NewGround: A Muslim-Jewish Partnership for Change

“We don’t all like one another all the time. We disagree strongly and passionately. We flip-flop our ideas and we do so with the best intentions, and without holding back—and that has made us better friends,” explained Tova Leibovic Douglas as she addressed a group of 300 gathered for an interfaith iftarIftar is “breaking the fast” at the end of each day of the month of Ramadan. After sundown during Ramadan, most Muslims ceremonially break their fast by eating dried dates and soup before the maghreb prayer. Later they may eat a larger meal with relat... at Wilshire Boulevard TempleA temple is a house of worship, a sacred space housing the deity or central symbol of the tradition. The Temple in Jerusalem was the holy place of the Jewish people until its destruction by the Romans in 70 CE; now the term “temple” is used by th. Ref....[1] Douglas, a student at Ziegler School of RabbinicRabbinic Judaism is the Judaism descended from the rabbis, the teachers, who compiled the Mishnah and the Talmud between the second and fifth centuries CE, and all the tradition and learning of Judaism that has issued from them. Studies, had just completed the 2013-2014 Young Professionals Fellowship, a program hosted, like the iftar, by NewGround: A Muslim-Jewish Partnership for Change. Founded in 2006, NewGround has become a well-recognized presence on the Los Angeles and California interfaith landscape. Living up to its name, its mission is to provide space for dialogue and community-building among young Muslim and Jewish leaders in Los Angeles as a means to “create a national model for healthy relations, productive engagement and social change.”

The founders of the organization observed that, especially after the events of 9/11, a “climate of tension and mistrust” existed between Jews and Muslims in Los Angeles. This stifling environment has been exacerbated by events around the world, such as ongoing strife between Israelis and Palestinians in the Middle East. In order to improve conditions and build community, NewGround now offers four programs informed by seven guiding values: Curiosity Over Assumptions, Relationships Before Politics, Plurality Over Parity, Local Over International, Respect for Self-Definition, Safe Open Space, and Nimble and Responsive.

Given that historical tensions between Muslims and Jews are international and political, NewGround notably emphasizes the building of local relationships. Both Interim Executive Director Aziza Hasan and the organization’s website makes clear that  “NewGround shies away from an issues-driven approach that makes engagement conditional upon agreement and therefore vulnerable to dissolving.” In doing so, relationships are placed “at the center” of the agenda, with the goal of creating “a sustainable, long-term foundation for ongoing communal relations.”[2]

NewGround’s programs represent attempts to nurture young Muslim and Jewish leaders who will go on to make positive impacts in the Los Angeles area, and beyond. The Muslims and Jews Inspiring Change (MAJIC) program invites high school students to be a part of a leadership council that participates in a fall retreat and meets twice a month to assess how local organizations respond to a social issue in Los Angeles. In the spring, the Council organizes a “joint Muslim-Jewish response to a social issue,” culminating in a community service project. In April 2013, the Council organized a “Carnival Against Hunger” campaign that brought together 600 volunteers to distribute food in South Los Angeles and was featured on a local television station. Throughout the year, the young leaders are mentored by a Community Advisory Board comprised of seasoned Jewish and Muslim interfaith leaders. They also receive a certificate of recognition from the City of Los Angeles Human Relations Commission. In 2013-2014, NewGround sponsored 20 high school students. As a sign of its civic commitment and bridge-making, MAJIC continues to be selected as a Global Youth Service Day Lead Agency by Youth Service America. In 2013 NewGround’s MAJIC Program earned the Faith-Based Organization of the Year Award from California Governor Jerry Brown.[3]

At the college and young adult level, the Young Professionals Fellowship program annually accepts 20 individuals who participate in two weekend retreats and meet twice monthly to dialogue with one another and local community leaders. As with the high school leadership council, fellows plan and carry out community service projects, but with increased focus on developing communication, conflict resolution, and leadership skills. In the process, members jointly exploring challenges such Islamophobia, anti-SemitismAnti-Semitism means literally “opposed to Semites” although it has always referred specifically to Jews. Modern anti-Semitism arose in Europe toward the end of the 19th century, coalescing social, racial, and religious theories that denigrated the Jew..., and contemporary local and international issues.

Once Young Professional Fellows complete the program, they are invited to become part of a growing network of alumni. One Muslim couple, Kiran Hashmi and Sajid Mohamedy, who jointly participated as fellows were subsequently inspired to establish their own outgrowth organization: the Muslim and Jewish Organized Relief (MAJOR) Fund, whose mission is to finance clean water initiatives. As of August 2014, there were 150 NewGround alumni who continue to dialogue and network online. In addition to the MAJOR Fund, some LA-based alumni participate in the NewGround Academy, which brings Muslims and Jews together once a month to study Islamic and Jewish sacred texts and learn ArabicClassical Arabic is the language of revelation in Islam as recorded in the Qur’an. Muslims consider every word of the Qur’an to be a direct utterance of God. The Arabic language itself is regarded as perfectly suited as the instrument for God’s comm... and HebrewHebrew is the ancient language of the Israelites in which the Bible and most of Jewish liturgy is written.. They also speak publically on interfaith topics at synagoguesSynagogue, shul in Yiddish, is the most widely used term for a Jewish house of worship. Meaning a “place of gathering,” it is the central institution of Jewish communal life. The structure and role of synagogues has changed through the centuries, but ..., mosquesMasjid (plural masajid) in Arabic means “place of prostration,” or the place where Muslims bow in prayer; in English, this word has become “mosque.” A masjid contains a prayer hall in which there is a mihrab or prayer niche, and a minbar or pulpit..., art galleries, museums, schools, and universities. A web-based series featuring faith leaders and NewGround alumni is currently in production. Although most alumni still live in Southern California, a growing number live across the country and serve as ambassadors for the program.

NewGround also sponsors community-level public events to bring together local Jewish and Muslim leaders, civic representatives, the Los Angeles Police Department, and students researching interfaith collaboration. Such was the case during the fifth annual interfaith iftar, which doubled as a year-end celebration for graduates of the Young Professionals Fellowship. Douglas’ perspective is no doubt personal but perhaps representative: 

NewGround has been one of the more challenging experiences of my life, and I am forever grateful… Today I comfortably live in the gray zone. I accept that there are stereotypesStereotyping is the ascription of generalized characteristics to a whole group of people, thus describing individuals by the characterization, usually a caricature, of the whole. that we all harbor, pre-conceived notions that are false, and ideas that we need to persistently challenge through intense, intentional conversation with people who experience the world differently… Many people ask me what I love about NewGround. Besides the obvious fact that a grandchild of HolocaustHolocaust (from Greek, entire burnt offering) refers in modern times to the Nazi German campaign to exterminate the Jewish people during the 1930s and 1940s with death camps and gas chambers. Six million Jews died in this Holocaust. In Hebrew, the Holocau... survivors and a person from Syria could become dear friends, which is quite unique, here is what it is: I love that the group is honest, but rather than being a source of division it brings us closer.[4]

[1] “NewGround Changemaker Reflection: Tova Leibovic Douglas ’14.” NewGround: A Muslim-Jewish Partnership for Change. Accessed August 2014.

[2] “Vision, Mission, Values.” NewGround: A Muslim-Jewish Partnership for Change. Accessed August 2014; Author interview with Aziza Hasan. 11 August 2014.

[3] High School Leadership Council. NewGround: A Muslim-Jewish Partnership for Change. Accessed 2014.

[4]“NewGround Changemaker Reflection: Tova Leibovic Douglas ’14.” NewGround: A Muslim-Jewish Partnership for Change. Accessed August 2014.