Sitting at an outdoor cafe, wearing knee-high black leather boots and hip sunglasses, Sarah Bassin doesn’t look like most people’s idea of a rabbi. She’s young, lively, and personable. Bassin believes in the need for greater Jewish and Muslim dialogue. From her perspective, it’s a no-brainer.
“The greatest predictor for whether somebody is going to be Islamophobic, is if they already hold anti-Semitic beliefs,” she says.
Research indicates that both Muslims and Jews tend to suffer equally from discrimination and hate crimes; that’s one experience that these two faiths have in common.
“A lot of the way the fight against Islamophobia has been framed for communities outside of the Muslim community is, that’s the right thing to do," says Bassin. "And that’s true. I think it’s also important to speak to that added element of self-interest. It’s not just this altruism, that we’re reaching out and saying this is an issue that needs to be addressed: It’s an issue of self-protection, right?”
Self-protection, the idea of defending one’s beliefs and religious identity, is only one of the many issues taken on by a project called NewGround.
The idea came in the summer of 2006, around the breakout of a 34-day conflict in Lebanon that pitted the Israeli military against the militant group, Hezbollah. The war also pitted Muslim and Jewish religious leaders here in Los Angeles--over which side was wrong, and who Americans should support.
Things got so bad that Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa convened a task force to bring Muslim and Jewish leaders to the same table. This effort gave birth to NewGround, a joint fellowship project by the Progressive Jewish Alliance and the Muslim Public Affairs Council. In 2011, NewGround became independent from these two organizations; today, it is housed within the city's Human Relations Commission.
On a recent night at Temple Emanuel in Beverly Hills, a group of about 20 people — Muslims and Jews, young and old; not all of them devout — sit in a circle and discuss their faith. Over the past three months, this group has been meeting weekly to ponder big questions and figure out exactly what makes them a Jew, or a Muslim.
“People feel very strongly, and they can talk about their experiences as a white person, or as a black person, or as an Asian American person. They can talk a lot about gender, you know, male or female," says Tasneem Noor, one of the facilitators. "But for a lot of people when it comes to religion, there’s I think, a lot of exploration that needs to be done on that level.”
A lot of these NewGround explorations can be somewhat esoteric: Do all Muslims read lines in the Quran in the same way? What’s the difference between how Jews and Muslims think of heaven?
Kiran Hashmi and her husband first heard about NewGround last Ramadan, as they attended a service at the King Fahad Mosque in Culver City.
“I don’t know if it has been challenging, but it has definitely been eye-opening to learn so much about the Jewish faith," says Hashmi, taking a break from the two-hour long weekly session. "We have a rabbi in our group, so we hear things from kind of the horse’s mouth. But it’s also been very interesting to hear what people of our own faith think and how they practice and how they perceive a piece of text that I perceive maybe in a different way.”
But besides the philosophical discussions, there are also the more practical pursuits, like the workshops. At a recent meeting, fellows form groups of three. They are coming up with a specific Muslim-Jewish collaboration that will continue after their fellowship is over.
A few ideas are thrown around: One group wants to start a Muslim-Jewish reading club; another, a public forum about the growth in anti-sharia legislation nationwide.
Richard Siegel, Alissa Roston and Amir Abdullah are ironing out their idea for a performance and film series. And one main question they’re trying to resolve is: Should it be open to people who are neither Jewish nor Muslim?
Sajid Mohamedy, Kiran Hashmi’s husband, is part of another group that wants to raise money for clean water access in developing countries. Figuring out how to get this idea off the ground will be the fun part, he says. The not-so-fun part, has been his introspection thus far.
“It has been really difficult for me to reconcile my own opinions and those of other Muslims--even my wife, in some cases," says Mohamedy. "Also, to reconcile them with the opinions in the Jewish community. So it has been a lot of back-and-forth, and a struggle in my own head.”
But by the eighth session, all 18 fellows are seemingly more open to talking about faith, tradition, and everything in between. They now have projects to carry out over the next few months—they will be expected to partner up with different organizations, and NewGround will support the plans.
And the hope is they will take these projects, contacts, and insights with them everywhere they go from now on--but especially into their mosques and temples.