Los Angeles, Calif. (June 15, 2009) – Can religious texts be used to unite? The pilot cohort of the Muslim-Jewish Text Study program believes that the answer is “yes.” More than twenty Muslim and Jewish peers and professionals have spent the last four months meeting together to discuss themes from their respective traditions. This program has been organized by The Center for Muslim-Jewish Engagement (CMJE) is a collaboration of the Omar Ibn Al Khattab Foundation, Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion, and USC's Center for Religion and Civic Culture at the College of Letters, Arts, and Sciences. CMJE provides resources, experience and expertise to enhance the understanding of Muslims and Jews about each other’s faiths, as well as increase their ability to engage with each on issues of mutual importance.
The meetings included topics that are often not included in most interfaith discussions such as “The ‘Other’: Inclusivity and Exclusivity” which dealt with how Islamic and Judaic religious texts treat “the Other” in a variety of contexts. Tackling seemingly divisive themes and texts allowed participants to explore shared values that transcend faith and differences between and within faiths while adding a comparative and historical context to foster mutual understanding.
"The text study program demonstrated how much the individual learns about her/his own self when exploring the realm of the other,” Aziza Hasan, co-director of NewGround: A Muslim-Jewish Partnership for Change (NewGround) said. “It has been a living testament to the power of being able to understand others by appreciating the depth of layers in one’s own life."
The multi-ethnic cohort, which ranged in age from 22 – 68, reunited at the Omar Ibn Al Khattab Foundation on June 17, 2009, for a dinner to celebrate their participation in the pilot text study program. At the dinner, participants also shared the texts that most impacted them and described how this program used new tools to engage communities that do not often communicate.
NewGround and the Center for Muslim-Jewish Engagement partnered to create a text study program using religious texts from Islam and Judaism to enable learning about each faith, foster dialogue, engagement, and understanding, and create curricula and teaching tools for comparative religious text study. Both organizations hoped to see religious texts read and compared to inspire inclusive understanding rather than being used to incite violence and division.
"We have learned that when two people of different religious identity study each other's religious scripture and tradition in a safe and encouraging environment, they deepen not only their understanding of the religious "other," but also of the religious self,” Dr. Reuven Firestone, professor of Medieval Judaism and Islam at Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion in Los Angeles and senior fellow at the USC Center for Religion and Civic Culture reflected when thinking back on the program. “We found no reduction of commitment to one's own religion” he added, “On the contrary, our text-study program improved and deepened appreciation of the participants' religious identities through learning and appreciating the other's."
The pilot program, which admitted a group of 11 Muslims and 11 Jews of all ages, ethnic backgrounds, educational levels and institutional/organizational affiliations, allowed this diverse group to explore thought-provoking themes in Islamic and Judaic religious text, exploring each side-by-side through the guidance and assistance of religious educators Dr. Reuven Firestone and Jihad Turk, Director of Religious Affairs at the Islamic Center of Southern California, a Religious Director at USC, and a Ph.D. candidate in Islamic Studies at the University of California, Los Angeles as well as NewGround co-directors, Malka Fenyvesi and Aziza Hasan.
“It was truly incredible to witness the participants engage their respective texts, challenge their previously held assumptions about their own tradition as well as the other, and grow in their own faiths and identities as a result,” Mr. Turk added.
The event, “An Evening of Conversation, Dinner and Text Study,” was hosted by the Omar Ibn Al Khattab Foundation, a partner in CMJE, which works to promote dialogue, understanding and grassroots, congregational and academic partnerships. CMJE is a collaborative partnership between Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion, the Omar Foundation and the University of Southern California’s Center for Religion and Civic Culture at the College of Letters, Arts and Sciences.
The text study program and dinner has been co-sponsored by the Muslim Public Affairs Council (MPAC), the Progressive Jewish Alliance (PJA), USC Center for Religion and Civic Culture (USC CRCC), and the USC Center for International Studies.
The Center for Muslim-Jewish Engagement (CMJE) is a collaboration of the Omar Ibn Al Khattab Foundation, Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion, and USC's Center for Religion and Civic Culture at the College of Letters, Arts, and Sciences. CMJE provides resources, experience and expertise to enhance the understanding of Muslims and Jews about each other’s faiths, as well as increase their ability to engage with each on issues of mutual importance.
NewGround: A Muslim-Jewish Partnership for Change is a joint endeavor between the Muslim Public Affairs Council (MPAC) and the Progressive Jewish Alliance (PJA) and brings members of both faith communities together for frank, substantive dialogue. Facilitated conversations, explore issues at the personal, local, national and global levels.