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Listening and Achieving the Impossible Dream

Muslim and Jewish Young Adults Forge Community in Los Angeles

Can Jews and Muslims actually get along? For the average American, plagued by widespread misinformation and skewed biases from the media, this might seem nearly impossible. In light of the ubiquitous news of conflict in the Middle East, coexistence between these two faith traditions is often perceived as a lost cause. However, here in the Southern California a number of Jewish and Muslim communities are working in harmony towards peace and understanding.

Jewish and Muslim strangers become friends.One such group is made up of Jewish and Muslim young adults participating in a fellowship with NewGround. This particular NPO focuses on establishing a strong partnership between the Muslim and Jewish communities of the Los Angeles area. This past November, the 2012-2013 fellows had the opportunity to meet for the first time, myself included.

As a young Jewish woman, having recently moved to Claremont to pursue interfaith work, I was ready to put what I had learned thus far into action. About 25 Jews and Muslims, all in their 20s and 30s, were coming together to form a new cohort of change-agents for the world. Each of us with our own starting points, diverse cultural backgrounds, and preconceived notions about “the other” (conscious and subconscious), had agreed to set aside our differences for the time being to work towards cooperation.

There was a consensus in our respective communities that change needs to be prioritized. Perpetuated ignorance, a lack of yearning to know the real facts, and stereotypes are enabling factors which result in an unwillingness to accept “the other.” People are often afraid of what is different or unknown. We thrive on being able to categorize groups or individuals. The minute we experience difficulty in labeling, we make judgments, often negative ones. For that reason, NewGround is committed to helping the Muslim and Jewish communities learn more about one another. The best way to start achieving a greater acceptance of “the other” is through the dissemination of accurate information. Through the fellowship, NewGround has recognized that we, the fellows, have the capacity to be our most effective educators.

In order to gain more insight into the religious other, it is imperative to study the art of communication. My communication skills have been enhanced through the Fellowship. The most difficult aspect for me is being an active listener. Naturally, people tend to interrupt others; signifying their own personal interest as opposed to truly wanting to hear what the other person has to say.

As fellows, are were encouraged to practice allowing our conversation partner to express him/herself fully, without interruption, maintaining focused eye contact, and providing genuine interest. After the fellow has finished what he or she needs to say, it is important to repeat back to him/her what we believe we have heard.  Reflecting the message back to the speaker indicates that what he or she has communicated has been received and solidifies the importance of his or her message. The purpose of this skill-building activity is to cultivate active listening into our daily lives. Once this becomes habitual, our day-to-day conversations become healthier, within our own communities and beyond.

With the foundation of effective communication, the fellows have been successful in teaching one another about Islam and Judaism. We tend to focus on what our faiths share, our similarities. However, we make certain not to overlook the important distinctions which make our religious traditions quite unique. Through our conversations, we are able to destroy common misconceptions that desperately need clarification. To that end, we strive to become strong advocates of fighting against Islamophobia and anti-Semitism. By the end of the fellowship, it is my hope that we can take the skills and information learned through NewGround to provide our respective communities with the tools they will need in order to become experts in interreligious bridge-building.

I am extremely blessed to be a part of this cohort of amazing Jews and Muslims. We are committed, brave, forthright, energized, and passionate about working for the betterment of Jewish-Muslim relations. We understand there is an unprecedented need and we know there is still so much work to be done. When asked what their experiences have been like thus far, some of the fellows have responded with the following:

“NewGround has been mostly an experience of a community of people with much in common, including: learning, fun, and friends, plus the added feeling of contributing in a small way to the healing of the world.” –Seth Weiner

“This fellowship has been a mentally rewarding and uplifting experience; and I am proud to say that I have made some new friends for life!” –Rumaisa Rahman