable while listening to others is not a bad thing. 

“It is something that you should embrace because if you are unconfortable, that means you learn something new about other cultures, other religions and other people,” Ahyaudin said. 

“I had learned about how to engage better with people in conflict conversations. So, I definitely see this is [a] very useful skill to implement in my job that I’m applying for right now because I’m looking for work in interfaith and human rights fields,” continued Ahyaudin, who studied public diplomacy at USC.

Jewish independent filmmaker Eliyahu Ungar-Sargon, a NewGround fellow who graduated last year, echoed these sentiments.

“We learned how to [make] a really difficult conversation become [a] very productive conversation,” he said.

“You see on the news every day now a situation in which people are communicating violently,” added Ungar-Sargon, who just finished a documentary about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. “They are … lacking tools that are necessary to have important conversations to sort of move this thing in a nonviolent direction.”

Do you believe in ‘MAJIC’?

Milken Community Schools junior Avi Sholkoff had never been inside of a mosque.

That changed when he participated in Muslim and Jews Inspiring Change (MAJIC), a program of the Los Angeles-based nonprofit NewGround: A Muslim Jewish Partnership for Change. Established two years ago, MAJIC brings together Jewish and Muslim teens to work on social action, participate in biblical studies, discuss the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and more.

“Most other interfaith organizations focus on bringing peace between Jews and Muslims. This talks about peace a little bit, but it focuses mainly on creating relationships,” Sholkoff told the Journal during a phone interview.

One result? Surprise that his Muslim peers were just like him in so many ways, including being interested in “the same kinds of TV shows, the same kind of sports,” he said. 

Sholkoff was one of 20 students representing 13 schools who graduated from the nine-month fellowship during a May 4 ceremony at Temple Emanuel of Beverly Hills. 

Approximately 90 people turned out to the ceremony, where each student received an award from the City of Los Angeles Human Relations Commission. 

“The graduation was great,” said Sholkoff, who was among the speakers at the event. “It was a lot of parents of the kids as well as other relatives, and also a member of L.A.’s committee on human relations.” 

Over the course of the program, participants convene biweekly, alternating between Temple Emanuel and King Fahad Mosque in Culver City. A variety of elements comprise MAJIC’s curriculum, but a primary focus is on tikkun olam, according to NewGround executive director Rabbi Sarah Bassin.

“It’s not to solve the conflict but to create some kind of positive transformation here,” said Bassin, who is leaving the organization July 1 to become the assistant rabbi at Temple Emanuel.

NewGround program director Aziza Hasan said the impact of social action projects undertaken by MAJIC students is significant. 

“Our MAJIC participants are literally organizing projects, and through those projects they are actually serving the community,” she said in a phone interview. Hasan will serve as the organization’s interim executive director.

This year’s students organized a project focused on fundraising. The students raised money that was used to purchase food for Jewish Family Service’s SOVA Community Food and Resource Program as well as toys for chronically sick patients of Children’s Hospital Los Angeles. They also learned about various social justice organizations.

Hasan said the benefits of the program are many. Participants “come into owning their own sense of self, their own identity, their own religious connection and cultural connection,” she explained.

Approximately 40 students have graduated from MAJIC over the last two years. It was named California’s 2013 Faith-Based Organization of the Year.

Founded in 2006, NewGround, which operates out of Los Angeles City Hall, runs two main programs. MAJIC is its teen program; it also runs a fellowship for young professionals. 

Rabbi Ron Stern of Stephen S. Wise Temple was among the first to bring the idea to NewGround to expand its outreach from professionals to high-school students. He now serves on the MAJIC advisory council.

“They’re a great bunch of students, students who are really motivated to be part of this group,” Stern said of MAJIC participants.

And, by all accounts, they’re a group of difference-makers. How appropriate that participating students are known, unofficially, as “MAJICians.”

“They are magic,” Hasan said. 

Small steps on NewGround for Muslims and Jews

On Saturday night, I joined 250 or so of my fellow Muslim and Jewish Angelinos at a storytelling event hosted by Mack Sennett Studios and sponsored by NewGround, an organization working to “replace the current atmosphere of mutual suspicion among Jews and Muslims” with a feeling of trust, partnership, and cooperation. At first, I thought the evening presented a missed opportunity. The performers were sincere and articulate, but most of them did not tell stories about “Standing Up for the Other,” as the title of the program promised. Rather, they told stories about friends or family members who were supportive of them in some way. Nice, but not the direct confrontation of conflict I was expecting. I was hoping we’d all be asked to wrestle with our assumptions, discuss politics, pave a grassroots way toward world peace.

I was nervous when I walked in the door, but largely because I’m anxious around large groups of strangers, even if they are all smiling at me. I relaxed when I realized we weren’t there to size each other up for “mutual suspicion,” and I also realized: we are the choir. Most folks willing to show up to an interfaith exchange don’t need preaching about the value of diversity and dialogue. It was all quite pleasant, but still, seemed purposeless. If we weren’t going to tackle anything serious, what was the point?

But then something shifted for me during a conversation with a young documentary filmmaker named Mustafa. We immediately connected as artists, and I asked him to teach me something in Arabic. He thought for a second and said, “iftah elbaab” which means “open the door.” I smiled. He’s got it, I thought. That’s exactly what we are doing here. But still, I wondered if it was enough.

We started talking about the theme of the evening, “otherness,” and we agreed that acknowledging subtle forms of resistance to the unfamiliar can have a transformative effect, so I decided to take a risk and admit something uncomfortable, thinking it might open the door to the kind of substantive engagement I was seeking. I told him about the immediate, visceral reaction I had to my German-speaking roommate when I moved into the dorms as a college freshman many years ago. I was a Jewish student with mostly Jewish friends, and it was agitating to hear my new friend speak what I considered to be the language of the enemy. I never even realized I equated “German” with “Nazi” until living with her forced me to interrogate my views.

“Oh, so did you avoid the showers when you knew she’d be there?” asked a girl who had joined my conversation with Mustafa. She saw the look on my face and said, “just a little Holocaust humor.” I do not have a sense of humor about the genocide of any group, least of all my own people. Whatever I expected about the evening, it certainly wasn’t that I’d be offended by a fellow, female Jew and feel such easy fellowship with a Muslim man. Mustafa seemed to share my discomfort with her joke, but he didn’t react to it as I did, so in some way, his presence made it easier for the three of us to acknowledge that humor is one of those means of testing a sociopolitical pulse. It can cross boundaries and open doors, at least to conversations as some form of evolution.

The friendly, relaxed environment made it easy to approach strangers and easy to ask questions. I was surprised that people were so willing to discuss former notions of prejudice. As I walked around the room listening to many of the Muslims greet each other with “As-Salaam Alaikum,” I recognized a subtle feeling inside of otherness, reinforced by my growing awareness that I was wearing shorts and a sleeveless shirt around several women who were covered in fabric from head to toe. My Jewish friend suggested that I put on my sweater so as not to offend. While I’d certainly observe custom and protocol at a religious service or while visiting a Muslim community, at this event, I opted for my own comfort. I wondered how the Muslim women dressed like me regarded the women in traditional garb. Do their different choices signal different values? I hesitated to ask, but next time I will.

While we didn’t really learn to “Stand Up for the Other,” it’s worth acknowledging small steps on NewGround. We had snacks and conversations, took some photos, joked about snapchat, heard some good stories. And it felt really good. I connected with many people I’d like to see again. I didn’t hold back and wait to be invited into discussions; I extended my hand and was warmly received every time. That in itself expands my sense of home here in Los Angeles, and makes me more likely to reach out to others, less likely to judge, more likely to ask questions, less likely to make assumptions, and more likely to feel connected, receptive, and optimistic.

Casual, social interactions can seem less significant than intense political debate, but they have a powerful, cumulative effect. They can replace rigid attitudes with curiosity and increasing comfort. The organizers deliberately avoided force-fed agendas and opted instead to help us approach each other as people first rather than as representatives of difference. NewGround has been named by our Governor as 2013’s “Faith-based Organization of the Year,” and since this year’s turnout was twice last year’s, I’m confident that 2014 will open the door for many more of us to enter the conversation.

Letters to the Editor: NewGround, Liberal colleges and Prager

Breaking New Ground in Interfaith Dialogue
The NewGround project is as controversial as it is ambitious (“It’s Not Just Talk,” Aug. 2). Although I am skeptical as to its potential success, I believe the focus of the Jewish-Muslim dialogue is myopic. Since 9/11, it has become increasingly obvious that the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is a symptomatic and symbolic flashpoint of a problem of much greater universal dimensions. The thoughts of non-Palestinian Muslims about Israel in the NewGround dialogue clearly demonstrate that the war with Israel is not as territorial as it is religious. Perhaps the dialogue should be expanded to include Christians, Hindus, Sikhs, Buddhists, Baha’i and Zoroastrians, who in the present day find themselves in conflict with expansionist Islam.
This young generation of American Muslims must be challenged as to whether they subscribe to the expansionist Jihadist Islam that wants to Islamize and subjugate the entire world. If they truly do not, then perhaps they could potentially be a catalyst for reform in the Islamic world that is long overdue.
Richard Friedman
Los Angeles
Hats off to writer Jonah Lowenfeld and the Jewish Journal for their recent article. Interfaith dialogue, like intercultural, interracial and inter-political dialogues, are always a difficult minefield for groups to make their way through. 
My big fear is that the resistant older guard Jewish and Muslim leadership — and its concomitant stubborn resistance in the general older Jewish and Muslim public — is going to make the vital and necessary work of groups like NewGround extremely hard. 
Older critics of NewGround and similar groups need to not sit on the fence, nursing old wounds. Instead, they should give full-throated support. To do otherwise is to only prolong the problem, and that won’t help anyone. 
Brian Estwick
Los Angeles
U.S. Universities Open Learning Environments?
As a student at an openly liberal-leaning college, I have spoken frankly with professors as to whether our courses provide an open space for dissenting opinions or serve merely to reinforce opinions students already hold. What those conversations had was nuance, and an understanding that an idea can be presented — and even argued for by the professor — without being indoctrination. Isn’t that how we learn to think critically about an idea? Dennis Prager, on the other hand, presents woefully oversimplified versions of ideas that are admittedly often present in college courses and offers what amounts to an attempt to scare parents who are understandably concerned about the rising cost of college. It is irresponsible to say that a college education’s value is invalidated by the presence of liberal professors or controversial ideas. Give students a little credit — we’re impressionable, not stupid. 
Noah Scheindlin
Los Angeles
Dennis Prager responds:
Mr. Scheindlin’s first sentence proves my point. He acknowledges that he is “a student at an openly liberal-leaning college.” 
He also admits that all the left-wing propositions I ascribed to American universities “are admittedly often present in college courses.”
So where do we differ? Clearly not on my overall thesis that the American university has become a left-wing seminary.
We differ on whether the left-wing curriculum of the American university matters. He thinks it doesn’t. I think it does. 
Mr. Scheindlin then equates “controversial ideas,” with liberal ones. I would like him to name one liberal idea — just one among the dozens I listed in my column, for example — that would be controversial at his or any other university. The only controversial ideas at American universities today are conservative: God is necessary for objective morality; capitalism is the finest system for conquering poverty; some murderers should be executed; Islamism is the greatest threat to world peace today. It would be surprising if Mr. Scheindlin had one professor who espoused even one of those ideas.
And for those still needing proof that our universities are left-wing seminaries, how’s this: The ratio of identifiably left-wing to identifiably right-wing commencement speakers at America’s colleges in 2013 was about a hundred to one. Among the commencement speakers at the various University of California campuses this year were Attorney General Eric Holder; Gov. Jerry Brown; green activist Phaedra Ellis-Lamkins; ACLU Executive Director Anthony Romero; Rep. Donna Edwards (D-Md.); and Hilda Solis, secretary of labor in the Obama administration; among many other lesser-known liberal activists. There was not one identifiable conservative. 
A column about the writer Joshuah Bearman (“Hard Road to Hollywood,” Aug. 2) incorrectly stated his relationship to his brother Ethan. Both Bearmans share the same parents.

A Jew and a Muslim? L.A.-based NewGround wants to show we can all get along

Most Jews and Muslims rarely talk — really talk — to one another. This is as true in the United States as elsewhere, a stark reality despite our nation’s vast diversity and the ability of so many different peoples to coexist. It is true also in Los Angeles, a city of strong ethnic identities, long drives and even longer cultural memories. 

Indeed, even here, the few encounters among Muslims and Jews often feel like head-on collisions: Protests and counter-protests — many triggered by events in and around Israel — are usually the most visible interactions, but they’re hardly the only instances of tension. 

Some recent examples: In June 2012, Pamela Geller, a New York-based Jewish blogger and co-founder of Stop the Islamization of America, an organization classified as a hate group by the Southern Poverty Law Center, was barred at the last minute from speaking inside the headquarters of The Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles — but not before local Muslim groups reportedly threatened to protest outside the Wilshire Boulevard building. 

In 2010, 11 Muslim students repeatedly heckled and interrupted Israeli Ambassador to the United States Michael Oren while he was speaking at UC Irvine, until the students were finally removed from the room. They were arrested, cited for disturbing a public event, and, the following year, 10 were convicted in a jury trial and sentenced to perform community service. 

Also in 2010, young supporters of Friends of the Israel Defense Forces, who attended a fundraiser at the Shangri La Hotel in Santa Monica, sued the hotel owner for violating their civil rights and allegedly saying, “I don’t want … any Jews in my pool.”  In 2012 a jury awarded damages to the FIDF plaintiffs in a lawsuit over the incident.

In 2006, leaders of the city’s most prominent Jewish organizations opposed giving a Los Angeles County humanitarian award to Dr. Maher Hathout, who is among the local Muslim community’s most respected leaders, on grounds that he had once maligned Israel as a “racist, apartheid state.”

And each spring, the debate over what constitutes free speech at California universities is reignited on every campus that holds a so-called “Israel Apartheid Week” or considers a resolution to boycott companies doing business in the Israeli-occupied West Bank. Although students are the ones speaking out on campuses — on both sides — often they are being coached and encouraged by much larger Jewish and Muslim organizations.

Within the Jewish community, even the simple act of acknowledging the shared humanity of Muslims and Jews can be perilous. In 2012, when the conflict between Israel and Hamas in the Gaza Strip escalated into battle, Rabbi Sharon Brous, spiritual leader of IKAR, expressed sympathy for both Israelis and Palestinians in a message to her congregants and was immediately, fiercely and publicly attacked for doing so by Rabbi Daniel Gordis of the Shalem Center in Jerusalem. Gordis argued that when Israel is at war, Jews should express support only for the Jewish state. Hardliners in the Muslim community similarly silence moderate voices on their side, as well. 

And yet, as in Israel, Jews and Muslims in Southern California often live, if not side by side, then just down the road from one another. So it is not surprising that those few who attempt to cross the chasm separating these faiths and peoples often find that Muslims and Jews share not just the same neighborhoods, but many of the same values.

Enter NewGround, an L.A. group that has made its mission to bridge the gap. For the past five years, this emerging organization has been housed at the epicenter of the city — in Los Angeles City Hall — where it has been creating encounters among young Muslims and Jews. Its tactic is to prioritize conversation over solutions, active listening over public statements, allowing for honest exchange instead of superficial agreement. 

NewGround already has forged deep relationships within its ever-expanding, carefully nurtured community of Muslims and Jews. And while differing views may continue to persist, NewGround’s training allows participants to acknowledge the conflict taking place half a world away without letting it limit all discussions here. 

“NewGround was founded precisely to overcome the tendency for international conflict to disrupt relationships locally,” Rabbi Sarah Bassin, the group’s executive director, said. “We treat conflict as an inherent part of this relationship, as it is part of all relationships.”

Each year, NewGround trains a group of fellows from the Jewish and Muslim communities who spend months together before beginning to talk about hot-button topics like Zionism or the movement known as BDS, which seeks to boycott, divest from and sanction Israel. Those topics are raised during the second of two weekend retreats, toward the end of the 10-month program, by which time the fellows have learned crucial new communication skills and covered the (not entirely safe) subject of religion. The delay can, at least initially, be frustrating for those who came to the program specifically to talk to their counterparts about Israel. 

“I didn’t trust the process; I thought it was a waste of time,” Eliana Kaya, a fellow from NewGround’s third cohort in 2010, said in an interview. She is now executive coordinator at reGeneration, a nonprofit that supports the progressive Waldorf method of education for Israelis and Palestinians. “I would go up [to the leaders] at the end of every session and say, ‘Yala, when are we going to get to the real stuff?’ ” 

Shukry Cattan, a member of the most recent fellowship class, also wondered about the program’s structure. “There was all this buildup, and, for me, I kept thinking, ‘OK, what is this? Why are we waiting to the end?’ ” said Cattan, who is of Palestinian descent. “I thought the conversation was going to happen sooner.”

But Kaya, a practicing Jew, and Cattan, the son of a Christian mother and a Muslim father, both came to see the value of having relationships with the other members of their cohort in place before beginning such a difficult conversation. 

“When it actually did happen, I understood the process,” Cattan said. “Having built that relationship with people and having seen each other — not even as Jews and Muslims — but people who have lives and stories to share, hearing people’s perspectives and each other’s very difficult experiences with the conflict — you couldn’t just walk away and dismiss that person’s story because you knew that person.”

Already, more than 100 Jewish and Muslim professionals, most in their 20s and 30s, have graduated from NewGround’s yearlong, intensive and innovative fellowship program, which teaches communication skills, builds friendships and gives members of each faith a window into the beliefs, practices and politics of the other. For its efforts, NewGround has received accolades and awards from the Jewish, Muslim and interfaith communities, and groups in other American cities have begun attempts to adapt the NewGround model for their own Muslim and Jewish communities. 

As the Muslim holy month of Ramadan nears its Aug. 7 close, the world is closely watching the first meetings between Palestinian and Israeli peace negotiators in more than two years. Yet regardless of what happens on the international stage, there’s also hope in what’s happening on the ground here in Los Angeles, where NewGround is building a foundation for open, ongoing communication between adversaries. 

The members of NewGround’s 2013 young professionals fellowship cohort pose for a picture after receiving their certificates of recognition and appreciation from the City of Los Angeles Human Relations Commission. Photo by

There are precedents, to be sure. In the 1990s, leaders of L.A.’s Muslim and Jewish communities met regularly under an umbrella known as the Muslim-Jewish Dialogue. Since 2006, a group of progressive Jewish, Muslim and Christian faith leaders have convened under the aegis of the Abrahamic Faiths Peacemaking Initiative, for meetings and events. 

NewGround is itself the outgrowth of a partnership formed in the post-9/11 early 2000s between two L.A.-based nonprofits, the Progressive Jewish Alliance (PJA) and the Muslim Public Affairs Council (MPAC), whose leaders first hoped to convene other Jewish and Muslim leaders, but had little success. Rather than turn away in failure, they turned to younger Jews and Muslims — tomorrow’s leaders.

Interfaith teens win award

Muslims and Jews Inspiring Change (MAJIC), a program that brings together Jewish and Muslim high school students for a yearlong fellowship, has been named the faith-based organization of the year by California Volunteers, the state office charged with encouraging Californians to engage in service and volunteering. 

The award, one of eight presented by California Gov. Jerry Brown this year, honors a program that was launched just one year ago by the Jewish and Muslim nonprofit NewGround, a group founded in 2007. 

Following the model that has made NewGround’s young professional fellowship successful, MAJIC created a forum for a small group of young Muslims and Jews to talk about difficult issues and learn about one another’s faith, while also building relationships and leadership skills. 

Like every NewGround group, the 16 teens in the 2012-’13 MAJIC class are evenly divided — eight Jews, eight Muslims — but the reason they won the governor’s award had to do with what they were able to accomplish together. 

Presented on May 22, the award honored MAJIC for engaging volunteers and responding to community needs, particularly through the teen-organized Carnival Against Hunger. On April 28, between 100-150 people came to Masjid Bilal, a mosque in South Los Angeles, where they played carnival games (which had been tweaked to incorporate educational content), planted fruit trees and packaged food for local anti-hunger organizations. MAJIC fellows engaged with hundreds more Jewish and Muslim youth at four other sites around the city throughout the day. 

Rabbi Sarah Bassin, executive director of NewGround, who oversees the MAJIC program with Soha Yassine of the Islamic Center of California, accompanied four of the fellows to receive the award in Sacramento last week. 

NewGround, which was founded by Progressive Jewish Alliance and the Muslim Public Affairs Council, has been an independent organization for about two years. In that time, it has grown in scope and its programs have become more diverse, but the young professionals’ fellowship still sits at the heart of many of its activities. 

But adapting a curriculum designed for fellows in their 20s and 30s to meet the needs of high school students brought with it questions, chief among them whether to engage the teenagers in a conversation about the land that some call Israel and others call Palestine. 

The initial plan, Bassin said, was to skip the topic, but the teens of MAJIC approached her and Yassine and asked them to mediate the discussion. The conversation went well enough, Bassin said, that next year’s cohort of teens will discuss the conflict as well.

When it came time to identify a service project, however, the MAJIC group focused on matters closer to home, choosing to work on combating hunger in Los Angeles. 

Bassin said the decision made her proud. 

“ ‘This is about who we are as Americans, ’ ” she said, recalling the   teens’ conclusion. “ ‘This is not about the conflict defining us.’ ” 

Plans for next year’s high school group are already in the works, and Bassin said that NewGround has already received a dozen applications to join the cohort. The application deadline is June 15.

At joint iftar celebration, Muslim-Jewish High School Council launched

A recent break-fast meal, held in the courtyard of the Westside Jewish Community Center, began with the blowing of a shofar. The sun hadn’t yet set, so the baskets of pita and dried dates placed on every table remained untouched.

And Yom Kippur was more than a month away.

“Ramadan Mubarak,” said Rabbi Sarah Bassin to the 200-odd Jews and Muslims who had gathered on Thursday evening, Aug. 9, to participate in an iftar, the nightly meal that marks the end of each day of fasting during the holy month of Ramadan.

Bassin is the executive director of NewGround, a project aimed at creating an atmosphere of trust between American Muslims and Jews, rather than one of mutual suspicion. To that end, NewGround is in the process of assembling a fifth cohort of 20 young Muslim and Jewish professionals for its fellowship.

On Aug. 9, the organization officially launched a second, similar initiative, the Muslim-Jewish High School Leadership Council. During the coming academic year, eight Jewish and eight Muslim high school students will gather for biweekly seminars and other activities designed to foster relationships and teach them about Muslims and Jews in America.

But if the council’s work can be described in concrete tasks, at least some at the JCC spoke of far loftier goals.

“I want to prove them all wrong,” Natalia Jean Garatto, a member of the new council and president of her youth group at Temple Emanuel in Beverly Hills, told the gathering. “The people who believe that the wars and mutual intolerance will never end and those that think that teenagers have no influence or ability to impact our world.”

Rabbi Sharon Brous of IKAR began the evening by offering words of prayer, and acknowledged the poignancy of a group of Muslims and Jews gathering in the wake of the mass shooting that took place at a Sikh temple in Wisconsin earlier in the week. It was a chance, she said, for people of faith to stand in solidarity, not just with the Sikh community, but with the Muslim community that the killer believed he was targeting.

“We stand together tonight dedicated to realizing the triumph of light over darkness, and love over all else,” Brous said.

The iftar was sponsored by a handful of Muslim and Jewish groups and was choreographed to demonstrate how the council hopes to achieve its lofty goals, but also served to illustrate for the attendees — including the 14 fellows, their families and other members of the local Muslim and Jewish communities — a number of commonalities between the Jewish and Muslim faiths.

The Muslims broke the day’s fast with dried dates; Imam Rushdan Mujahid-Deen of Masjid Bilal Islamic Center explained it was customary for the first food eaten each evening of Ramadan to be a natural food. Some of the Muslims then went upstairs for the Maghrib prayer while a handful of Jews stood in a section of the courtyard for the Ma’ariv service.

What followed was a substantial meal, with the crowd serving themselves plates of vegetarian Indian food from a buffet. Then, under the night sky, Muslims and Jews sat down together. They talked, listened and ate.

“Food always gets people together,” said Mirvat Kamel, whose daughter, Maha, is taking part in the council this year, “that’s what we said.”

Briefs: City politicos celebrate launch of NewGround; Iranian Jews

City politicos celebrate launch of NewGround

Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa celebrated the launch of NewGround, a joint undertaking of the Progressive Jewish Alliance (PJA) and the Muslim Public Affairs Council (MPAC), at City Hall on March 8. The group will bring together Jews and Muslims in a community-building dialogue on issues ranging from the Israeli-Palestinian conflict to immigration to homelessness.

“This is the city where we come together from every corner of the earth,” Villaraigosa said. “If there is one place in the world where Muslims and Jews should be able to forge common ground, it is here.”

City Council President Eric Garcetti hailed the group as leaders of the future.

“The stakes are high because the face of Los Angeles is the face of the world. The world is watching us,” said Garcetti, who hosted the gathering in the Tom Bradley Tower Room.

“We’re going from old ground in the Middle East, where we’re shackled by fear and bloodshed, to new ground in Los Angeles, where we can develop mutual respect and mutual trust and hopefully this project will blossom forth with the rays of hope from the people in this room,” said Salam Al-Mayarati, MPAC’s executive director.

Preparation for NewGround included a six-month study conducted by two scholars — one Muslim, one Jewish — who examined the failures and successes of interfaith dialogues throughout the country. Interfaith program co-ordinators Malka Fenyvesi and Aziza Hasan, who work for PJA and MPAC respectively, will serve as NewGround staffers.

Hasan said that the group has already selected 18 participants — nine Jews and nine Muslims, ranging in age from 27 to 37 — with such diverse backgrounds as attorneys, doctors, teachers, filmmakers, artists and doctoral students.

“It’s not enough to sit and have coffee together. It’s not enough to visit each other’s mosques and synagogues. We actually need to confront the prejudices and stereotypes that we hold about each other, agree to disagree, and then fulfill our traditions’ obligations to build a better community,” PJA Executive Director Daniel Sokatch said.

Imam Jihad Turk of the Islamic Center of Southern California and Rabbi Reuven Firestone of Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion led the event’s opening and closing prayers.

— Naomi Glauberman, Contributing Writer