Leyla Ozgur Alhassen:
I grew up in Southern California, and attended the Islamic Center of Southern California even before I was born. This is a community that was fundamental in building interfaith bonds in Los Angeles, through the leadership and direction of Dr. Hassan Hathout, Dr. Maher Hathout and Dr. Fathi Osman. My mother was also a part of much of this organizing. Years later, my husband was one of the first fellows of NewGround (http://mjnewground.org/).
My time to be part of an interfaith project came when Eliana Kissner contacted me to see if I would like to co-facilitate an event that sounded unusual and fantastic: an interfaith text study held at a synagogue which was hosting an Islamic Art Exhibit. I agreed and went on April 26, 2015 to our first event. Before the event, I was struck by the warmth of my collaborators. During the event, I was struck by the caliber of the participants. We discussed the mother and sister of Musa in the Qur’an and in the Torah. I realized that not only could we learn from each other in terms of the similarities in our stories of faith, but also in terms of how we approach those stories. I also realized that what we were doing was a different dimension of what I do academically. I left the event motivated and committed to continuing and further developing this collaboration.
I am an artist and an educator originally from the Hudson River Valley in New York State. I was raised as an observant Jew in a blended family comprised Catholic and Jewish parents and step-parents. Growing up in my family, with a strong faith tradition of my own and early exposure to different customs and practices–the theological questions this opened up for me at an early age, the need for cooperation and patience and causes for misunderstanding and then working through–all of this exposed me to the challenge and amazing richness for my own religious life that can come from close conversation and grappling with those from different backgrounds.
Meeting Leyla and Eliana in the Bay Area has blossomed into a new platform for exploring interfaith learning through text and art in my adult life. These two women inspire me to be a more open-hearted and open minded Jew, woman, artist, intellectual, and teacher. I had a blast co-facilitating our first art-and-text event, revisiting the familiar characters Moses and Miriam with new names from new vantage points, getting to meet community members (and artists!) from both the Bay Area Muslim and Jewish communities. The depth and curiosity provoked by our first conversation has been carried into two other events, and has echoed in the ways I am exploring text in my studio and in the classroom outside of MJAF. I see our collaboration as a unique and urgent opportunity to connect and play and learn about ourselves and each other in a world that too often sets up narratives of separation between our traditions and communities.
A bit about me: I studied Ashkenazi cantorial music as a child, opera at Hunter College and spent a year in cantorial school I was an Arts Fellow at the Drisha Institute for Jewish Education in New York and then moved to the Berkeley, CA in 2012 with my husband Noah. I started my own business, performed piyut with the Safra Ensemble, and ordained myself “hazzanista”. O write and perform my own music and collaborate with writers like Marcia Falk and Tirzah Firestone. I have participated in the Amalﬁ Coast Music Festival, Vocal Productions NYC, NYC Fringe Festival, Piyut North America’s Bay Area program, the Asylum Artist Retreat, and most recently received the Dorot Fellowship in Israel to develop leadership skills and study piyutim at the Center for Music of the Middle East in Jerusalem. I am the high holidays cantor at Kol Rina in South Orange, NJ.
How I got into this work: I grew up in a traditional Jewish household that spoke openly about G-d, Sufism, mysticism, and Islamic ideas. There was great value placed on religious-spiritual practice. As a young adult, I studied at the Drisha Institute for Jewish Education in the women’s full-time learning program and arts fellowship. The interdisciplinary arts fellowship met weekly to learn traditional Jewish text together and then would create art of many disciplines based on what we had learned. I thought it would be an effective platform for interfaith dialogue and I started to think about what that might look like. In general, I have always felt that art has the power to create an atmosphere of openness, playfulness, and heightened listening. While text study and dialogue on its own can be focused on intellectual ideas, the arts can create an environment that humanizes the people behind the ideas and allows participants to discover insight that they may not have heard in a purely dialogue/text based setting. This is what led me to co-found the Muslim Jewish Arts Fellowship.