By Eliana Kaya and Sarah Bassin
NewGround began in 2006 as a response to the climate of tension and mistrust between Jews and Muslims in Los Angeles. It was established to create a national model for healthy relations, productive engagement and social change between American Muslims and Jews.
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Not Religious Labels But Religious Identities
On Thursday, September 15, 2011, a delegation of 12 imams and academics from Al Azhar University in Cairo, Egypt met at Los Angeles City Hall with NewGround staff and alumni. The exchange was organized by Imam Bashar Arafat of the Civilizations Exchange and Cooperation Foundation which works in conjunction with the U.S. State Department to bring delegations of religious leaders from the Muslim world to the United States to study effective models of interfaith engagement. NewGround launched the Egyptian delegation’s Los Angeles itinerary on their multi-city tour.
NewGround partners and supporters also joined the meeting. Joumana Silyan-Saba of the Los Angeles Commission on Human Relations, and Sherif Morsi of the Los Angeles Sheriff’s Department attended in order to demonstrate the importance of collaboration from governmental and law enforcement perspectives.
To introduce themselves, members of the delegation were asked to define and share the five most central aspects of their identity (i.e., father, Muslim, sister, scholar, Egyptian, etcetera). As the introductions progressed, people were encouraged to shorten the list from five aspects to three, and eventually to only keep one aspect of their identity that was impossible to eliminate.
“It’s so hard to pick just one, but if I have to choose, I choose to keep ‘Muslim’ because it encompasses everything,” said one professor. “I choose to keep “peace-maker” because that is what I do not only at work but also in my personal life,” said a law enforcement officer.
The activity, used often in the NewGround fellowship, helps participants to see both the complexity and the simplicity in what shapes identity. Although the participants represented multiple faiths, national and ethnic backgrounds and professional fields, the conversation focused on tools for listening rather than labels that trigger emotion and debate.
Silyan-Saba, of the Human Relations Commission, emphasized the importance of religious pluralism, especially in a city like Los Angeles. “We are the most diverse city in the world; we have over 270 languages spoken within our city.”
Executive Director Rabbi Sarah Bassin presented the purpose and a brief history of NewGround, discussing the structure of the program and its capacity at building a wide range of community leaders skilled in conflict-resolution and interfaith engagement. “We are interested in creating and fostering relationships that will hold up locally regardless of what happens on the other side of the world.”
Egyptian delegates were particularly interested in hearing what those who go through the program learn and if it makes a difference in their respective communities.
Alumna of the NewGround Fellowship, Eliana Kaya, an Israeli-American and veteran of the Israeli Army said, “We came into the group as Jews and Muslims, with all of our ideas, judging with our eyes. NewGround trains us to listen with both ears and creates a space where we begin to care about one another. I have used what I learned every single day – in the store, at my synagogue and with my family. My language has changed. My understanding has changed. My vision has changed.”
Through the friendships that the fellowship inspired, she has learned how “to be comfortable with being uncomfortable. There can be a space for differences of opinion and I am no longer afraid that it will threaten my own identity – in fact, my faith has been strengthened.” The topic of faith as a motivating factor for being a good and righteous citizen resonated with both Egyptian faculty and local law enforcement.
The delegates in turn, were eager to share their own aspirations and views on interfaith cooperation. Their remarks on Islam in relation to Judaism, included making distinctions between religious values and political ideologies, as well as citation of Quranic scripture in an effort to demonstrate multiple precedents for religious pluralism within an Islamic context.
Beyond expressing mutual commitment towards interfaith engagement, the delegation was most interested in learning about the concrete tools that an enterprise such as NewGround can deliver, both in an Egyptian context as well as within the United States.
Rabbi Bassin cited several of NewGround’s previous and ongoing projects, while emphasizing that the purpose of the program is to foster a place to develop relationships, rather than to solve political problems.
Professor of Islamic and Arabic Studies and a PhD in Islamic Jurisprudence, Dr. Mona Mostafa asked if NewGround had any plans to expand internationally. “If we can get a NewGround in Cairo, that would really be a wonderful thing,” she remarked.
Kaya responded by sharing with the delegation how NewGround lays the foundation for effective cooperation. “The Fellowship is in some ways like a classroom,” she said to the group. “It’s a safe place to try out new ideas; but it is up to the students to remember the lessons when they leave and turn them into solutions in the real world. While we learn how to listen and see one another as full human beings, the choice to act on the skills we learn – that comes on our own, just like in life.”
After the roundtable conversation, the delegates were taken on a brief tour that concluded with a 360 degree view from the top floor of City Hall. After only two short hours, these religious leaders and academics were deeply moved by their experience and inspired by what they had heard as a model of positive Muslim-Jewish collaboration.
As Dr. Nabil Darwish, Professor in the department of Islamic Culture at Al-Azhar University stated, “I do not find words to express my gratitude for the work that you do.”
This essay was originally published in NewGround’s blog on September 16, 2011.