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Building Bridges at the Sisterhood of Salaam Shalom Conference

By Rabbi Devorah Jacobson

“We are here to rise up against hate and to say, if something happens, we have each other’s backs. We are here to protect each other’s communities. We are here to cultivate empathy, to see the world through each other’s eyes. We are here to make a better world for our daughters and our sons, to make Otherness a thing of the past.”

These were the opening words of Sheryl Olitzky, executive director of the Sisterhood of Salaam Shalom (SOSS), to a crowd of some 630 Muslim and Jewish women and a small number of men at the organization’s 4th annual conference at Drew University in New Jersey on Sunday Nov. 5.

The mission of Sisterhood of Saalam Shalom, founded in 2010, is “to build bridges and fight hate, negative stereotyping and prejudice.”

And, as Olitzky added, “The relationships that are built by bringing together Muslim and Jewish women, who share so many practices and beliefs, are life-changing and can help put an end to anti-Muslim and anti-Jewish sentiment.  We are changing the world, one Muslim and one Jewish woman at a time!”

The Muslim and Jewish women who attended this year’s conference were from across the United States and Canada, including Texas, North Carolina, Detroit, Miami, Toronto and Chicago. The conference featured a variety of major speakers including Anita Diamant, author of many works of fiction and non-fiction including, most notably, The Red Tent.

Diamant spoke movingly on the topic, “The Redemptive Power of Women’s Relationships.”

Haroon Moghul, author of How to Be a Muslim, spoke about his own journey as a young Muslim man struggling to find his path and establish his identity as a Muslim in America and finding himself now as a faculty member at the Shalom Hartmann Institute in Jerusalem teaching Islam to rabbis and other educators.

In addition, there was a surprise appearance and electrifying presentation by New Jersey Senator Corey Booker.

Senator Booker began by invoking “this week’s parasha, Va-Yera, one of my favorites,” he said, and specifically, the example of Abraham’s hospitality to the three strangers as a model to all of us.

“Abraham ran to greet them,” he said, “then invited them into his tent, got down on his knees, washed their feet and then fed them. That’s the first pillar: this father of three great faiths demonstrating goodness, kindness, decency and love. And then, Abraham began to argue with God. He stood up to advocate for the people in Sodom, and that’s the second pillar: the idea of justice. We are called, especially now, to stand up for justice.”

“In this time,” he declared to a standing ovation, “we cannot let the hate out there make us hateful. We have to become engines of love, kindness and grace. We have to be the Abrahamic representatives.”

In addition to the keynote speakers, there were some 25 breakout sessions for participants to attend during the day, with topics including “Sinai and Sunnah: Women Covering, Uncovering & Recovering,” “How to Cure a Racist,” “What You Wanted to Know about Judaism and Islam and Were Afraid to Ask,” and “On Faith and Friendship in an Age of Extremism.”

Throughout the day, the energy was palpable, as many women reached out warmly to each other – many of them strangers at first – feeling the excitement and importance of building relationships.

The majority of the attendees were members of local chapters of Sisterhood Saalam Shalom, as Olitzky described as “the heart of this organization.” With some 150 active chapters in the U.S. and Canada, the organization is expanding rapidly, and is hoping to develop new chapters, including chapters for Muslim and Jewish teenage girls. Each chapter is led by two women, a Muslim and a Jew. The two leaders from the only SOSS chapter in Western Mass., Beth Tabor Lev and Mehlaqa Samdani, attended the conference and spoke about the motivation to start a local chapter in the Pioneer Valley.

“I was moved especially after the Presidential election, to take action against the hatred I saw unleashed,” Tabor Lev explained. “In particular, I wanted to take action as a Jew, in part out of self-interest (scratch the surface of anti-Muslim attitudes, and you’ll surely find anti-Jewish sentiment ready to be spewed) and in part as a participant in strengthening the rights and the freedoms that I value for all of us. I was drawn to connect and join with Muslims who I felt were in a similar situation that my own ancestors were in just a generation or two ago. When I learned about SOSS, I felt it was a perfect vehicle.”

Co-leader Mehlaqa agreed and added, “I was so excited when Beth reached out to me. It was invigorating to be able to have a safe space to talk about my faith from a place of devotion and personal conviction, to speak as a Muslim. And – to do that with our Jewish sisters, to hear their stories, and to explore our commonalities and our differences together.”

Throughout the day, we heard stories of discrimination and hatred, as well as stories of resistance and a belief in the power of sharing stories to foster empathy and understanding.

Neisrein Mahmoud, a co-leader of the Little Monmouth N.J. chapter, started a group one year ago with 20 participants. Born and raised in Libya, she came to the U.S. at the age of 15, her family settling in Holmdel, N.J.

“My son attended a private school in Short Hills,” she told me, “and after he experienced being discriminated against as a Muslim, I realized I needed to be active. As an engineer turned therapist, I came to understand the power of knowing the other, and how understanding where people are coming from will lead us to be more forgiving. In our chapter of 20 women, we are finding a lot of commonalities between us. We have been learning about each other’s holidays, faith, and rituals. It has been a very touching experience for all of us, and I can say, really transformative for me.”

One other person I spoke with in some depth was Heba Macksoud, a co-leader of the New Brunswick chapter. She told me, “People assume that because I am Egyptian, I hate Jews. Actually, my parents pushed me in the opposite direction – to embrace Jews! There’s a narrative out there, that all Arabs and Jews and all Muslims and Jews hate each other. I wanted to build bridges and overcome that narrative. For years, I’ve witnessed in this country people hating Blacks, Muslims and Jews. Now as an adult, I refuse to be quiet. I feel so strongly: We need to shut down racism at every turn. Helping start our chapter of Sisterhood of Salaam Shalom was one way I could do something in that direction.”

Rabbi Devorah Jacobson is the director of spiritual life at JGS Lifecare in Longmeadow.

CAP: Beth Tabor Lev, left, and Mehlaqa Samdani, co-leaders of Western Mass. Sisterhood of Saalam Shalom.

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