“We don’t all like one another all the time,” explained Tova Leibovic Douglas as she addressed a group of 300 gathered for an interfaith iftar at Wilshire Boulevard Temple.“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.”
Douglas, at the time a student at Ziegler School of Rabbinic 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, and by increasingly polarized communities domestically. Within this context NewGround provides spaces in which Muslims and Jews can engage in dialogue with a diverse group of their peers and attain facilitation skills that can put toward community development. 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 Executive Director Aziza Hasan, who was recently appointed to L.A. Mayor Eric Garcetti’s Civil and Human Rights Commission, 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.”
NewGround’s programs represent attempts to nurture young Muslim and Jewish leaders who will go on to community-build and address issues of importance 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. In 2013 NewGround’s MAJIC Program earned the Faith-Based Organization of the Year Award from California Governor Jerry Brown.
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.
At the 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 as Islamophobia, anti-Semitism, 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, which as of Fall 2019, currently includes over 400 Change-makers. 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.
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 stereotypes 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 Holocaust 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.
 “Vision, Mission, Values.” NewGround: A Muslim-Jewish Partnership for Change. http://mjnewground.org/vision-mission-values/. Accessed August 2014; Author interview with Aziza Hasan. 11 August 2014.
 High School Leadership Council. NewGround: A Muslim-Jewish Partnership for Change. http://mjnewground.org/what-we-do/high-school-leadership-council/. Accessed 2014.