Newground Executive Director, Rabbi Sarah Bassin (left) and Board Chair, Edina Lekovic
Home: True Stories from LA’s Muslims and Jews
An evening of humor and music at Busby's in Los Angeles
sponsored by Newground: A Muslim-Jewish Partnership for Change
By Jonathan Arkin
For the second straight year, Newground: A Muslim Jewish Partnership for Change filled Los Angeles nightclub, Busby’s, with 200 supporters to light up the Miracle Mile with interfaith hope and humanity. Home: True Stories from LA’s Muslims and Jews, followed last year’s wildly popular Relationships event and gave interfaith collaboration advocates a friendly stage that once again promises to snowball into a more expansive network of interactions nationwide.
Melanie, Amir, Taz, Esther and Sarah. Storytellers and emcee of "Home"
On December 2, 2012, half a dozen young performers – musicians and speakers, both observant and secular – joined with some creative and interactive offstage installations to fill Busby’s, with ideas, anecdotes, song, food and laughter.
“We’re thrilled by the turnout,” said co-host and Newground Board Chair Edina Lekovic , adding that no less than 16 organizations – Jewish and Muslim – had co-sponsored the evening. “There’s great energy in the room – six powerful storytellers have joined us here on stage.”
Esther Kustanowitz, a young Jewish woman, told a story about riding on the glorious mosaic that is New York City’s subway. Tanzila “Taz” Ahmed , a Bangladeshi-American Muslim and USC graduate, followed with a seriocomic tale of how a simple fruit – guava – binds her family to their own traditions. And Yasser Jeelani , an LA-based neurosurgeon who identifies with Islam though he was raised by Jewish parents, offered his own take on bringing slightly disparate religions together.
“But this evening is really about you,” said Rabbi Sarah Bassin, Newground’s dynamic Executive Director, between numbers. “Together, we can create a better future for everyone.”
Asghar Husain of Public Jones
Continuing NewGround’s mission of promoting dialogue, community service and education in the name of cross-cultural, multi-faith understanding and conciliation, the organizers and participants – not to mention the seated audience – used humor and music to get a not-so-new message across: We may not be the same, but those differences could get interesting.
Following a musical interlude, young Julia Moss took to the stage to recount how the aging of the generation of Jewish Holocaust survivors affects her own family – particularly her grandparents and their children – while Melanie Zoey shared an amusing story about her “escape from Torah camp.” Off to the side of the stage, Azerbaijani artist Marjan Vayghan, currently represented by the Shulamit Gallery, welcomed guests into a makeshift tent, featuring Iranian/Persian refreshments and objects d’art.
Working together and finding similarities
“There are precious moments in life when people are actively listening to your words and I do my best to make them count,” said Amir Abdullah, a professional performer who presented a crowd-pleasing spoken-word piece. “Interfaith collaboration is a seed that was been planted into me ten plus years ago. I grew up in Florida, which has a strong Jewish population, and even before joining NewGround I was a champion of working together and finding similarities within each other's respective faiths to gain an understanding.”
Abdullah, a Floridian from Jacksonville who said he is “on loan” to Los Angeles but at 18 was “ready to leave, like Katie Holmes or a two-month-old weave,” proved his facility and flow with Hip-Hop stylings that were both crisp and colorful.
Bassin – who also chaired and co-hosted Relationships in 2011 – looked to a “new paradigm” in interfaith relationships saying that the energy created by the effort was self-fulfilling.
“This year's event gave us the opportunity to strengthen existing collaborations and build new partnerships,” she said. “The fact there were 200 attendees shows that this type of interfaith work taps into an impulse in both communities to create a new paradigm.”
Taking to the stage again with a Muslim partner – this time, the talented Lekovic – led to some welcome moments of spontaneity and reaction during the performances and the entertaining patter in between.
The youngest Newground supporter enjoys the evening
with Mom, Board Chair Edina Lekovic and Rabbi Sarah Bassin
“In all honesty, being on stage and emceeing with Edina didn't feel all that different from one of NewGround's Board meetings,” Bassin said. “The more we work together, the more we play off of one another — whether it's for an on stage performance or in constructing a communications strategy. That dynamic certainly makes my job more enjoyable.”
What exactly is it about speaking in an informal setting to (and with) those who may be perceived to be culturally far apart, that results in such an easy balance of ideas and friendship? That question was posed to several of Home’s performers and organizers.
“The law of the instrument states that you are likely to see a nail in most things if a hammer is all you have,” Jeelani said. “With the same analogy, how can you not find love if, within your heart love be all you bear? We all have love in our hearts, if we only could bear it out…and events like this give us that platform.”
“What was extraordinarily special about the night was the enthusiasm in the crowd,” Jeelani noted. “It understood the basis of the primary assumption that we aren't that different, despite how we are portrayed. Th[at] assumption played true till the end".
Amir Abdullah performing Jacksonville piece
And in the end, another example of how culture clash is often misread as insurmountable, provided the audience with constructive material to take to their respective extended families and communities.
“Interfaith friendships and relationships can be surprising to those who have very few of them,” Abdullah said. “And as someone actively involved in them, I think it can be most beneficial to those who observe them from afar, those outsiders looking in. It makes other people curious and piques their interest and then that gets the conversations going, and pretty soon, someone who may have been reluctant can also start the interfaith conversation. So really it can be one person at a time that people can see past stereotypes and see each person as an individual regardless of religion, race, orientation.”
Continuing support for Newground’s fellowships – How to help
Bassin said that the continuing support from some very active grant-funded fellowship recipients was instrumental in organizing this year’s show.
“Alumni from NewGround's most recent fellowships were essential in putting together this event, and they're out in the community working on numerous civic engagement projects,” Bassin said. “We're excited for what they have in store and we're equally as excited to add 24 new Muslims and Jews to their ranks as we've just launched our fifth NewGround fellowship cohort.”
And again, the undeniable hope that a better world is in store for those who need only look across the street, across the border, or across the university quad at one another, was held up to friendly footlights.
“We hope that tonight has been a step in the right direction,” Bassin added.
Photos courtesy of My T. Chau, Jonathan Arkin, and Tarek Shawky, a Newground Fellowship recipient.
BREAKING NEW GROUND IN MUSLIM-JEWISH RELATIONSHIPS:
A MULTI-FAITH, MULTI-ORGANIZATION FUNDRAISER
FOR HOMEBOY INDUSTRIES
SIGNALS A NEW ERA OF PEACE BUILDING
By Jonathan Arkin
“Our Jewish and Muslim students will be our community and religious leaders of tomorrow, and my hope is that these experiences will inspire them to continue to work… around their common goals and shared humanity.”–Varun Soni, USC’s dean of religious life
Partnerships can be a tough business, particularly when you’re talking alliances between Muslim and Jewish religious-cultural groups.
On southern California college campuses, which are generally progressive incubators for dialogue on controversial issues, the Muslim-Jewish conversation has in recent years, received a groundswell of support by academic and student groups. However, even within the relative safety of the academic womb, these issues are highly charged, sometimes violent, and the efforts of activists dedicated to collaboration haven’t translated beyond graduation. The truth is, that once out into the working world, young professional Muslims and Jews have had little motivation to advance active communication.
Now, in Los Angeles, the winds are changing, evidenced by an extraordinary fundraising event which took place last month (November 2011), called, appropriately, “Relationships”.
In the matter of building sorely needed relationships between the Muslim and Jewish communities in Los Angeles, this evening achieved stellar success, both on the personal and the organizational levels.
FINDING HUMOR AND COMMONALITY IN DIFFERENCES
Storyteller Hend Alhinnawi sharing the tale of how two very different coworkers became friends.
Photo courtesy of Jahan Hamid
“The concept of storytelling tapped into something universal that drew so many people to the event.” – Rabbi Sarah Bassin
In what NewGround organizers and their growing list of supporters promise will become a regular happening, hundreds of like-minded young professional Muslims, Jews and Christians packed a Los Angeles nightclub to applaud participants as they took the stage to discuss their differences, and most important, to find the humor and beauty in it all.
Evenings like this, which bring together multi-faith groups, are certainly not the first of its kind. In other parts of the world – particularly in Israel – disparate groups reach out to one another in friendship and hope. But events such as these are far from commonplace. And it had never been attempted in Los Angeles, on this scale.
HOW ‘RELATIONSHIPS’ BECAME AN ONSTAGE, OFFSTAGE COLLABORATION FOR CHANGE AND PEACE.
The evening of true stories focusing on these very Relationships got its start as an idea at the dynamic, Los Angeles-based organization, NewGround, living up to its name as a “Muslim-Jewish Partnership for Change” and led by recently ordained rabbi – Sarah Bassin.
“I brought an initial idea to NewGround's board,” Bassin said of the project’s genesis. “With their input, I reached out to Muslim and Jewish organizational partners to develop the idea more thoroughly. These organizational partners also helped find the wide variety of storytellers for the evening. Overall, the planning process felt extremely organic and gained a tremendous amount of momentum in the weeks leading up the event. I think that the concept of storytelling tapped into something universal that drew so many people to the event.”
BREAKING DOWN OUTDATED BARRIERS THROUGH STORYTELLING AND LAUGHTER
Emcees Rabbi Sarah Bassin and Najeeba Syeed-Miller bantering between storytellers.
Photo courtesy of Jahan Hamid
Standing on stage in the crowded venue, were the two female emcees – Rabbi Sarah Bassin in knee-high black boots, and Najeeba Syeed-Miller, a Muslim woman in a traditional scarf, who is on the faculty at the Claremont School of Theology. One might think that, in another time, these two would have the hosting chemistry of James Franco and Anne Hathaway. But in a strong message designed to state the now obvious, the two showed how backward the prevailing attitude timid around “getting along” had been. Not only that, but they and all the participants onstage that night, demonstrated the value of a healthy level of discourse – an idea that Bassin says is also just plain fun…and highly productive.
A young man named Ahsan Alvi took the stage and told of his upbringing in New York, where he was always curious about ‘the other’ and had to wait to discover it until he left for college.
Another, a women with a mixed Muslim-Jewish background, talked about her struggles with acceptance by her own family.
But the seeds of discord, according to one speaker, are not based on religion. “If you want to know if you like or dislike somebody,” Hend Alhinnawi said to laughter and applause, “take them to coffee.”
Alvi, a clean-cut 20-something dressed in street clothes and owning an easy smile, believes that there is more. He shared an eloquent quote from rapper Mos Def – who was born Dante Terrell Smith and who became a Muslim at age 19. He then shared a touching anecdote about a gay co-worker who won him over with kindness, putting him at ease with those “others,” people he had been raised to avoid.
“This event gave me an opportunity to discover the other,” he told Action Now Network. “I think it was a big success. And I felt good up there telling my story.”
Says Mustafa Eck, another storyteller, “I realized how important it is in general to be willing to be friends with people who you think are so much different than you, so you can realize how much you have in common.”
Storyteller Harris Danow reflecting on his teenage relationship with his mother.
Photo courtesy of Jahan Hamid
MUSLIM-JEWISH PARTNERSHIPS FOR CHANGE: A GROWING TREND?
Both Bassin and Syeed-Miller want to stress that, as successful as was the night of readings and conversation, this idea is a growing one. The plan, says Bassin, is to expand the group’s reach to include and even broader spectrum of organizations that don’t typically interact.
“This event was touching and thought provoking because it gave the audience insight on what it is like to live as a Jew or a Muslim.” –Tasneem Noor
Interfaith dialogue is nothing new; much of it, as noted above, occurs on university campuses where the student body is diverse and active in relationship building. Two such colleges – Santa Monica College and the University of Southern California (USC) – enjoy a particularly high level of multicast, international organizations and clubs.
BREAKING BREAD – AND SHARING THE POWER OF PEACEFUL INTERFAITH ENGAGEMENT
Soft-spoken Tasneem Noor was one of those students at SMC to invite Jewish and Christian students to break the Ramadan fast with delicious Halal food that was generously shared with all. Noor went on to earn her BA at UCLA – where another group, the Olive Tree Initiative, actively tries to advance dialogue where more volatile campuses like University of California, Irvine, seem to fail.
At the Relationships evening she described how her involvement in dialogue work has happily come full circle. “I learn best from people, listening to their experiences, reflecting on their choices and asking questions,” Noor, a NewGround alumna, said. “I walked away from [the evening of Relationships presentations] thinking, ‘what would be my story? Which relationships have influenced me so greatly and what do I have to share that others may learn from?’ This event was touching and thought provoking because it gave the audience insight on what it is like to live as a Jew or a Muslim. It is one thing to be Muslim or a Jew and another to live as one and own it as a central identity that influences every facet of your life. Muslims often say, ‘Islam is not just a religion, it is a way of life.’ I learned that this is true for the Jews as well.”
“I realized how important it is in general to be willing to be friends with people who you think are so much different than you, so you can realize how much you have in common.”– Mustafa Eck
A “HUNGER” TO MAKE FAITH BASED CONFLICT A THING OF THE PAST
The non-profit Valley Inter-Faith Council, a non-denominational service organization, has honored NewGround in the past with its annual “Inter-Faith Leadership Award.” And at USC, the religious leaders on campus are beginning to pave a way for like-minded activists who have tired of the political dialogue and controversy that often accompanies interfaith outreach.
“The Twinning Weekend was a timely reminder of the power of interfaith engagement,” said Varun Soni, USC’s dean of religious life. “Our Jewish and Muslim students will be our community and religious leaders of tomorrow, and my hope is that these experiences will inspire them to continue to work together in the future around their common goals and shared humanity.”
Hebrew Union College rabbinic student Dusty Klass sharing stories of her mixed Jewish Catholic family.
Photo courtesy of Jahan Hamid
For it is through the efforts of these organizations that honest dialogue and collaboration is the future of interpersonal relationships in a post-racial, peaceful and prosperous world. Many strong, interfaith friendships have developed over the years, both on the individual and on the collective level and interest is growing. Bassin notes that the hunger for change is so strong that well-attended events like Relationships should become commonplace with proper planning.
“UNLIKELY BEDFELLOWS” COLLABORATIONS INSPIRED BY A NEW PEACEBUILDING ZEITGEIST
But the juxtaposition of unlikely bedfellows in an event dedicated to non-partisan, apolitical coexistence went even further in its uniqueness – especially on the organizational level, say the organizers.
A SEQUEL IN THE WORKS: SUGGESTIONS AND COMMUNITY PARTICIPATION WELCOMED
Sequels, says Bassin, are certainly in the works. With NewGround taking on Muslim-Jewish relations from a variety of angles, the planning will expand to other events.
“We will continue to run large scale public programming like the ‘Relationships’ event every three or four months,” Bassin said, adding an appeal for creative input. “Any suggestions or ideas for ways to convene a wide variety of Muslims and Jews in a single event: We're all ears!”
SOUTHERN CALIFORNIA AS A TRUE HUB OF ACTIVITY FOR BUILDING MUSLIM-JEWISH PARTNERSHIPS
For those like Noor – who was born in Pakistan and now lives in Los Angeles – outreach is a calling for which she is well prepared. Noor says she is on track to become a facilitator for NewGround so she can continue incubating rich, meaningful, transformative dialogue between inter-faith communities.
“[NewGround] is a truly empowering organization that equips you with extended community, knowledge, communication skills, and most importantly an awareness and appreciation for the other,” she added.
21ST CENTURY OUTREACH – WHAT DREAMS MAY COME
And with its outreach, NewGround has plenty of offerings in the works.
“We offer consulting services for Muslim and Jewish organizations interested in reaching out to the other community,” Bassin said. “We also offer lectures and discussions to audiences. The core of our programming is an intensive fellowship experience to build communication and conflict transformation skills as well as a network of relationships among Muslims and Jews in Los Angeles. We are adapting this fellowship to apply to a variety of contexts including organizational and mosque/synagogue partnerships. If you're associated with a Muslim or Jewish organization and are interested in any of these services, be in touch. We want to help!”
Ahsan Alvi quoting Mos Def in a love story about his fiancé.
Photo courtesy of Jahan Hamid
A BEACON OF HOPE IN OUR COMPLICATED WORLD
At the end of the day, whether the larger, geopolitical goal of peaceful coexistence between Muslims and Jews is reachable in our lifetime, the work of bridge-building continues in Southern California. Expertly using the powerful tools of communication and education, organizations like NewGround and partners are paving the way for a new era, by minimizing differences and turning the dream of productive alliances between Muslims and Jews into genuine, reality-based planning.
I say, more power to them – they’re a true beacon of hope in our very complicated world.