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Sisterhood of Salam Shalom Changing the world, one Jewish and one Muslim woman at a time

The local group of Sisterhood of Salaam Shalom had its inaugural meeting at the end of October. Shown at that first gathering are Hadas Moshonov (from left); Sarah Aptilon; Fatima Chaudhri; Sheila Sonnenschein, a national advisory board member of Salaam Shalom; Allison Berey; Inas Younis, local co-leader; Founder and Executive Director Sheryl Olitzky; Farah Jafri and Vicky Kulikov, co-leader.

Jewish people — as evidenced by many, many events this year, even in our area — are no strangers to hate. Muslims face a lot of hate as well. Some Jewish and Muslim women are coming together as part of the Sisterhood of Salaam Shalom, to move toward peace and away from hate by learning and understanding more about each other. Recently a local chapter of Sisterhood of Salaam Shalom formed and had its first meeting.

 

The local co-leaders are Vicky Kulikov, a Jew, and Inas Younis, a Muslim. The group is intentionally small so they can learn more about each other through intimate gatherings. It is made up of six Jewish women and six Muslim women. Across the country chapters range in size from 10 to 18 members.

The Sisterhood, as Founder and Executive Director Sheryl Olitzky often refers to the organization, was founded in 2010. With the launch of the Kansas City chapter, there are now 10 chapters across the country with another 10 on the horizon for 2015. Olitzky was here for the chapter’s October inaugural meeting.

The root meanings of the Hebrew word shalom and the Arabic word Salaam are the same — peace. Besides communicating peace, the organization’s name is meant to explain that it’s a group for Jewish and Muslim women.

The idea for such an organization — the only national organization that is just for Jewish and Muslim women — came to Olitzky following an eye-opening trip she took to Poland in 2010. She was not prepared for the enormity of hate she saw there, directed toward both Jews and Muslims. While there, she was told that “Poland is the best country in Europe because they do not have the Muslim problem because they don’t have Muslims there, they don’t allow them there.”

Olitzky knew she could never change the past, but after hearing those comments, she was committed to changing the future so it could be a better place for her five “precious grandchildren.”

She’s from an area of New Jersey that has a large population of both Muslims and Jews. She chose to start the group there because there was “absolutely no dynamics going on between the two faith groups.”

She decided to limit the group to Jews and Muslims because there has been interfaith work done in relations between Christians and Jews and Christians and Muslim, but very little had been done between these two faiths.

“We share so much in common starting with both being minorities in the United States and being minorities living in a Christian country,” Olitzky said. “You have to work at it if you want to be a Muslim or Jewish woman of faith, whereas it’s very easy to be a Christian woman of faith.”

She also chose to have this group celebrate women. 

“Our goal is to focus on building relationships and we believe that to do that women are the best people to do that. I like to say they navigate the world through relationships and I say that women are from Genesis, men are from Leviticus.”

“So if you want to make change based on relationship we let the women do it and then the men can follow along after.”

Olitzky said the Sisterhood’s goal is to “bring as many Muslim and Jewish women together in the United States as we can to build trust, respect and friendship.”

Members of the Sisterhood learn about each other’s commonalities as well as their differences

“Given that our goal is to really celebrate our commonalities together and to learn from each other about our differences, it made more sense to go where we have more commonality and that is between the Muslims and the Jews.”

The way the Sisterhood does that is by having these women meet in person. They participate in discussions, socialization, social action projects, and in activities to expand their knowledge of each other’s practices and beliefs with the goal of forming strong friendships. They also share meals together.

“It’s very important to break bread together,” Olitzky said. “We provide each chapter with the skills and the resources they need to engage in dialogue, to have different programs that involve socializations such as shared holidays, shared lifecycle events and to engage together in social action whether its food drives, clothing drives. We have a lot of film screenings that have to do with interfaith relations.”

Besides the local chapter meetings, which are scheduled approximately every four weeks, once a year the Sisterhood holds an annual conference. Both, Olitzky said, are ways to expose women to the skill sets they need so that they can go back to their own communities and be advocates of interfaith relationships. 

One thing the group does not do, Olitzky said, is focus on politics.

Olitzky sought out women in various communities to help get the Sisterhood up and running. Sheila Sonnenschein, who is now a member of the Sisterhood advisory board, was her first contact in this area. Sonnenschein eventually connected her with Kulikov and Younis.

Sonnenschein and Younis had met through another interfaith venture, People of Peace, which is made up of the Abrahamic faiths of Christianity, Jewish and Muslims and once every four weeks. In the short time Younis has been involved with the Sisterhood, she has been impressed by what she has seen.

“I think the beauty of this is that Jews are coming to the defense of Muslims and Muslims are coming to the defense of Jews,” Younis said.

Kulikov has been involved with interfaith groups before, having actually organized one just after 9/11. The very first time she met Younis, she immediately noticed their similarities.

“From the very first meeting with Inas, I felt an immediate connection to her, as if we’d known each other for quite some time. I am truly looking forward to continuing our work together with the new chapter and fostering an even deeper friendship,” Kulikov said.

Sometime next year, Olitzky hopes Jewish and Muslim women, even those who are not official members of Sisterhood of Salaam Shalom, will be able to take part in a peace mission where they will “go to an area of significance to the development ideally of Islam as well as Judaism.” It will be to Albania and Bosnia.

“In Albania we will be meeting with Muslims who saved Jews during World War II and we will understand where interfaith relations are today and where they are going. In Bosnia we will be meeting with the Jews who saved the Muslims during the genocide and understanding where interfaith relations are going there today,” Olitzky said.

Olitzky believes the Sisterhood’s approach is very successful.

“Our approach is based on the contact theory, which is based on the theory that if you form a relationship with one person of a different ethnic or faith group, that that relationship will shape your feelings toward others within that larger faith group or ethnic group. So my relationship with Inas will shape how I feel about other Muslims,” she explained.

“We believe it is very difficult to hate someone that you have a relationship with, so our goal is to build as many relationships as possible so we can get rid of hate,” she continued. “In developing these relationships, it’s our goal to stop or to get rid of anti-Muslim or anti-Jewish sentiment and we are frequently speaking out against that and doing community projects and programs about that.”

For more information, visit www.sosspeace.org.