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‘Stronger together’

Jewish and Muslim women find common ground at Salaam Shalom conference

Sheryl Olitzky, founder and executive director of the Sisterhood of Salaam Shalom, addresses conference attendees. 
Sheryl Olitzky, founder and executive director of the Sisterhood of Salaam Shalom, addresses conference attendees. 

With its core value of building one-to-one relationships that will change the world, the Sisterhood of Salaam Shalom challenged each of the 500 Muslim and Jewish women at its 2016 national conference at Drew University in Madison to personally assume responsibility for building a different future. 

Inspirational talks from interfaith and social activists; smaller workshops focusing on skill-building, learning, and more intimate conversations; and a surprise call to action from Sen. Cory Booker all touched on themes of sharing personal stories, creating safe spaces, developing deeper relationships, and changing the world.

Speaking to NJJN by phone after the conference, Sheryl Olitzky of North Brunswick, executive director and founder, with Atiya Aftab, of the Sisterhood, noted that, beyond the 66 percent increase in attendance, what distinguished this year’s conference from last year’s was that, for both Jews and Muslims, “the feeling of vulnerability was so much stronger this year than ever before. The need to be there, to participate, to figure out what to do, and get guidance on what to do was stronger.” 

The conference was cosponsored by the Drew University Center on Religion, Culture and Conflict, the Foundation for Ethnic Understanding’s Women’s Weekend of Twinning; and The Mamdouha S. Bobst Center for Peace and Justice at Princeton University.

Aftab explained to attendees that the grassroots mission of the Sisterhood “is about human interactions, about building friendships, and about building spaces where we can ask each other honest and uncomfortable questions.” She said Salaam Shalom chapters “differ from the many interfaith dialogues that grew as a response to the Arab-Israeli conflict and were not successful. “

“We deal with the political climate only after developing love and relationships over time,” Aftab said. 

Robi Damelin, an Israeli activist with The Parents Circle Family Forum, a group of bereaved Israeli and Palestinian families supporting reconciliation and peace, lost her 28-year-old son, David, to a sniper’s bullet while he was serving in the reserves of the Israeli Defense Forces. Speaking to the vulnerability as well as the power of bridging differences through genuine empathy with “the other,” she said, “Fear is your worst enemy, because if you are afraid you will do nothing. If you are afraid, you will start to hate. If you are afraid, you will become violent. Don’t be afraid — start to take action.”

When Damelin first joined The Parents Circle, she met Palestinian mothers for the first time. “I looked into their eyes and realized we shared the same pain,” she said. When you go to bed at night, after you put off the mask you wear during the day, we shed the same tears.”

The meeting served as an epiphany. “I realized what a force we could be, how much we could change if we who had paid the highest price could talk on the same stage for reconciliation,” said Damelin.

During a workshop on storytelling, Salma Hasan Ali talked about the very emotional e-mail responses she received after publishing in The Washingtonian the story of her family’s immigration experience. She urged the attendees to share their own experiences with one another, asking, “Is it possible to hate someone whose story you know?”

Booker, a last-minute presenter invited by Damelin, talked about how he sought to bring people together to fight Newark’s power structure, focusing on the need for communal action. “The challenge we have is indifference, apathy, and lack of action,” he said. If there is “a chorus of conviction, a conspiracy of love, when we come together as a people, then hate, darkness, cruelty, bigotry, have not a chance.”

The senator also scoffed at the notion of “tolerance,” a word he said means “I am just stomaching your right to be different.”

“We are a nation called to go beyond tolerance — called to love,” he said. “Every day remember you have a decision to make: to accept things as they are or accept responsibility for changing them.”

One who has taken that responsibility is actress Milana Vayntrub, a Jewish immigrant from Uzbekistan, who flew to Lesbos to help with the seemingly unstoppable flow of desperate Syrian refugees washing up on the island’s shore. 

“When you see something like that, when you experience people who kiss the ground because they are so happy to be safe, you realize how lucky we are to take being alive for granted,” she said. Vayntrub (widely known for her role as the salesperson in a line of AT&T commercials) made a documentary of her efforts on the island and screened it for the attendees at the conference.

Abby Marcus, a member of the New Brunswick Sisterhood chapter and of Adath Israel Congregation in Lawrenceville, told NJJN her experience with Salaam Shalom changed the way she sees herself. “I was carrying around a prejudice that I didn’t know I had — I thought that any Muslim would hate me once they found out I was Jewish. I found out the opposite is true, and it is a great weight off my chest.”

Similarly, Simin Syed of West Windsor reported that Damelin’s workshop turned out to be a place where participants could ask troubling questions. Syed, who is Jewish, once said to Damelin that she had heard many Muslim women would be happy if their sons died and went to heaven. Damelin responded that mothers do not care about the next world — they want their sons to have and hold. 

That, Syed said, is why open communication between Jews and Muslims is so important. “If you have a safe place, you have to be able to ask those questions.”

Lynne Azarchi, founder and executive director of the Kidsbridge Tolerance Center in Ewing, told NJJN that after feeling depressed and isolated with the results of the presidential election, she felt better among 500 other women who care and are change agents. “Today more than ever we have to work harder and smarter and more efficiently to no longer be the silent majority,” she said.

Aftab told NJJN by phone that at the conference “We were in a space where people would come up and say, ‘I’m longing to talk to a Muslim woman,’ ‘I feel isolated where am and am so excited to form a chapter in the area I’m in,’ ‘I feel anxiety, I feel fear, I want to reach out to somebody and just didn’t know how to do it.’ These kinds of ideas of standing together are a way of saving your life.”

Booker, quoting the U.S. motto e pluribus unum, “out of the many, one,” said, “We are here today from a mighty tradition, gathered together to exalt the ideals that have gotten us so far — not ideals of division, hate, the other. We are here to celebrate the American ideals — that we are stronger together.” 

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