With so much unrest and strife in the world, not least in the Middle East, it’s good to know that we can and still want to talk to each other. Having spent a little time at the Neve-Shalom Wahat-al-Salam Peace Village, I’ve seen the power of communication and discovered the common cultural crossovers that so clearly exist between the Jewish and Muslim faiths.
I read an article in the LA Times about an initiative that really brought this home and has inspired me profoundly: The West Los Angeles Cousins Club is an LA- based grassroots discussion group made up of 15 Muslim and Jewish women, that meets once a month to explore faith and mutual understanding.
Bridging the Gap
The meetings take place in Jewish and Muslim homes and involve, warmth, conversation and food and customs from both cultures. Club members also attend each other’s religious ceremonies and celebrations: Last August, Rachel Landsman, an orthodox Jew and Club member, invited her Muslim friends to attend her Hassidic Jewish wedding.
Jewish women also attend Muslim holiday gatherings with their “cousins.” The general consensus is intrigue and delight and the discovery of how much common ground exists between the two faiths.
“Sometimes I feel I have more in common with my Muslim cousins than I do with my secular Jewish sisters…” Landsman tells the LA Times. “Just as there are thousands of ways to be a Jew, there are thousands of ways to be Muslim.”
The group leans towards discussing religion and spirituality, rather than sensitive political issues such as the Arab-Israeli conflict.
However, it can be tricky for the women to keep their reactions to news events out of the circle, like when Israel attacked Gaza two years ago. In 2008, a Palestinian gunman killed eight students at a Jerusalem seminary. Soon after, a Muslim convert came to the Cousins Club crying and told her cousins: “This is not my Islam.”
Women from both faiths have had to justify their position to family and community members who are less than thrilled about their choices.
The Road Before and The Road Ahead
The WLCC was launched three Jewish women: interfaith minister Shayna Lester, poet and education consultant Jean Katz and the late author Savina Teubal. Inspired by a similar initiative in Orange County the Cousins Club has just celebrated its 8th anniversary and today has more Muslim members than Jews. Most of the Muslim women hail from Indonesia or are converts to Islam.
Muzaffar “Bibi” Haleem, is a Pakistan-born member of the Club and of Culver City’s King Fahd Mosque. She founded the website Islamicity.com and co-wrote the book “The Sun Is Rising in the West: New Muslims Tell About Their Journey to Islam.”
Rachel Landsman says it is Haleem’s nurturing ways that most touch her. “Except that she is Muslim, I think of her as a total Jewish mother,” she laughed.
The women end their meeting by holding hands, reciting Jewish and Muslim prayers of healing in honour of any member who was ill and absent. They hug and kiss and go their separate, but perhaps not so different ways, until they meet again next month.