Jewish and Muslim Sisters Are Doin' Coexistence for Themselves

Sisterhood of Salaam-Shalom conference attracts record crowd of women from two faiths working to build bridges, but Israeli-Palestinian conflict remains ‘elephant in the room.’

Debra Nussbaum Cohen
Debra Nussbaum Cohen
Princeton, N.J.
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Muslim women pray during the Sisterhood of Salaam-Shalom conference at Princeton University, December 5, 2015.
Muslim women pray during the Sisterhood of Salaam-Shalom conference at Princeton University, December 5, 2015.Credit: Riverview Studio / Sisterhood of Salaam-Shalom
Debra Nussbaum Cohen
Debra Nussbaum Cohen
Princeton, N.J.

Heba Macksoud had just put laundry detergent in her shopping cart when someone few feet away started loudly cursing “f’ing Muslims” and the “f’ing Koran.” She looked up to see a 60-something man wearing a sleeveless undershirt and large cross, looking directly at her as he continued his supermarket tirade.

Macksoud, 44, a Staten Island native of Egyptian descent, who wears a hijab with her jeans and sweaters, didn’t know how to respond except to ask him, “why would you say that?” as she quickly walked to the front of the North Brunswick Shoprite. She asked for the manager and when Mark Egan arrived, Macksoud, trembling because she felt humiliated and powerless, told him what happened. Egan wanted to find the man, but the offender had already left the store. When Macksoud said she had to shop for more items before picking her kids up at school but didn’t feel safe, Egan stayed with her.

Israeli Ruth Ebenstein and Palestinian Ibtisam Erekat talked about becoming friends through a breast cancer survivor support group.Credit: Riverview Studio, Sisterhood of Salaam-Shalom

For that simple but all too rare act of human kindness, Egan received a plaque and standing ovation from 350 Muslim and Jewish women — and a few men — at the conference of the Sisterhood of Salaam-Shalom on Sunday. It was by far the largest gathering the Sisterhood had ever had. Its first conference, last year, attracted 100 participants.

About half the women at the gathering on the luxuriously Gothic Princeton University campus were already involved in one of the Sisterhood’s 20 chapters around the United States — from Santa Barbara, California, to Boston, Massachusetts — or one in Britain. Sisterhood founder Sheryl Olitzky said that women from 10 or 15 additional communities have since told her they want to start chapters.

A day before Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump announced his proposal to bar all Muslims from entering the U.S., the women at the conference spoke about building their personal relationships with women from the other faith as an antidote to the nativist tone taking root in America.

Heba Macksoud.Credit: Courtesy

“The need is unbelievable. Jewish women and Muslim women are saying ‘enough, we don’t want our children to grow up in this world,’” Olitzky told Haaretz.

Birth of a sisterhood

Olitzky began the Muslim-Jewish women’s meetings in 2010. The year before, she was on a family trip in Poland to visit the concentration camps. “In Poland you don’t see anyone different,” she said. “There’s no one in a kippah, no one in a hijab. I asked the tour guide why and he said, ‘Poland is for the Poles. We don’t have a Muslim problem because Muslims are not welcome here.’”

As a resident of central New Jersey, with has a substantial Muslim community, she knew that there was little by way of personal interaction between the two religious communities. She wanted to initiate one. Not knowing how reach any Muslim women, she called the area’s mosque.

The imam’s son had gone to public school with her son, but the parents had not gotten to know one another. The imam gave her the name of the mosque’s female chair, and Olitzky left her a message. And another, then a third. The woman wasn’t returning her calls. But after several messages, she finally did. “We hit it off right away,” said Olitzky. “That changed both of our lives.”

Sisterhood of Salaam-Shalom founders Atiya Aftab and Sheryl Olitzky.Credit: Riverview Studios / Sisterhood of Salaam-Shalom

With friends in tow, they began meeting monthly —a dozen women rotating between each other's homes in the North-South Brunswick area. After a year or two, “we decided to teach our community what we were doing,” Olitzky said, so they began a newsletter, and two more chapters started in nearby East Brunswick and Princeton. The Sisterhood of Salaam-Shalom filed for non-profit tax status in 2013. Because the organization’s name includes an Arabic word, it was subjected to an unusual level of scrutiny, Olitzky said, and the leaders were advised to take it out. But they refused, and were awarded tax exempt status last December.

Now the organization is adding chapters wherever women take the initiative. Each has membership of 10 to 12 women, though some include as many as 18. Meetings include three elements: dialogue; socializing, usually over a meal; and sharing a project, like baking cookies for patients at a nearby hospice. The Manhattan chapter teaches English to Syrian refugees.

A Muslim participant in each chapter opens her home to Jewish friends’ families for a Ramadan break-fast party, and on Sukkot the Jewish participants do the same.

Kristin Sekerci came to the Sisterhood conference toting her 11-month-old son, Haroun, from their home in Washington. A convert to Islam, Sekerci was raised Roman Catholic and converted after marrying a Turkish Muslim she met when they both worked in the same pizza restaurant. Sekerci is involved in the Sisterhood’s D.C. chapter.

Kristin Garrity Sekerci and her son Haroun.Credit: Courtesy

“A specifically Muslim-Jewish all-women group was appealing,” said Sekerci, who didn’t know Jews or Muslims until she went to college in Washington. Growing up as a Catholic school student in Wallingford, Pennsylvania, “I was in a little Catholic bubble, and I had no idea how to interact” with people of other religions, she told Haaretz.

Getting to know Jewish women, “I’ve learned that there are so many commonalities between Islam and Judaism. We have our own personal collective struggles, dealing with the patriarchy in our religions, and raising kids as Jewish or Muslim. We have a unique perspective on peace, which transcends binaries of ‘me’ and ‘the other,’” she added. “I’ve learned a lot more about Judaism, the holidays, traditions and liturgical stuff. It’s just shocking how similar it is.”

Avoiding the conflict

Most groups are afraid to broach the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, said Sekerci, who is also part of a “Daughters of Abraham” book club, which includes Jews, Muslims and Christians. At the height of the recent wave of stabbings and car-rammings, no one discussed it, she said. “It made me kind of crazy. What’s the point of getting together and not talking about the issues?”

She appreciated that the topic was discussed at the conference.

Rabbi Amy Eilberg offered an introduction to political dialogue on inflammatory subjects like the conflict. Training for dialogue facilitators was also announced. “Some of us should do that and take those skills and apply it,” Sekerci said. “It’s such a taboo topic. Any Jewish people I meet, we just don’t talk about it. “

Amanda Quraishi, a digital media consultant who spoke on a panel entitled “Dialogue and Engagement as a Means for Peace,” told the crowd: “People are increasingly interested in having deep, meaningful conversations, not just the symbolic stuff. The conflict is the elephant in the room in every scenario where Muslims and Jews work together. Anything that does not address that is going to be superficial and not honest. Ignoring it is not going to make it go away.”

In her presentation, Eilberg talked about a dialogue group of rabbis and imams in which she participates. She and the co-leader "disagree vehemently” about whether to discuss the conflict. Two-thirds of the participants don’t want to, “and its very painful,” she said. “We tabled the conversation to preserve the relationship. It’s a tragedy, in my view.”

She once hoped that “this dialogue would move us toward an Israeli-Palestine resolution. I no longer expect North American Muslim-Jewish dialogue to have an impact” on the conflict, she said.

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