A hundred and eighty-four days ago, many of us walked into a room carrying the weight of "us vs. them" -- we knew that NewGround: a Muslim-Jewish Partnership for Change would an interfaith engagement like nothing we had experienced before. The intensity of our differences would eventually subside, but we would encounter many bumps and hurdles along the way. As for me, what I expected to be interfaith adventure came to be as much an intrafaith odyssey.
Our first retreat took place about one month after the first fellowship meeting. Although many of us hadn't even learned one another's names, we were asked to create a presentation about faith and prayer which we would deliver to the other group. On a Friday night in November, I was to witness my first Kabbalat Shabbat service (service that welcomes the sabbath). I sat in awe observing the melodies, dance and smiles on faces I had only met once before. I could feel one of the many walls protecting my heart crumbling down to my stomach.
We Muslims presented a very methodical approach to Islam and prayer. Several hands from our Jewish fellows shot up in the air and the questions began. Their questions scratched at our surfaces and revealed glimpses of potential divisions between us. Beyond explanations of the basic nuts and bolts of Muslim prayer, as I listened to others' answers, I realized I was not comfortable having someone else speak on my behalf. The eight of us varied from Sunni to Shia'a, women who pray in hijab and women who don't, those who recite prayers in Arabic and those who do not. Our group had made itself vulnerable to the truth - no two people in that room prayed the same. While the eagerness to learn more about both faiths was genuine and refreshing, I could feel some walls building back up inside of me.
The night passed but the feeling I felt had not. Observing the Jewish prayer felt more like a bestowal of blessings than a presentation; yet, praying alongside my Muslim fellows felt like a conferral of damnation. Although it has only been a few years since I learned how to pray or even came to know who the Prophet Mohammad was, I came to form an opinion of other sects that made it almost impossible for me to accept them as fellow Muslims. If I were to accept my Jewish fellows as brothers and sisters, wasn't it time to fully embrace my prayer with Muslims of other traditions and accept them as well? The next evening, we, Muslim and Jewish fellows prayed together. It would be the beginning of something powerful and humbling. A journey of self, finding peace in my prayer regardless of whom is praying next to me.
Months have gone by since our first joint prayer and it has become a tradition to pray together at every session. One night, I was praying alone at home, missing the melodies of the Siddur and Quran coinciding and couldn't help but think of myself as a single date belonging to a larger bunch. Curious to learn more, I discovered that the name of the fruit originates from the word “daktulos,” -- Greek for finger. And while fingers have been used in many metaphors, none are as strikingly embedded in my memory as the one used in the Prophet Mohammad's Last Sermon. "Even as the fingers of the two hands are equal, so are human beings equal to one another. No one has a right nor any preference to claim over another. You are brothers."
My fellow cohort members have become like a family to me and NewGround has been the palm tree firmly pressed into the soil, regardless of where the wind of world affairs is blowing. Like all religions, Islam is multifaceted and complex. Differences of opinions and methods will always exist; however, my lack of acceptance shall not. Similar to the six month journey a date fruit takes until reaching full maturation and ripeness, the status of my heart did not truly soften until the 177th day of the NewGround Fellowship. I left our second retreat with a feeling of integrity I could have only gained through my vulnerability to change.
As the Psalm mentions in 92:13-14, "The righteous flourish like the palm tree and grow like a cedar in Lebanon. They are planted in the house of the Lord, and they flourish in the courts of our God." Our date bunch has flourished. We are a harvest of Sufi, Orthodox, Shia'a, Reform, Sunni, and Liberal variations. A unit dedicated to creating change by focusing on what we share instead of that which divides us. Having prayed now for months with Jews with a diverse range of backgrounds and Muslims with a medley of customs, I can finally say I no longer feel guilt in breaking a tradition which does not allow me to accept the traditions of others.