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January 17, 2013

California Group Helps Young Muslims, Jews Find Common Ground

by Mike O'Sullivan

Young Muslims and Jews are making friendships through an organization that builds one-on-one relationships within the two communities.  The group is called NewGround, and it is building bridges, partly through the sharing of personal stories.
 
A young Muslim neurosurgeon explains he was orphaned as a child and was raised by a Jewish family, who insisted he be reared in the Islamic faith.  A Jewish woman spoke of her childhood memories of her grandparents, Holocaust survivors from Eastern Europe.
 
They are on stage for a storytelling event sponsored by the group NewGround.  Off stage, an art installation helps people of both faiths view each other in a new way as they gaze at one another through holes cut in darkened boxes, seeing just a human face on the other side.  A wall map of Los Angeles invites conversation, as people point out and describe their neighborhoods.
 
A Muslim whose family comes from Bangladesh, Tanzila Ahmed, says the storytelling event celebrates the diversity of the city.
 
“It is such a kaleidoscope of stories and colors and different perspectives that when you are able to get narratives from the different communities, you can actually move the community together for a cause a lot easier," he said. 
 
Ahmed told a story about her own bi-cultural family, and says she has her own cause to promote.  She works with the Asian Pacific American Legal Center to mobilize immigrant voters.
 
Turmoil in the Middle East reaches into Los Angeles and can build a wall between the Jewish and Muslim communities, says Edina Lekovic.  She works for a Muslim advocacy group and co-founded NewGround, which she says brings the two communities together.
 
“They know how to engage one another.  They have authentic relationships, and at the same time, they are not trapped by what is going on overseas, but instead they are invested more so in what is happening here in Los Angeles," she said. 
 
A presentation on the history of Islam sparked discussion in the latest group of NewGround fellows, who join the program on some evenings and weekends through the year. 
 
NewGround's executive director, Rabbi Sarah Bassin, says many organizations bring Jews and Christians together, but few are building bridges between Jews and Muslims.
 
“That conversation largely has not begun.  We do not have the vocabulary to sit down at the same table in the same way that the Jewish-Christian communities have worked out over the last 50 or 60 years, especially in a post-Holocaust era," he said. 
 
New Jewish participant Abbie Barash says she is making good friends through the exchanges.
 
“And we have already become so close and I have just known them for like a month now.  So it has become extremely valuable for me," she said. 
 
Actor Amir Abdullah, a Muslim, says differences will remain between the groups.
 
“No, Muslims and Jews are not going to agree on everything.  Heck, most Muslims are not even going to agree with each other on everything.  But if we are able to share those experiences and share how we feel, we can at least get to understand one another, and I think that is really important," he said. 
 
Participants say they hope the dialogue will spread beyond Los Angeles.