On a recent Sunday, about 40 Hindu, Muslim, Jewish, and Christian women spent two hours together in Princeton carefully weaving prayer, yarn, shared stories, and expertise.
Gathered on Nov. 13 at Nassau Presbyterian Church, they were taking part in the second meeting of Central New Jersey Interfaith Stitchers for Peace; the first was held at the Islamic Society of Central Jersey in Monmouth Junction, and the third will be at The Jewish Center in Princeton, on Sunday, Dec. 11, 2-4 p.m.
Recalling a series of public conversations last January between Rabbi Adam Feldman, religious leader of the Jewish Center; David A. Davis, pastor of Nassau Presbyterian Church; and Hamad Ahmad Chebli, imam of the Islamic Society, event organizer and NPB congregant Juanell Boyd told NJJN that “at the end they challenged us to do something to foster community and friendship among the three congregations.”
A passionate knitter, Boyd, of Kendall Park, thought that doing stitchery with women of different religions would be “for me more comfortable than getting together and talking theology.”
Her idea was for people of all faiths or no faith at all to fabricate items that will be donated to people in need. The flyer describing the organization states, “As we knit, crochet, weave, or quilt each item, we pray for each other; we pray for the recipients of the items we create; we pray for those who deliver our items; and we pray for hope, healing, and peace throughout our world.”
Boyd contacted the Islamic Society and the Jewish Center, as well as her Hindu neighbors, to gather volunteers for a steering committee, one of whose members is Princeton resident Akhter Rahman, a congregant at the Islamic Society. Rahman offered a prayer at the opening of the November meeting that emphasized the commonalities among different religions. Jews, Christians, and Muslims, she noted, believe they are all descendants of Adam and Eve and all share the same message of “brotherhood, love, purity, modesty, forgiveness, and restraint.”
“Their basic tenets extol the virtues of charity and the need to show respect for other faiths,” she said. “Doing good to fellow beings is given the same importance as praying and serving God.”
Boyd read texts from Hindu writings and the three Abrahamic faiths that expressed similar messages, and steering committee member Judy Leopold, from Princeton, and a member of the Jewish Center read the words to the song “Hinei Mah Tov,” substituting the word nashim, or “women,” for achim, “brothers.”
For the meeting at the mosque, the women were asked to cover their heads and legs, so steering committee member Phyllis Saltzman of Kendall Park, a member of Congregation B’nai Tikvah in North Brunswick, decided to wear a salwar kameez, a long tunic and pants, with a scarf. Rahman’s daughter helped Saltzman tie the scarf as Muslims do. When people came up to her thinking she was a Muslim, she told them, “I’m a Jew.”
“I’m a person who’s very interested in building bridges,” Saltzman said. “The only way we are going to have peace is if we start talking to each other.”
Monmouth Junction resident Ferial Twansy, a congregant at the Islamic Society who relearned how to crochet at the first meeting, commented on the group’s interfaith composition: “It is very important to meet all the religions and know about them. I found out all are the same — we are all human beings and all believe in God.”
Nassau Presbyterian Church member Barbara Happer of Princeton came because she explicitly wanted to be part of an interfaith group.
“I think it is important to get to know my neighbors and have friends from other faith communities,” she said.
Steering committee member Myra Weiner, who lives in Montgomery Township and belongs to the Jewish Center, came to support a community built around needlework and to “promote interfaith relationships, friendships, and conversations in a very pleasant atmosphere where we all have a common interest in crafts.”
Aruna Bhargava, Boyd’s neighbor and a member of Arsha Bodha Center, a Hindu institution in Somerset, was drawn to a diversity that reminded her of her home in India, where she lived among people from many different religions and communities.
Nassau Presbyterian Church member Jenny Mischner of Princeton said that the anxiety surrounding the presidential election motivated her to try something different and out of her comfort zone, and headed to the first Stitchers meeting at the mosque.
“It’s really important to learn and understand how we are all similar even though we believe in different things and to not be afraid of difference,” Mischner said. “I love creating things and figured if I was with people creating things and not destroying things, that is something I would be proud of in my life.”