At the first meeting of Muslim and Jewish teens in Piscataway in November 2017, the group talked about each other’s Hebrew and Arabic names, specifically the pronunciations and meanings. “We wanted to get to know each other, but we wanted to make sure it was not an awkward environment — super formal and weird,” Momina Subhani said.
The ice breaker was a suggestion from the handbook of Sisterhood of Salaam Shalom (SOSS), a national organization with roots in New Jersey that promotes friendship and dialogue between Muslim and Jewish women. The organization, founded by Sheryl Olitzky of North Brunswick, has more than 115 chapters nationwide and recently opened five pilot teen chapters. Two are in New Jersey — in Middlesex and Bergen counties — the others are in Bucks County, Pa.; Philadelphia; and Connecticut.
In the same spirit as the adult chapters, the teens are seeking to break down social barriers and demystify a group of people that are often estranged from their communities or even demonized. Momina is coleader with Talia Fishman, a senior at Highland Park High School, of the Central Jersey teen chapter, which draws from the towns of Piscataway, Edison, and Highland Park.
“I find it valuable to go out and talk to others and learn about them and not see them as the other,” Momina said about Jews. “In Piscataway we have a very big Muslim community and in Highland Park a very big Jewish community. We are right next to each, but I didn’t know very many Jewish people.”
At that fall meeting, the young women ended up talking about high school and other common interests and activities, “because that is an environment where we all knew we are on the same page,” said Momina, a senior at Piscataway High School.
The group has met every couple of months since, and among their upcoming plans is to create a public mural this summer on the subject of diversity, under Talia’s artistic expertise.
“Our kids are our future,” said Suzan Murad, coleader of the adult Bucks County chapter of SOSS. “They need to influence and impact other kids, and they need to change the direction — the teens really are in a better position to make long-lasting change.”
Murad’s daughter, Aliya, started the teen chapter in Bucks County.
“Looking at the political environment and the environment around me, I felt like I could make a substantial difference by being in this organization and starting a teen chapter,” said Aliya, a junior at Noor-Ul-Iman School in South Brunswick, in a phone interview with NJJN.
Annette Rotter, coleader of the Westchester 1 SOSS chapter and chair of SOSS’s Teen Pilot Steering Committee, witnessed the birth of the first teen chapter, which started as an intergenerational chapter in Westchester, N.Y., but now meets as a teen chapter in nearby Closter, N.J.
At an SOSS meeting at the home of Rotter’s Muslim coleader, the host’s daughters heard the women talking and laughing and expressed interest in joining the chapter. Olitzky, now executive director of SOSS, matched them with a pair of Jewish siblings and invited the mixed adult-teen group to be a pilot program for an intergenerational chapter.
But over time, the teens began to carve out their own direction, attended the national conference, and received leadership training, according to Rotter. For example, the chapter created a lesson on similarities between Islam and Judaism, with the idea that the teens would teach it in schools. “The girls would be showcases for their connection and friendship while engaging others in teaching content,” Rotter said.
For the teens, the obvious next step was to form their own group, which launched in Closter in the summer of 2017.
In Bucks County, the teens meet at the same time as the adult chapter, but in a different room; they currently have five Muslim and two Jewish members, and are looking for more Jewish teens to even out the numbers.
Much of their programming focuses on social action. In December, the teens baked cookies that they distributed to a police precinct in Lower Makefield Township. They also delivered items they had collected to A Woman’s Place, a domestic violence organization in Doylestown. Several of the teens went together to the March 24 March for Our Lives in Princeton.
Aliya has developed an anti-bullying seminar for local elementary schools that addresses religious bigotry. She has met with the Bucks County Montessori Charter School’s principal, and they are coordinating a time for her and Cassidy Hanck, a sophomore and member of Congregation Kol Emet in Yardley, Pa., to speak in the school.
Rotter’s committee has assigned a mentor to check in with each teen group before and after each meeting. They have also established guidelines and resources for the teenage members. Over the next six months, the committee will review the teen chapters’ operations and explore issues of leadership and longevity, given that teens quickly transition from high school to college.
“It is a transformative experience to develop these connections with the other,” Rotter said. “They have such a desire and passion to affect this world and bring the mission of building bridges and standing up against bigotry and hatred and learning the lessons of how to build a better world.”
That passion, she added, “is very powerful for them and I think for the future — not that it’s simple to do.”
For information on the Bucks County teen SOSS chapter, email Aliya Murad at firstname.lastname@example.org.