Krista's Journal: The Power of Listening and Engaging with the "Other"

October 15, 2009

I first encountered Malka Haya Fenyvesi and Aziza Hasan a couple of years ago at a remarkable gathering of Eboo Patel's Interfaith Youth Core in Chicago. They were giving a joint presentation on interfaith work that has nothing to do with singing Kum Bay Ya. Their presentation, "Beyond Hugs and Hummus," was smart, passionate, and deeply practical. They spent a lot of time on language and what they call "trigger words," which can derail any Jewish-Muslim conversation and yet point at chasms that must be named before they can be crossed. Malka and Aziza work with emerging leaders from different spheres of life and from both of their traditions. They make a core commitment "not to be enemies." And that, of course, is the kind of lofty statement that can be hard to put into practice against the backdrop of reality. The ongoing Israeli-Palestinian conflict, the dynamics of the post-9/11 world, the rise of Iran as a regional power — these are just a few of the developments that infuse and shape relationships between Jews and Muslims everywhere. Los Angeles itself, with two of the largest populations of Jews and Muslims in the U.S., has a recent history of high-level, Jewish-Muslim dialogue that faltered as more and more difficult issues were taken off the table until, in the end, there was nothing left to talk about. But the new generation of work that Malka and Aziza embody takes a fundamentally different approach. They don't pretend that the elephant in the room is not there, and they don't ban the trigger words. Only in this way — as we know from other kinds of difference, other kinds of relationship — can those things cease to dominate subliminally, if not literally. So why, participants ask themselves, have we gone into interreligious relationship, even where there is a history of violence, and held peace and harmony as achievable, short-term goals? They start in simpler, yet pragmatic and ingenious places. They cultivate curiosity — "curiosity over assumptions" and "curiosity over fear." As I hear them describe this, I become aware of curiosity as an exacting spiritual and civic discipline, something we must all cultivate in ourselves and in our children. And curiosity leads naturally to other simple yet difficult virtues, like listening. Malka and Aziza describe how, by fostering this basic discipline of real relationship, they and their NewGround fellows are able to become a "window into each other's experiences" — when Israel or Gaza is in the news, for example — by listening and trying to hear the very different way the other is telling this story and taking it in. They let that suffice for the moment, without a premature urgency to conclude, comment, or resolve. Some of most mind-opening moments of their program happen, as they tell it, when members of the same faith have to present about their tradition. Standing together, they soon realize how much difference there is between members of their own faith. This gets at a paradox that we rarely name in public, but that is true of every profound ecumenical or interreligious encounter I've experienced: when we approach the other with eyes and ears open, we come to know ourselves. The soil beneath our own feet grows richer. The generations coming up are modeling an integration of vibrant identities and generous interaction with different others that is a gift to us all. And they're not alone. That is another message of this program. The post-September 11th era, terrifying as it has been on so many different levels, has given rise to a new substantive universe of courageous, and sometimes risky, Jewish-Muslim encounter that empowers Malka and Aziza, and which they in turn enliven. The Union for Reform Judaism and the Islamic Society of North America have reached out to each other. Mosques and synagogues are partnering for weekends of "twinning" in major cities. When I ask about the impact of their work, Malka and Aziza remind me that Muslims and Jews and their diasporic communities have "heartstrings" all over the world — not only in the Middle East but also in Southeast Asia and in Eastern Europe. And North American Muslim and Jewish communities have a special influence on the rest of the world. Malka and Aziza are sending their NewGround fellows back into varied spheres of work and influence in a major American city, and they imagine that their work will have broader ripple effects over time that they can't plan or imagine. At the same time, on some level it is enough that in this moment they are engaging in real relationship with others that is practical, that is close to home, and that gives them hope.

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is co-director of NewGround, and is the interfaith program coordinator at the Progressive Jewish Alliance (PJA) in Los Angeles.

is co-director of NewGround, and director of interfaith programming for the Muslim Public Affairs Council (MPAC) in Los Angeles.