By Susan Schwartz, TMO
Southern California is home to many organizations of faith and social activism. One of the most praiseworthy and effective is NewGround: a Muslim-Jewish Partnership for Change. NewGround was launched in 2006 as the product of a joint venture between the Muslim Public Affairs Council (MPAC) and the Progressive Jewish Alliance (PJA) and became an independent organization in 2011 under the leadership of Board Chair Edina Lekovic and Executive Director Sarah Bassin. The mission of NewGround was to bring Muslim and Jewish Angelenos together to form personal relationships that lead to understanding of the other. Eventually both parties develop skills that are brought back to his or her community that lead to productive joint civic engagement.
In effect each party would discover what the two faiths had in common, and while they might have begun at opposite ends of a bridge, they soon met at the center to form a lasting partnership. Successful graduates of NewGround then serve as mentors. Later in this article we will learn about New Ground alumni.
Within a few years of its birth NewGround left the parent organizations to become an independent entity. At this time Rabbi Sarah Bassin, then a graduate of Hebrew Union College, was asked to be NewGroundâ€™s director. She accepted and has led the organization to great success, and its many achievements will be chronicled in this article.
NewGround was honored late last year by an invitation to the White House to celebrate Chanukah with President Barack Obama. This was attended by Rabbi Bassin and board member, David Weiner.This honor was due to their work with NewGround and brought honor and recognition to a group that has achieved what many people would have deemed impossible at its inception.
Rabbi Sarah Bassin
Among the activities of NewGround is a Fellowship Program which trains young professionals in their twenties and thirties in communication and conflict styles, intentional listening, the tenants of Islam and Judaism, the realities of Islamophobia and anti Semitism, and the shared faith value of social justice and action. Weekend retreats are held twice during the Fellowship to optimize personal relationships and morph these relationships into action programs.
Interfaith activities and presentations have abounded from NewGround. These activities include a jointly produced Muslim-Jewish Film Festival, the first of its kind; an annual evening of story telling and faith building titled: NewGround Spotlight, and a high school leadership council which was named Top Faith – based Organization in California by Governor Jerry Brown this past summer.
Other honors of note are: NewGround was invited to present best practices in interfaith at the Doha International Center for Interfaith Dialogue and has been invited back for 2014. NewGround was named one of the 50 most innovative organizations in the Jewish North American Community by Slingshot magazine. Rabbi Bassin is the recipient of a Joshua Venture Group Fellowship – a fellowship for Jewish innovators and their projects that also granted NewGround $100,000 for two years.
At this point it is appropriate to include two success stories – out of many- with essays by two graduates of NewGroundâ€™s Fellowship Program: Sarah Kelman and Shukry Cattan.
Ms. Kelman: I joined NewGround in 2008 with my husband, who was my boyfriend (and then fiancÃ©) at the time. Although it was his father, a rabbi who is active in the local Jewish community, who encouraged us to apply for the fellowship program, it seemed right away that this group of young professionals would be a great way to meet new people in Los Angeles. I had recently moved to the area from Washington, D.C., and I found it hard to meet new people.
I immediately felt a connection and a sense of acceptance from many members of the group from the first time that I met them â€“ particularly the Muslim participants of NewGround. As I learned more about Islam through the perspectives and experiences of my friends in the group, I came to understand what Talal Asad (a famous scholar on religion) calls Islamâ€™s â€œdiscursive traditionâ€ â€“ that is, Islam as a living, breathing, self-reflexive set of traditions and practices. Moreover, the joys and frustrations of living as Muslims in America that my NewGround cohort-mates expressed very much resonated with me, since I am Jewish but am of mixed racial heritage. I found that we shared the feelings of living as perpetual outsiders in a place that didnâ€™t seem to know what to do with us. It was a very rare and precious thing for me to find a group of people who could not only identify with my own precarious experiences with religious and racial identity, but who also unquestioningly accepted me for who I am.
What I found more challenging, though, was finding a connection with the Jewish members of NewGround. It is much easier to judge others who we find to be â€œconservativeâ€ or â€œtraditionalistsâ€ in our own communities than it is to find the commonalities that bind us together. I would get easily frustrated with those who didnâ€™t share my own perspectives on Judaism, Israel, etc., and I had very little patience for the whiteness and privilege associated with living as a Jewish person in the United States â€“ a privilege that people seemed hesitant to acknowledge or address. Despite these roadblocks, I found our discussions enjoyable and I learned much from both the Jewish and the Muslim participants of our group. We often spent time socializing on the weekends and getting to know one another outside of the structured group setting.
All of these emotions and experiences, for better or for worse, changed dramatically that summer while we were on a hiatus from our NewGround meetings. Joey Lutz, one of our cohort members, died tragically while on a trip overseas. We were all stunned by the news â€“ Joey was one of the key participants of our group who smiled easily and trusted deeply in the goodness of humanity. He was brimming with love and hope, and losing him put us into a dark place. However, instead of ending our sessions and going our separate ways, our cohort came together in a way that I have never seen. We sat shiva with Joeyâ€™s family, attended his funeral, and met up for a memorial bonfire on the beach. We shared stories about Joeyâ€™s passion and generosity. We leaned on each other because we needed each other. When we met again officially for our NewGround meetings in the fall, it was as if we had all known each other forever â€“ as a group, we had gone through a loss and grieving process that brought us incredibly close together. From then on, it was difficult to lose trust or doubt the motives of the people who had shared both tears and laughter as we remembered the life of Joey. All of the disagreements that I had with my fellow Jewish participants over the minutae of the kashrut (kosher) laws and the chasm between us on the Israel-Palestine issue were still important, but they no longer made me angry. They became a part of the experience of being in NewGround as a whole, which unfolded around the process of learning about myself as I learned about others. When my husband and I were married in 2009, it filled my heart with joy to see a table full of NewGrounders and their loved ones at our wedding â€“ the only one who was missing was Joey, and we will always be missing him.
What I learned in NewGround has stuck with me as I moved to Northern California to pursue a Ph.D. in cultural anthropology at UC Santa Cruz. I hope that these lessons have taught me to be curious and compassionate, unafraid and open-hearted. They have inspired the work that I do as an anthropologist-in-training, studying the religious and economic motivations of young entrepreneurs in urban Malaysia. Most of all, though, my experiences as a NewGround fellow have compelled me to never stop learning, and to never be satisfied with what I think I already know. In the end, my NewGround cohort-mates, both Muslim and Jewish, continually surprised me, but I had to let myself be surprised before I could fully appreciate their intellect and their friendship.
Mr. Cattan: I had given up on the idea of peaceful coexistence between Palestinians and Israelis while visiting the West Bank and Jerusalem, for the first time, in 2010. The region seemed to be at a stalemate, with leaders unwilling to make concessions for the good of their people. I returned to the United States disillusioned and prepared to abandon this entire conflict. Growing up in a Muslim and Christian household, I saw religion as being used to divide people and the concept of universal love seemed to be lost on humanity. I was convinced that dialogue and peace in the Middle East would never happen in my lifetime.
I tried to explore my spirituality more in 2011 and became friends with progressive Muslims who had a desire to change the status quo. Tarek Shawky and Edina Lekovic, an amazing couple I met through my wife Meymuna Hussein, introduced me to the idea of engaging the Muslim and Jewish dialogue. It was through them that I learned about NewGround, an organization aimed at improving the relationship between the Jewish and Muslim communities living in Los Angeles. I wasnâ€™t interested in another round table discussion with both sides pointing fingers and more interested in speaking the loudest, rather than listening to each other. What grabbed my attention about NewGround was their goal of creating community service projects between Muslims and Jews to address important social justice issues. This seemed to be a constructive way of building bridges between the two communities with a tangible result. I signed up right away.
I knew this experience was going to be unique after meeting all the fellows in our cohort. It was a diverse group of individuals who all had unique perspectives and experiences to share, but with an openness to learn and change that I hadnâ€™t seen in any other environment between Jews and Muslims. We began our journey with a series of trainings and two retreats that brought us closer together as human beings. We explored our spirituality, shared our experiences with racism and asked thoughtful questions about our identity. I was allowed to be Shukry Cattan first before a Palestinian or Muslim. This empowered me to feel unique and removed the stress of solving the Middle East conflict in one hour or less. It was an important process that allowed us to be leaders on a small scale by working with each other and learning to communicate without judgment or stereotypes. NewGround isnâ€™t the final solution but a single step towards a new journey of understanding and healing.
At the end of the fellowship, we had come to the portion of the program that I was most interested in, developing a community project together. I chose to join the Muslim and Jewish Organized Relief (MAJOR) Fund, a project that had been developed by fellows from the prior year. Within a year of their creation, this group had successful completed a clean water project for an orphanage in Myanmar called Teikha Rama Nunnery. Teikha Rama Nunnery is in North Dagon with 100 orphan girls and boys and 200 day student boys and girls from the neighboring communities. This project will provide clean and safe drinking water to the orphanage and school. I was very impressed by the fact that the group had chosen to work to in a region that had nothing to do with Palestine or Israel and would improve the lives of youth at a Christian school. This work embodied the very vision of how coexistence between Muslims and Jews can be directed towards repairing the world, something that NewGround is making into a reality.
I currently serve on the board of the MAJOR Fund (themajorfund.org) and we are now partnering with an organization to bring clean and safe drinking water to Kawoko Primary & Secondary school in Uganda for over 500 children. My wife has also joined the board and together we are working with a wonderful team of Jews and Muslims who believe there is more that brings our two faiths together than divides us. I began to realize that the conflict between Palestine and Israel had narrowed my ability to see the larger picture of the world. The notion of justice and peace seemed to have no meaning when there are people living in conditions where clean water is a rare resource. The MAJOR Fund has humbled me and allowed me to see that I can never give up on humanity and to never allow the petty and selfish interests of a few people to cloud my intention of brining real peace to this world. Although I had closed my heart to the conflict in the Middle East before joining NewGround, I have graduated from this fellowship opening my heart to the world.
Rabbi Bassin and Edina Lekovic have consented to answer questions posed by The Muslim Observer.
The Muslim Observer: Rabbi Bassin and Ms Lekovic, on behalf of my newspaper, thank you for your time. Let me begin with Rabbi Bassin. What were your thoughts when you were approached to become the Executive Director of NewGround? (I believe you said that when you accepted the position, the group was already underway).
Rabbi Bassin: Interfaith work has always been central to my identity, since I came from a mixed religious background. When I started my rabbinic studies, I knew that I wanted to pursue a non-traditional rabbinate that put interfaith collaboration at the forefront of my work. So when I was offered the opportunity to head NewGround by the board, I had to say yes because the organization so deeply reflected my values. Here was a team of Jews and Muslims who, for four years until that point, shaped the vision of the program together at every step. It was not one community pushing its agenda on the other. It was a shared partnership committed to transforming the toxic history of relations among leaders that had come to define the two communities in Los Angeles over the last two and a half decades. What motivated the board, and me, was the recognition that in order to build the foundation for collaboration between our two religious minorities, we had to invest in the emerging generation of Muslim and Jewish leaders. I believed deeply in the potential for NewGroundâ€™s flagship program – our young professionals fellowship that equips emerging community leaders with the skills, resources and relationships to make positive relations the norm rather than the exception. Since 2006, weâ€™ve trained over 100 young professionals who go back to work directly with their own communities eager to create authentic relationships between their communities.
TMO: Ms Lekovic, Would I be correct in assuming (since MPACâ€™s involvement predates Rabbi Bassinâ€™s) that when the idea of a group such as NewGround was floated, there was a great deal of skepticism?
Ms Lekovic: Even among people who supported our initial vision, there were some who called us naÃ¯ve and idealistic. Frankly, I donâ€™t blame them. The history of Muslim-Jewish relations in Los Angeles was one defined by stops and starts. More than a dozen leaders met regularly to talk about their faith and communities and they deliberately avoided talk of the conflict, which meant tensions would mount any time conflict erupted between Israel and the Palestinians. In fact, some of the leaders engaged in dialogue would walk away because of their anger that the â€œother sideâ€ would not condemn the actions of â€œtheir own.â€ Coming off this shaky ground, we conducted research to understanding the existing landscape and also learn what was missing from all those who had been involved. Once we had the data, we designed a program to address the gaps and missteps. Central to doing it right was figuring out how we would engage directly and candidly on the toughest issue, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, instead of avoiding it in order to â€œpreserveâ€ relationships. We learned from the research that avoiding the topic is disastrous, as is making it the first issue on the agenda. So we designed a program that acknowledges conflict as a natural part of any relationship. What we have found is that once you acknowledge and respect disagreement and are able to see conflict through the otherâ€™s eyes without seeking agreement as an end goal, then you can identify your common values and interests and work together to better your shared city without the danger of the relationship falling apart at the first sign of trouble. In the past seven years, our skeptics have become some of our biggest supporters and champions because theyâ€™re seeing real results on the ground that benefits all of us together.
TMO: Rabbi Bassin and Ms Lekovic: Did you run into opposition from the Jewish and/or Muslim communities?
Rabbi Bassin: People from both communities have legitimate fears and questions about engaging with the other. And it behooves us and our mission to speak directly to those fears. So we do. I occasionally encounter opposition mainly from people who do not see how this work is in the self-interest of the Jewish community. I often share the statistic that the single greatest predictor for whether someone will hate Muslims is if they hate Jews. According to a 2010 Gallup poll, a person who is prejudiced against Jews is 32 times more like to be prejudiced against Muslims. Anti-Semitism and anti-Muslim hatred are two sides of the same coin and yet our communities are fighting these battles largely in isolation because we let our political disagreements overshadow our shared interests.
Ms Lekovic: The challenges in the Muslim community are part attention span and part fear of being asked to reach agreement rather than mutual understanding. Facing countless domestic and international challenges, American Muslims can be a hard sell on NewGround because they are already involved in other major issues and may not prioritize local action over international events. I point out that as American Muslims, we ought to define ourselves by the issues here in our own backyard more than by any conflict that is thousands of miles away. Secondly, I hear fear of a â€œkumbayahâ€ attitude a great deal. Young leaders donâ€™t want to be asked or pushed to come up with so-called unity statements that propose a final solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Fortunately, our program goals are clear â€“ we seek to build candid, authentic relationships which respect our different experiences and focus on our shared local interests. That has quelled anxieties and resulted this year in our largest pool of Muslim applicants to date!
TMO: These are questions for both of you. Given the success of NewGround, do you plan to expand it (or use it as a role model) beyond Southern California either throughout the state or to other states?
Rabbi Bassin and Ms Lekovic: NewGround already consults with grassroots groups and organizations across the country to help them learn from the research and experience we have from 7 years on the ground. We help people think strategically about the process behind building their dialogue which is just as important as the dialogue itself. We have also had inquiries from community leaders in other cities about replicating the Young Professionalsâ€™ Fellowship. At this point, NewGround is focused on Los Angeles. We want to be strategic in our growth when we do consider a more national presence. Part of what makes NewGround so successful is the high level of quality-control around everything from the recruitment process and the facilitation of the program to the continued alumni engagement. We are in the early stages of exploring what it would look like to successfully replicate the fellowship in other cities and how to tailor our model to the particular history and needs of each community.
TMO: Are there organizations or individuals that you liaise with on a regular basis?
Rabbi Bassin and Ms Lekovic: NewGround has collaborated with nearly 50 Jewish and Muslim organizations over the last three years in consulting or building public programs. The Muslim Public Affairs Council continues to be an important partner and supporter, and we also work with a whole breadth of groups like American Muslim Professionals, MECA SoCal, Young Muslim American Leaders Advisory Council, the IMAN Cultural Center, UMMA Community Clinic, Masjid Bilal Islamic Center, New Horizon Pasadena and others. The list of organizations in the Jewish community is just as broad and diverse.
TMO: What do you see as the future of NewGround five years hence? Ten years hence?
Rabbi Bassin and Ms Lekovic:Within five years, we hope that our expanding alumni network will be actively engaged in collaborative projects benefiting both our communities and the city of Los Angeles in visible and impactful ways. We also hope that NewGroundâ€™s young professionalsâ€™ program will be implemented in other major cities creating a foundation for transformation in Muslim-Jewish relations at a national level.
In ten years, we envision that relations between our two communities will be viewed as healthy and productive by both of our communities and that partnership between our communal organizations will become commonplace, making it the norm rather than the exception.
Congratulations to both of you for the fine work you have done. Again, on behalf of myself and my newspaper, thank you for your time and effort.