Days after a massacre in San Bernardino, Calif., drew national attention to the radical ideology of its two Muslim perpetrators, 350 Muslim and Jewish women gathered in Princeton to build bridges and fight hate, negative stereotyping, and prejudice.
On Dec. 6, the women joined together at Princeton University for the Sisterhood of Salaam Shalom’s annual Muslim and Jewish Women’s Leadership Conference to learn about each other’s experiences, get pointers on interfaith dialogue and social action, and motivate one another to make change.
Founded by Middlesex County residents Sheryl Olitzky and Atiya Aftab in 2010, the sisterhood now counts chapters in 15 communities, with more on the way.
The Dec. 2 shootings in San Bernardino, which left 14 people dead, weighed heavily on the proceedings, as women discussed how to promote dialogue and social change and how to deal with potential obstacles.
Asmy Ahmed from Robbinsville and Nasreen Rashid from Monmouth Junction, two Muslim members of the Princeton chapter of Salaam Shalom, both recalled their gut response to the San Bernardino violence: “Please let it not be a Muslim who is involved.”
Ahmed said that she is feeling stress in the wake of the killings, carried out by what authorities say were a married couple “radicalized” by Islamic State ideology. “This is not who we are. I am being put in the same bucket as the people who do this,” said Ahmed. “My heart bleeds for the people who were victims and their families.”
Aftab, cofounder and chair of the organization’s board, told NJJN that Muslims have condemned violence at home and abroad.
The Koran follows the Torah value that “if you save one person, it is as if you have saved the world,” said Aftab, an adjunct professor at Rutgers University who teaches Islamic law and jurisprudence. “We have stood up and said this is deplorable and against every value of our religion, and these people who call themselves Muslim are not representative of our authentic and normative values.”
At one point during the all-day conference, an audience member, who said she works for a Muslim organization, asked Ruth Messinger, the outgoing president of American Jewish World Service, for help responding to those who say Muslims do not condemn violence carried out in the name of their religion.
“We are all talking but the media is not listening,” the woman said to Messinger. “Can you give us some advice about how Muslim women can raise their voices to the media so we are heard by all?”
Throughout the conference, speakers and attendees focused on the issues that unite them as members of religious communities.
Mehnaz Afridi, assistant professor of religious studies and director of the Holocaust, Genocide, and Interfaith Education Center at Manhattan College in New York, said she is often “talking about Islamophobia and anti-Semitism in the same breath.” She came to her field of study, she told the audience, after learning “that my Muslim community was highly uneducated and prejudiced against Jews, that the Holocaust was relativized, and that anti-Semitism was playing into old European anti-Semitic notions.”
Heba Macksoud, a member of the first sisterhood chapter, recalled being harassed while shopping at ShopRite. The store manager, Mark Egan, helped her look for the perpetrator and then accompanied her during her shopping; for this, he received the first Salaam Shalom Award.
That night, Macksoud said, she couldn’t sleep and thought about how everything had changed since she had donned a headscarf. “I know now what it is like to be gay, black, or Jewish,” she said. “Suddenly everyone hates me. I smile at them, and they don’t smile back.”
Jerusalemite Ruth Ebenstein and Ibtisam Erekat of Abu Dis spoke about their participation in an interfaith support group for breast cancer survivors in Jerusalem. They spoke about developing a friendship, despite the obstacles of national identity, religion, and geography.
Many attendees have been interfaith activists outside of Salaam Shalom. Julie Siddiqi and Laura Marks gave a workshop on Nisa-Nashim, the organization they recently created in Great Britain that brings Jewish and Muslim women together through social action projects.
Sheila Sonnenschein of Kansas City, Mo., who has been involved in the Greater Kansas City Interfaith Council and has been part of a Salaam Shalom chapter for a year, emphasized the importance of talking about her interfaith work. “When people hear I am part of a chapter, for some people it is very intriguing and they want to learn more, and I think that is how we can make rippling effects, not only in our own cities but around the country and even around the world.”
A preconference attended by 30 or 40 people included a visit to the Friday service at the Islamic Society of Central Jersey in Monmouth Junction and Shabbat services at Highland Park Conservative Temple-Congregation Anshe Emeth. At the mosque, Imam Hamad Ahmad Chebli’s sermon emphasized Muslim texts teaching moderation and criticizing extremism in the guise of religious devotion.
Shelley Slafkes, a South Orange resident and a member of the recently formed Essex County chapter of Salaam Shalom, said the organization advises chapters not to talk “politics” for a year or two, until friendship and trust have developed among members. However, she said, “speaking about rhetoric, fear, and Muslims being targeted — that is not political.”
A Muslim conference attendee from central Jersey told NJJN about her worries following the attacks in San Bernardino and Paris. One of her sons is light-skinned and has blue eyes, which means that many of his schoolmates do not know he is Muslim. “He gets to hear everything unfiltered — ‘Kill the Muslims, they don’t deserve to live,’” she said.