In an East Brunswick sukka, a group of women and their families gathered to enjoy each other’s company and a delicious kosher meal, and to watch a traditional shaking and blessing of the lulav and etrog.
While such a gathering is common in Jewish homes on Sukkot, the Sept. 22 event at the home of Lanny Livingston included both Muslims and Jews.
“It’s been one of our normal get-togethers for the last four years,” said Sheryl Olitzky of North Brunswick, who cofounded the Sisterhood of Salaam/Shalom with South Brunswick resident Atiya Aftab.
The group of Muslim and Jewish women in southern Middlesex County is dedicated to fostering friendship and understanding between the two faiths. Over the last four years the women have jointly celebrated Iftar, the evening meals that end the daily fast of Ramadan, and brit mila ceremonies for Jewish newborns.
Members will soon attend their first wedding together, that of the child of a Muslim member.
“We’ve shared life-cycle events and holidays to learn from each other and share in each other’s experiences,” said Olitzky. “The sukka is all about welcoming. It’s our way of opening up the tent and bringing in our friends. We eat in the sukka together and we enjoy spending time together, not just with the other women but also with their families.”
As part of that family participation, the meal was prepared by Livingston’s husband, Lee, and included a number of Middle Eastern dishes common to both cultures. Olitzky’s husband, Rabbi Kerry Olitzky, demonstrated the shaking and blessing of the lulav and etrog, the central ritual items of the harvest festival.
“When the whole family comes they get exposed to other families and their customs,” said Lanny Livingston. “For example, a lot of Muslims don’t have literal art in their homes although I’ve seen verses of the Koran hanging that are beautiful. It’s a difference that you don’t see unless you go to people’s houses. But, through these gathering we’ve become an extended family.”
Nausheena Bhayat of South Brunswick has been struck by how much she has in common with her Jewish friends.
“I decided to participate because although I had a lot of Christian friends, I didn’t really have any Jewish friends,” she told NJJN. “After a couple of meetings we all began saying, ‘Oh my gosh, we do that too,’ and at the end of the day we realized we were all wives and mothers and had so much in common religiously. We’ve talked about marriage, death, and birth rituals and have been developing these bonds because we realize we have so much in common with these women who are supposed to be very different from us.”
Bhayat, who is of Indian descent but was born in England and grew up in Halifax, Nova Scotia, noted that Muslims themselves are very diverse, and that the group includes Palestinians, Pakistanis, and other Arab women. All have gotten to know each other’s traditions.
“We all knew each other tangentially because we are Muslims,” said Bhayat. “It’s what I love about this group. I love that we learn about our own faith through other members of the group. I love the fact we learn about another faith. I love the fact that we are connecting with other women.
“I love that we are always learning, whether by baking cookies, speaking about how we deal with our husbands, or by lighting a menora candle.”
Describing the women as being “more like a group of sisters,” she said her own sons, ages 13 and 15, also look forward to the gatherings.
“Being teen boys they have very little interest in anything unless it has to do with the sports world,” Bhayat said, but they recently asked her if their family was doing anything for Sukkot. One of her sons is also working with a Jewish friend to start a teen interfaith group.
Olitzky said the local group has been consulting with other Muslim and Jewish women and expects to begin bringing Salaam/Shalom national, with chapters throughout the Northeast, including several others in New Jersey, in the coming months.