The two women sat knee to knee.
Aziza Hasan, a devout Muslim, looked out at the group gathered around her, spoke of the loved ones who had died in Israel and Gaza and began reciting the first chapter of the Quran.
“In the name of God, the most compassionate, most merciful …”
“Show us the straight way,” she continued, “the way of those whose portion is not wrath and who go not astray.”
Then, the woman beside her, Andrea Hodos, a devout Jew, followed with a Hebrew song acknowledging the angels.
“On my right side is Gabrielle, God’s strength,” she told the crowd, translating the song. “Behind me, God’s healer, Raphael. Above my head is God’s divine presence.”
On this late afternoon of Oct. 15, the war between Israel and Hamas was well underway as Ms. Hasan and Ms. Hodos sat on parched grass at a bustling park six miles west of downtown Los Angeles. A circle of Jews and Muslims surrounded them.
Everyone on hand was part of NewGround, a nonprofit fellowship program that has helped more than 500 Los Angeles Muslims and Jews learn to listen, disagree, empathize with one another — and become friends.
Ms. Hasan, whose family roots run through Palestine, runs NewGround. Ms. Hodos, once a resident of Israel, has been her associate director since 2020.
The two woman can recall details of the long, brutal history of clashes and wars pitting Israel against its neighbors to the north, east and south — and how those clashes sent fearful shock waves through Los Angeles, a city with one of the nation’s largest populations of Muslims and Jews.
“But it’s never been this bad,” they said, practically in unison, during a recent interview at a Los Angeles cafe.
Never have they worried like this about death and destruction in the Middle East sparking antisemitic or Islamophobic violence in the United States.
Never have they fretted like this about their work and their words being misinterpreted and misunderstood.
Never had they held this much dread, or found this kind of hopeful, grounding solace in the interfaith bonds their labor has created.
Ms. Hasan and Ms. Hodos are more than co-workers. Their close friendship signals that the ties that bind adherents of Judaism and Islam can remain strong, even as the war pitting people of their faiths against each other rages.
“Aziza is like a sister to me,” said Ms. Hodos, 57. “She is family.”
“We’re so connected,” said Ms. Hasan, 43, “that sometimes Andrea can complete my thought or start a sentence and finish it for me.”
Both women have deep roots in Israel and Palestine. Ms. Hodos spent her post-college years living in Jerusalem, reconnecting with her faith and learning about the growing peace movement. Her husband, now a rabbi and professor of rabbinical literature, lived in Israel for a dozen years. Their children are Israeli citizens. She has a relative who is a reservist in the Israeli Army, a fact that Ms. Hasan admits is difficult to reconcile.
Ms. Hasan’s paternal grandparents were Palestinian farmers who were forced off their land at gunpoint during the creation of Israel in the late 1940s.
As the firstborn daughter of a Muslim father and a white American mother, Ms. Hasan spent much of her childhood in Jordan. She recalls the taunts of schoolmates in Jordan telling her that her mother was going to hell for being Christian. After her father died, her family moved to a small town in Kansas, where she remembers hearing she was going to hell for being Muslim.
“Navigating through a world of opposite views is how it has always been for me,” she said. “The work is gut-wrenching and difficult, but I keep coming back because it is so important to my core.”
Her voice trailed. A beat passed. She sighed. “Still,” she said, “I sometimes wonder why I am so devoted to something that seems so bleak, especially now.”
She leans on Ms. Hodos for strength. Their lives are intertwined, and their families are close. They provide one another with shoulders to cry on.
Ms. Hodos’s eyes widen when she recalls a favored memory — the two women baking together in the Hodos family’s kosher kitchen, making pinwheel cookies from an old Palestinian recipe.
After reports of the massacre and kidnapping of Israeli Jews by Hamas militants, the two exchanged texts.
“How are you holding up?” Ms. Hasan wrote, before expressing anger that such atrocity could be done in the name of God, and fear of a violent retaliation that would take innocent lives.
“I love you,” she continued. “I am sorry. I am here.”
Ms. Hodos was reeling. Her son had a friend who was taken captive. Her husband was once an Israeli soldier. Decades ago, he had fought during a war with Lebanon. The shock and pain she felt was so profound that at first, she struggled to find the right words, so she replied by sending poems about the grief of loss during war.
“So much gratitude to have your partnership,” she wrote. Her heart ached for Israel, but she needed to make it known that her care was not limited by borders. “I’m so worried about everyone in Gaza for what is ahead.”
As the war and atrocity spread over the coming days, both women struggled against depression, nausea and sleeplessness. They were unable to eat.
They pressed on, appearing at mosques and synagogues and gathering with friends of their faith in their respective homes.
“More people are reaching out to each other than I’ve ever seen,” said Ms. Hasan. “I think that’s the result of the relationships we’ve built all these years. Without that connection, one person becomes defensive in a discussion, and whoever they are speaking with from the other side entrenches and gets defensive back quickly. When there’s a relationship, there are moments of softening that allow a little more slack in the discussion and a little more care.”
The NewGround gathering at the park west of downtown Los Angeles was such a moment.
A solemn, grieving apprehension took hold as the two friends welcomed the group. Israel had spent days bombing targets in Gaza, an act of retribution for Hamas’s attack that was causing a humanitarian disaster.
For a long while, members of NewGround gathered in five or six small clusters, people of both faiths mixing as slivers of anguished conversation filled the air.
“I know Israelis who are going from funeral to funeral for children of their friends.”
“I know people in Gaza who have lost loved ones.”
“My children are scared, and I don’t know what to say.”
“My generation has to make something different for the next. We don’t have to repeat the hurt on both sides.”
An hour passed. Then two. Everyone ended up sitting together in a circle. Side by side, knee to knee, Ms. Hasan said her prayer and Ms. Hodos sang.
The sun went down. The sky turned black. For a while, there was a peaceful silence.