Why you should care
Because sometimes common ground requires creating new ground.
It was already closing in on 8 p.m. and the sun had yet to set. Aziza Hasan stood in front of about 300 people, most of them hungry Muslims fasting through the Ramadan daylight hours, asking for patience. Just one more time, Hasan said, find a partner, look into his or her eyes and take turns telling each other about an act of bravery.
That she was standing in one of Los Angeles’ oldest synagogues, asking this of a crowd of Muslims and Jews, most of them strangers, could be considered an act of bravery in itself. But Hasan, 35, who was recently named a member of the President’s Advisory Council on Faith-Based and Neighborhood Partnerships, has been there before. The executive director of NewGround, an 8-year-old LA nonprofit that bills itself as a “Muslim-Jewish Partnership for Change,” Hasan moved from the Midwest to set up the program, which has evolved into a model of interfaith dialogue and community building. Getting American Jews and Muslims together for a civil conversation has long been a fraught proposition. Sure, they may share middle-class aspirations, immigrant histories and dating struggles, but one wrong conversational turn can send a discussion down a dark, ancient alley of recrimination over a conflict thousands of miles away that many have not experienced firsthand.
The daughter of a Palestinian father and a Christian mother from the Midwest, Hasan was raised in Amman, Jordan, and then Halstead, Kansas. She was drawn to Los Angeles when, fresh out of a graduate program focusing on nonviolent movements, she got the call to be the Muslim half of a two-person team put together by the Muslim Public Affairs Council and the Progressive Jewish Alliance (now known as Bend the Arc). The plan was at once simple, and tellingly difficult: Get a handful of Muslims and Jews to talk to each other — all on a budget of (at least these days) a quarter-million dollars a year.
It worked. After those first conversations, Hasan joined a handful of progressive leaders trying to get past ancient tensions to find common ground between Muslims and Jews in the U.S. This June marked the end of NewGround’s eighth fellowship program, which has seen nearly 160 young professionals — 10 from each tradition each year —spend eight months working together to create projects that impact the wider community. NewGround also runs a program for high schoolers called Muslims and Jews Inspiring Change, named by Gov. Jerry Brown as California’s 2013 faith-based organization of the year. In all, NewGround claims its programming has reached some 10,000 people.
Hasan is one piece of a wider puzzle of interfaith bridge building that ranges from Eboo Patel’s Interfaith Youth Core in Chicago to the Jerusalem Youth Chorus, which brings young Israelis and Palestinians together — if only briefly — to sing. Indeed, St. Louis, New Orleans and New York all have programs aimed at crossing these divides. It’s not controversial to say religions have to bridge their gaps; the difficulty lies in parsing the non-monolithic nature of these communities. The Muslim population in the U.S. is both diverse and relatively new to the country, and as a result lacks a unifying voice, says Aydogan Kars, a lecturer at Middle Tennessee State University who has taught classes on religious diversity. Up until the last 20 years or so, Kars points out, most Muslim communities in the U.S. relied on imported imams, many of whom brought the religious and political sensibilities of their homelands with them. As a result, any effort at interfaith dialogue generally bubbled up from progressive leaders within the respective communities.
And of course, bridging the gaps between the two Abrahamic religions is hard — not just because of the history but also because it’s not just about Israel/Palestine. That sits in the background, but can’t be the only bridge — the two communities are quite different, and Muslim communities themselves differ widely by countries of origin, bringing with them those regional distinctions to the U.S., says Brie Loskota, managing director of the University of Southern California’s Center for Religion and Civic Culture and a founding director of NewGround.
Moving among cultures and straddling two worlds is nothing new to Hasan, whose round face and dark hair tell of her Middle Eastern and Midwestern roots. She doesn’t wear the hijab, at least not at work; one could mistake her for Hispanic. Her parents met while attending college in Kansas, and Hasan and her three siblings were born in Amman, where, she says, she struggled with her dual identity. Her father died when she was 15; two years later, her mother packed up the kids and brought them back to the flat, yellow state. The four kids were the only Muslims in Halstead, which perhaps explains Hasan’s calm, quiet demeanor.
She didn’t get any more mainstream by choosing a Mennonite university for college, where she studied conflict resolution. It was watching her Christian classmates during one of the required chapel services that the young Muslim woman went through what she calls a theological transition. Watching young Christians “turn faith into action” struck her: “I had been taught by some that they were doomed to eternal hell. How can that be?”
So after finishing a graduate program at Wichita State University in 2007, Hasan accepted an invitation from the Muslim Public Affairs Council to come to Los Angeles and help set up the interfaith program that became NewGround. NewGround’s office space is in City Hall, at the office of the Human Relations Commission, and has a staff of just two full-time employees.
As the program preceding the iftar came to an end this year, the Jews and Muslims moved to the back of the recently renovated room with a vaulted ceiling. With Jews on the right and Muslims on the left, evening prayers began. Hasan, still hustling to make sure preparations for the celebratory meal were proceeding, stopped for a moment and watched.
As the kaddish, a hymn of praise repeated throughout the Jewish service, came from one side of the room, a call of “Allahu akbar,” God is great, came from the other. They weren’t quite in sync, but the two sounds didn’t jar.
Video by Tom Gorman