When Sheryl Olitzky went to Poland several years ago, she was horrified by the hatred that resulted in the deaths of so many of the country’s Jews during the Holocaust.
“It had a huge impact on me and I decided I wanted to do something to get rid of the hate,” said the North Brunswick resident. “It took me several months, but I realized there was such a large Muslim population and such a large Jewish population in Middlesex County, and I had never experienced any interaction between the two.
“I knew I wanted to do something with Muslims, and I knew I wanted to do it with women because women really navigate human relations in the world.”
Olitzky contacted Imam Hamad Ahmad Chebli, religious director of the Islamic Society of Central Jersey in South Brunswick, for help in locating a Muslim counterpart.
He recommended attorney Atiya Aftab, an American-born woman of Indian ancestry who is an adjunct professor at Rutgers University’s Center for Middle Eastern Studies. Together the two women founded the Sisterhood of Salaam/Shalom to develop “a circle of friendship” between Muslim and Jewish women.
“We knew as women we had to do something to break down the stereotypes,” said Aftab, a South Brunswick resident.
Each woman brought in five others representing a wide spectrum of nationalities and beliefs. The participating Jews run from very traditional to secular while the Muslims include Egyptians, a Palestinian, and Asians. They meet monthly.
While the group initially focused on developing understanding between Muslims and Jews, it has become a gathering of friends sharing holidays and stories about husbands and children, jobs, and their everyday lives.
“We really have a broad mix of women professionally and ethnically, but we are one community,” said Olitzky, the founder of a healthcare marketing research agency. “We all believe in our faith strongly, and we all believe in having a strong relationship between Muslims and Jews.”
Olitzky, a member of the Highland Park Conservative Temple-Congregation Anshe Emeth, is married to Rabbi Kerry Olitzky, executive director of the National Jewish Outreach Institute.
As sponsors of a library exhibit and program about Albanian Muslims who saved Jews during the Shoa (see related story), the Sisterhood has begun to hear from other women across the state interested in starting chapters. It recently helped launch a similar group in the Princeton area and is now assisting women in the Highland Park-Edison area.
Olitzky said an agreement had been reached with Kean University in Union and Princeton University to bring the Albanian project there.
The group is also planning a trip to Albania, which it expects to open to all Muslim and Jewish women.
It has also formed a relationship with the NJ Commission on Holocaust Education and its executive director, Dr. Paul Winkler. The Sisterhood has arranged a meeting for its members, Winkler, and Chebli.
Aftab is particularly dismayed that Muslims are too often viewed only as terrorists. Leaders of and members of her mosque denounced the Boston Marathon bombing by Muslim extremists and took out a full-page ad in The Star-Ledger after the 9/11 attacks in support of their fellow Americans.
“We have shouted it from the rooftops, but people don’t want to hear it,” said Aftab.
Olitzky called the Sisterhood “the most meaningful and best thing I have ever done.”
“I really feel like I’m making a change in the world, one person at a time,” she said. “God forbid, if I’m ever in danger, I have six Muslim women who would make sure I was safe and vice versa.”