A group that began in central New Jersey more than four years ago as a way to build bridges among Muslim and Jewish women is now expanding throughout the state and around the country.
On Dec. 29, the Sisterhood of Salaam/Shalom launched its website, sosspeace.org, and announced its incorporation as a nonprofit.
Having brought local women together to celebrate religious holidays, share life-cycle events, and discuss what unites them, Salaam/Shalom expects to establish about 10 new chapters annually and is planning a national leadership conference at the end of the year. It will be open to group members and women from other interfaith dialogue programs.
Within the coming months, the group expects to announce plans for an overseas trip in 2015 to a place with significance to both Jews and Muslims. In three years, it hopes to open an overnight camp for Jewish and Muslim teen girls to be staffed by college-age Muslim and Jewish women.
“We spread by word of mouth and social media,” said national executive director Sheryl Olitzky of North Brunswick, who cofounded the group with South Brunswick resident Atiya Aftab. “The need and desire is there.”
In addition to the original chapter centered in North and South Brunswick, the group has chapters in East Brunswick, Highland Park/Edison, and Princeton. Another chapter is forming in Summit, and one is operating in Manhattan.
The goal of the group is to reduce anti-Muslim and anti-Jewish sentiment through joint programming and dialogue.
North/South Brunswick chapter members have shared Sukkot, Hanukka, and Ramadan celebrations and developed friendships during monthly gatherings at each other’s homes.
“We are changing the world, one Muslim and one Jewish woman at a time,” said Olitzky. “We can really get rid of the negative stereotypes and get rid of people’s negative feelings about Jews and Muslims and really change the world.”
Olitzky said the organization has developed a protocol for recruiting coleaders for each local group and training them in conflict resolution, communication, leadership facilitation, and mediation.
“We provide all the resource materials for relationship building and dialogue for both leaders and participants,” said Olitzky. “We attend the first meeting of the group to explain the goals of the organization and to conduct an icebreaker.”
In addition to visiting each group three times annually, group coleaders — a Muslim and a Jew — are assigned a mentor and are provided with programming ideas and support, said Olitzky.
Nadia Ansary is a Muslim of Egyptian descent who joined the original group.
“I wanted to foster a relationship with this group because for some reason Muslims and Jews seem to be at odds, although historically it was never like that,” said the North Brunswick resident and national board member. “I’ve developed some wonderful relationships. The two groups’ thought and belief systems have much more in common than I thought at the outset. I’ve really developed some sincere, deep friendships over the years.”
Ansary added: “We refrain from talking politics because it’s not about politics.” An associate psychology professor at Rider University, she said, “I talk to students about the work I do and use it as a springboard for conversation.”
National cochair Faria Abedin of Princeton said Olitzky’s vision moved her to join the Princeton chapter.
“I was really touched by her hope for the future and wanted to be part of it,” said Abedin, who moved to the United States from Bangladesh at age seven. “What Sheryl has done is build bridges into homes and hearts. How often does a Jewish woman invite a Muslim woman to her home to celebrate a Muslim holiday? It’s magical.”
Judy Richman is national secretary of Salaam/Shalom and a cochair of the Highland Park/Edison chapter. She will host its first gathering, a kosher and halal lunch, Feb. 2 at her Highland Park home.
“To me it’s a wonderful opportunity to meet and make Muslim friends and build a relationship with the Muslim community,” she said. “Only good can come of it. The benefits are quite extensive. They really are our cousins, and being able to care for the other is something very special.”