NEW YORK – Like many stories of bonding and friendship, this one began over food.
Annette Rotter and Akifa Saha are leaders of the Westchester chapter of the Sisterhood of Salaam Shalom, a network of women advocating for Jewish-Muslim relations and “changing the world, one Muslim and one Jewish woman at a time.” Saha invited her Jewish counterpart over for dinner, where they were joined by Saha’s twin teenage daughters, Nafisa and Safiya.
They “heard all that laughter and chatter and excitement, and then didn’t go back up to their rooms,” Rotter recalls.
Rotter suggested that the girls be included in the local SOSS chapter, and that they might be interested in meeting her friend’s twin daughters of a similar age, Mairav and Revital Aloni.
It proved a perfect match.
“From one meeting I learned so much [about Judaism], more than I’ve learned in my entire life, just by eating dinner” says Nafisa, 17, who was struck by the similarities between the two religions. “We said a prayer before we ate and it was very similar; we have the same dietary restrictions – so it’s really cool.”
Both sets of twins went to diverse high schools and had interactions with classmates from the other religion, but say they knew very little of the other faith and didn’t have close friendships with people from a different belief system.
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When they finally met, the opportunity presented common ground that was beyond their traditions and religious practices. “We all run track, we are all in marching bands, our birthdays are three days apart – so many things that it just clicked right away,” Mairav says.
All four girls joined their local adult SOSS, and once the meetings started taking place more frequently, the sets of twins began texting and hanging out regardless of the chapter gatherings.
It then occurred to all involved that this marked an opportunity for something bigger. So, with some 1,500 members in over 120 chapters nationwide, SOSS is now expanding to the next generation. Rotter, who’s on the steering committee guiding the nationwide SOSS teen chapter launch, is proud to see young people “catching the SOSS bug. These girls are developing into leaders, they are ambassadors for this mission, they grow up with it, the relationships are in them,” she says.
Making activism cool again
“These teens are the voices of change,” says SOSS Executive Director Sheryl Olitzky, who co-founded the group in 2010. “They are not willing to sit back and watch the acts of Islamophobia and anti-Semitism that surround them and their families and communities.”
Five teen chapters are currently in pilot form: two in New Jersey; two in Pennsylvania; and one chapter in Hartford, Connecticut, co-established by Rotter’s niece, Olivia Rotter, and her childhood friend Layan Alnajjar.
“I had no idea about the organization, but Liv introduced me to it and I really fell in love with the idea,” says 16-year-old Alnajjar, who is of Palestinian-Syrian-Lebanese descent. “Now that we’re doing it, it’s really empowering to see all these girls working together, and we’ve made so many new friends that we can now call family.”
The variety of activities their group of 14 girls – 7 Jewish and 7 Muslim – does ranges from serving at soup kitchens, reading articles and discussing them at each others’ houses, baking and hosting holiday parties. They also dedicate time to simply talking and socializing.
“We have a Syrian refugee who just came here last year,” says Olivia Rotter, who attends the same high school as Alnajjar. “She had never met a Jewish person before, let alone been in a Jewish person’s house.” Now, Rotter says, the girl will soon host one of the upcoming meetings and make a PowerPoint presentation on her home country.
The teen pilots were launched last September, and SOSS is currently creating the guidelines and materials aiming for a successful launch in September.
Annette Rotter says it has proved a healthy environment for the adolescents. “For my niece, this SOSS stuff has been her happiest go-to place,” says Rotter, who is a psychologist. “It’s so affirming to be making the difference for the teens – to have something to believe in and a way to approach this world when it’s so troubled, and feel like they can have a positive impact.”
The Trump factor
The teens say the 2016 presidential election had a powerful effect on them. “Once the elections came along, I think it became clear that we all couldn’t stand for any type of oppression, we all stood together and wanted to make a change in our community,” Mairav Aloni observes.
Nafisa Saha adds: “Ever since the election, a lot of my classmates are frustrated about what’s going on and how they want to do something. So many are involved in the women’s marches and protests, so when they hear about this organization, they say: ‘This is cool, this is something I can do to make a difference.’”
One initiative the young women devised was to create a lesson plan for fourth-graders about the similarities between Islam and Judaism.
They visited both Muslim and Jewish schools with cards displaying religious features such as head covers and prayers, and asked the pupils to allocate them in an Islam column, a Jewish column or a “both” column.
“In both cases, they mostly put [the cards] in the column of just their own religion. And as you tell them they belong in the ‘both’ category, you see their faces light up,” Mairav explains. She adds that having both sets of twins (the Sahas and Alonis) teach the lesson was also powerful for the kids: “They get to see the friendship between us, it adds another dimension to the whole lesson.”
Next year, Saha will be joining Mairav’s twin, Revital, at the University of Pennsylvania, where they plan to launch a SOSS chapter together on campus.
“There’s a really strong Muslim and Jewish community at Penn, and there are currently groups that are interfaith,” Revital Aloni says. “But there is room for a group to build bonds between women, not in an environment where you have to necessarily talk about politics or your background, but just really get to know each other.”
Politics, however, is an issue that does come up. SOSS focuses on building friendships first, in order to maintain a tight bond even while discussing difficult subjects like the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. “At a certain point, it is important not to completely avoid the politics conversations,” Revital says. “They do come up, but we trust that the friendship will remain as strong.”
Alnajjar says she was always interested in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and had discussed it with Olivia Rotter even prior to founding their chapter. “We touch on the conflict, but our goal is to celebrate our differences and similarities,” she says. “We try not to touch on it too much, because we know it will create controversy in two such different groups.”
Looking ahead, the movement expects constant growth, reaching as many teens as possible. In the long run, they say, this will be the generation of politicians and policymakers who can change views on Muslim-Jewish relationships in the public and the media.
“The kids who are involved become spokespeople, and then they are influencing – with their social media and their networks – a lot more people just than themselves,” says Annette Rotter.
Olitzky adds that the teenage chapters give her hope for the future, “as the girls evolve from being strangers to becoming friends, to considering one another sisters.”