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‘We’ve got your back’

Jews and Muslims unite in solidarity

Women gathered in Highland Park for one of 20 unity rallies organized nationally by the Sisterhood of Salaam/Shalom. Photo courtesy Sheryl Olitzky
Women gathered in Highland Park for one of 20 unity rallies organized nationally by the Sisterhood of Salaam/Shalom. Photo courtesy Sheryl Olitzky

In a climate of rising anti-Semitism, Jews have found an unexpected ally in the Muslim community. 

“I see hate that surrounds us bringing us closer than ever before,” said Sheryl Olitzky of North Brunswick,  founder and executive director of Sisterhood of Salaam/Shalom. “This is now really a movement. We have to be the voice for future generations…We need to be the voice to educate against the ignorance, the fear. We all share the same concerns. We all want a better world for our children and we can only achieve that by working together.” 

On Feb. 16 Jewish and Muslim women joined men in Highland Park and Marlboro for unity vigils. The events at Highland Park Middle School and Temple Rodeph Torah in Marlboro were among 20 such gatherings organized nationally by the sisterhood, which brings together women from the two cultures that have historically been at odds with each other to engage in dialogue and develop relationships. 

“We had Muslim and Jewish women involved in the sisterhood, rabbis and imams, the mayor of Highland Park [Gayle Brill Mittler],” said Olitzky who attended the Highland Park rally. “The service was put together by Muslim and Jewish women. At the exact same time thousands were reading the same prayers about living in harmony from the Koran and the Torah. There were also readings from American history and songs of unity and peace.”

The Highland Park rally, which drew a standing room only crowd of about 150, demonstrated “solidarity in response to hate surrounding us, especially the Muslim ban,” said Olitzky, referring to President Donald Trump’s aborted executive action to prevent immigrants from seven predominantly Muslim countries from entering the United States. 

The women also pledged solidarity in the face of bomb threats at JCCs — the rallies took place before the desecration of Jewish cemeteries in Philadelphia and Rochester and outside St. Louis — but Olitzky noted that since that time, “literally every Muslim organization has given a statement” condemning the desecration. 

“We come at this as sisters and when one of us is hurt we are hurt as a whole,” said Olitzky. “That’s the whole point behind the unity vigils. We as Jews know what it’s like when hate is increased and no one is willing to stand up for you. We are saying to our Muslim sisters, ‘We’ve got your back and are willing to stand up for you.’”

She said, “It’s never been scarier ever for Muslims and Jews than what we’re seeing right now.”

Rabbi Shira Stern, director of the Center for Pastoral Care and Counseling in Marlboro and an educator at Rodeph Torah, chaired the committee that created the national liturgy and echoed Olitzky’s words. 

“In this very divisive society when we look over our shoulders and some of us are afraid to walk around with our hijabs and some of us are afraid to walk around wearing our kipot, we must support each other,” she said.

Stern said the local group formed 18 months ago — even before the sisterhood was established — after she had met Fatima Masood, then principal of the Islamic Center of Old Bridge Academy, while leaving a Marlboro Board of Education meeting that drew numerous community members concerned about a board member’s anti-Muslim post on Facebook.

“We decided we needed to get together and talk,” said Stern. 

Stern said about 200 people packed the temple rally, including Marlboro Mayor Jonathan Hornik and Council President Jeff Cantor.

“It’s an extraordinary feeling knowing others were using the same language,” said Stern. “It was one of those times you feel a confluence of everything. In some fashion we were creating wholeness in the world by using verses of peace and understanding. We felt good that we don’t have to wring our hands and feel helpless. We can provide strength to one another in such a way that is willing us closer to peace.”

Several days after the rally, Stern received an email from the Old Bridge mosque’s president, Tasweer Syed, expressing “sincere thanks and gratitude to your community for the much needed support you have been consistently offering.” 

“Please note that we share a common goal and we are always available to offer our support to our Jewish sisters and brothers,” he wrote. “We are deeply saddened by the recent anti-Semitic incidents involving the threats against the Jewish community centers and vandalism of the cemeteries.”

Masood, of Marlboro, said she and Stern have since become “amazing friends.” The group got together on Christmas for a Day of Sedaqa/Tzedaka, preparing 100 “necessity bags” with such items as toiletries, snack bars, and earmuffs distributed to the Lion of Judah Faith Center in Trenton, a church which provides support to the homeless. 

“Temple Rodeph has become a second place to go for us,” said Masood. “Never in my life would I imagine I would be participating in something at a temple. But it is beautiful. You feel a sense we’re there to watch out for each other. It’s not about your beliefs, but about being human. You can be any religion, ethnicity, or color. We realize everything’s political, but all we can do is look out for each other.”

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