Jews And Muslims Come Together To Pray For Peace And Understanding

One very spiritual day in L.A.

On May 3rd, a cohort of twenty Jews and Muslims in Los Angeles got together to do something they usually do without the other — pray.

From sunrise until sunset, the fellows from NewGround, a nonprofit that fosters dialogue and partnerships between Muslims and Jews at the community level, moved from one site to another all over Los Angeles. They started at the beach in Santa Monica at dawn and then wended their way around the city. The day ended with a rooftop Isha'a, the Muslim nighttime prayer.

Photo Credit: Marta Evry
Photo Credit: Marta Evry

"Two Faiths, One Prayer," as this project was called, is the latest in a series of similar initiatives by the NewGround fellows.

The first joint prayer session arose organically. The fellows were on their first retreat together and both the Jews and Muslims in the group were looking for a place to recite their evening prayers.

"Someone suggested, 'Why don't we do this in the same room?'" Tuli Skaist, one of the NewGround fellows, recalled. Skaist, 28, is a Judaic studies teacher at an Orthodox day school in Los Angeles. 

"It was not without hesitation because, you know, two different languages, Hebrew and Arabic, going on at the same time — how do you focus on prayer?" Omar Ashraf, also 28 and a dentist, said.

"It was such a powerful experience," Maryam Saleemi, a 29-year-old community development advocate, remembered. "As I was reciting the verses in the Quran to myself, I could hear the Jews singing and reciting their prayers. I thought at first this would be a distraction, that I wouldn't be able to focus on my prayer, but the opposite happened. My recitation and focus became more intensified, even harmonious to the Jewish prayer."

Photo Credit: Marta Evry
Photo Credit: Marta Evry

After that first simultaneous prayer session, the NewGround fellows grew comfortable with the idea and kept doing it at their regular meetings. "In the middle, we would pause for prayer and it just started happening that Jews and Muslims would pray side-by-side. It became this thing that we started really enjoying," Skaist said.

For Skaist, who admitted to struggling with connecting to prayer in the past, those joint sessions were particularly engaging. "When I'm praying next to Muslims and I hear them saying, 'Allahu Akbar,' which, for most of my life, is a saying I associated with suicide bombers, it sends this jolt to my heart. It gives me this energetic feeling, like yeah, 'God is great.' I'm fully engaged in the experience of prayer and this is what I'm here to do."

But the fellows did more than pray together. Over the course of the year, they also studied each other's religious and cultural traditions. Skaist and Ashraf both admitted to having been somewhat ignorant about one another's faiths. 

"I wasn't aware of how many prayers there [in a]—the three prayers of Judaism," Ashraf said. "I didn't think I was ignorant of Judaism [before the fellowship] but I pretty much was because I didn't know too much."

"I was just so surprised at how similar Muslim culture was to Jewish culture. Not even the religion itself but family structure and relationships between parents and children," Skaist said. "I found it to be remarkably similar to the Orthodox community that I grew up in where it's very tight knit and there are lots of unspoken expectations."

Photo Credit: Marta Evry
Photo Credit: Marta Evry

At the end of the year, the fellows decided to pray together publicly. "We want to share that experience with other people and let them see how it's done and get a different picture of how Muslims and Jews interact," Ashraf said.

There were, of course, some modifications to their usual prayer customs. The Jewish and Muslim prayers don't perfectly map onto each other. For example, there are more Muslim prayer times than there are Jewish — five to three —so the Jewish members of the cohort recited Psalms and liturgical poems during the extra, Muslim sessions.

Two of the fellows — one Jewish and one Muslim — composed a joint prayer for the event that was recited after each of the five prayer sessions. It reads:

Blessed are You Adonai who creates the possibility of the sacred. Ya Allah, let our hearts recognize the sacred in one another. Let us know one another and through one another know You. Grant us courage to walk this righteous path, praying side-by-side and yearning together for peace. Peace within ourselves, peace within our own peoples, and peace with one another. Amin. Amen.
Photo Credit: Marta Evry
Photo Credit: Marta Evry

The public was invited to watch all of the prayer sessions and participate in the fourth session, which took place at City Hall. "We ended up having somewhere around 70 people," Skaist said of the City Hall meetup. "It was a very, very powerful experience. I think all of us, when we finished were just completely overwhelmed."

Saleemi was similarly moved. "It was one of the most spiritual days of my life," she said.

Meanwhile, word of the project spread far, reaching Egypt and even Pakistan, where Ashraf's family is originally from.

Photo Credit: Marta Evry
Photo Credit: Marta Evry

The NewGround fellows hope that their experiment doesn't end here. "Over the next couple of months, we're really trying to figure out how to do this again, how to make it bigger and better and spread it," Skaist said. They're also working to draw up guidelines for people who'd like to launch similar projects in their own cities, with the goal being to spread mutual understanding and respect.

"The people involved in this project don't always agree on matters when it comes to the Palestine-Israel conflict, we differ in many ways, but what we all believe in is our love and devotion to God," Saleemi added. "If we can sit together and pray together, we can do so many other things together."

Check out the video from the day of prayer.

Cover photo credit: Marta Evry

H/T Egyptian Streets