Sheryl Olitzky, cofounder of the Sisterhood of Salaam Shalom (SOSS), stood up before a largely female audience of some 630 Muslims and Jews and said, "For every relationship between sisters in this room, there is a ripple effect." She was speaking about more than the rapid expansion of chapters, now numbering 115 across the country, and a growing list of 1,000 women waiting to be placed.
For Saba "Sabs" Khan, a member of the first Essex County chapter, and for others who are part of SOSS chapters where Jewish and Muslim women meet to share their commonalities and explore their differences, that ripple can feel very personal. For Khan, it affected how her son responds to hate.
Her son, who was born and raised in Michigan, was in a summer leadership program focused on neuroscience and psychology in Washington, D.C. During an argument between two groups over rights to the TV room, someone said, "Well, we don't want to negotiate with a terrorist."
Although Khan's son was the only "brown boy" in the group, she said, he didn't even realize he was the target. He told her, "I looked around to see who he was talking to." Once he realized it was him, all the conversations at home about the Sisterhood and interfaith issues came into play, she said.
He calmly told the boy, "That's not cool," and informed him that he would report him for the "really racist" comment. And he followed through.
The fomenting of anti-Semitic and anti-Muslim feelings in the country, and a determination to do something, is attracting new members into the Sisterhood, which held its fourth annual Muslim Jewish Women's Leadership Conference at Drew University in Madison on Nov. 5.
Guest speaker Sen. Cory Booker (D-NJ) talked about the example set by Abraham in Vayera, the Torah portion for that week, and his warm welcome of three strangers who he soon learned were actually God's messengers, as well as how the Jewish and Muslim forefather desperately argued with God to save the mostly evil city of Sodom.
Booker said we should model ourselves on Abraham's "goodness, kindness, decency, and love," and "stand for justice, no matter if we have to fight with God himself." Booker said that even the smallest act of justice can have unexpected benefits. When the former Newark mayor's family moved to New Jersey after his father, the first African-American salesman hired by IBM in Va., was promoted, his parents were told by a real estate agent that every house they liked in the white suburbs had either been "sold" or "pulled off the market."
But having witnessed the brutal beating of civil rights marchers on the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Ala., Marty Friedman, a Jewish lawyer in New Jersey, was moved to act. Friedman linked up with the Northern New Jersey Fair Housing Council, as the agent was in violation of fair housing law, and helped the Bookers get a house they wanted in Harrington Park.
But this year's SOSS conference went beyond inspiring participants to make the world more just. With the maturing of the Sisterhood, now four years old, chapters are considering how to begin the "difficult conversations" that require them to move out of their comfort zones, even to the point of being willing to criticize their coreligionists.
Letty Cottin Pogrebin, founding editor of Ms. Magazine, encouraged chapters to grapple with what she called "the elephant in the room, Israel-Palestine relations."
"You have to be able to hear each other's narrative without feeling like you are losing yourself," she said. "Listening with curiosity is not the same as being converted.... Yom Ha'Atzmaut and the Nakba — you have to be able to hold both in your mind."
Olitzky, however, preached patience, and encouraged SOSS members to wait until they have developed the requisite skills before they rush into those conversations.
"You avoid the complicated discussions until you're ready to listen with your heart and not your ears," she said. "You are seeing the world through your sisters' eyes, learning about the commonalities. As you develop those relationships, then you start entering into the things where you are different."
Just by having these discussions, people run the risk of being considered traitors to their own people or religion.
But conference speaker, Ingrid Mattson, an Islamic studies scholar and interfaith activist, told participants that with the current anti-Muslim and anti-Semitic undertones today, "it is necessary to pull away from comfort of our own group and take risks, to progress and become strong so we can return and rectify the wrongs."
Deborah Wohl, who lives in South Orange and belongs to Bnai Keshet in Montclair, attended a workshop on faith and friendship in an age of extremism. Leading the discussion were Dr. Yehuda Kurtzer, president of the Shalom Hartman Institute of North America, and Imam Abdullah Antepli, a senior fellow in Jewish-Muslim Relations at the Institute and the co-director of its Muslim Leadership Initiative, a formal educational program that allows North American Muslims to explore how Jews understand Judaism, Israel, and Jewish peoplehood. Wohl said she was struck by "the openness" of Antepli.
"What this program does is allow people to be very honest about the strengths and weaknesses of each faith and culture," she said.
At one point Antepli shared an important realization he reached through the initiative: "When I said, 'I am not an anti-Semite, I am anti-Zionist and anti-Israel,' that that was thinly masked anti-Semitism became apparent."
At the end of the conference, participants said they were inspired to take actions both to effect change and to better understand each other. Lawrenceville resident Beverly Rubman, a member of the new Princeton-Somerset chapter (which, she said, still has room for a few more members), said, "Everything in the conference was positive — a feeling that in this world we Jewish and Muslim women matter, and we will stand together in solidarity, and that we are going to spread that message — not just protecting ourselves and those inner worlds of learning and sharing, but all those rings going out to bring that message of solidarity to more and more people."