Women waging peace

Women waging peace

Salaam/Shalom Sisterhood helps redefine Muslim/Jewish relations in Bergen

Sisterhood of Salaam/Shalom members prepare Christmas dinner for residents of the St. Paul’s Men’s Shelter in Paterson.
Sisterhood of Salaam/Shalom members prepare Christmas dinner for residents of the St. Paul’s Men’s Shelter in Paterson.

Is it necessary for American Jews and Muslims to look at each other with suspicion?

Yes, the political rhetoric in the supercharged air all around us pushes us in that direction. But is it true? Is it wise? Or would it be a good idea to test that idea by actually meeting each other?

What if those American Jews and Muslims were all women, coming together in small groups to talk honestly? To come to know each other? To do social action together? To see who they really are?

Almost 10 years ago, a Jewish woman and a Muslim woman started the first Sisterhood of Salaam/Shalom. Today, that Princeton-based group encourages local women to start their own groups, in their own living rooms, sharing their own experiences. Among the new groups spurred by the last year’s political upheaval is the one in Bergen County co-lead by Arwen Kuttner of Englewood and Reem Fakhry of Teaneck.

On Monday, group representatives went to the St. Paul’s Men’s Shelter in Paterson, where they cooked and served Christmas dinner to residents for what’s called Sadaqa/Tzedakah Day.

It’s not coincidental that the words “sadaqa” and “tzedakah,” which both mean justice and the obligation to reach for justice by giving charity and helping others, have similar sounds. They’re from the same roots, and it is toward those roots that the sisterhood aims.

“We have more in common than we realized,” Ms. Kuttner, who teaches special education at Yeshivat Noam in Paramus, said. “You can’t hate someone when you get to know them. So we are waging peace.”

Ms. Kuttner is Orthodox, and a member of Kehillat Kesher in Englewood. She’s also from Oregon, graduated from Oberlin College, “and a lot of what I do is influenced by my feminist values and my Jewish values,” she said.

She was spurred to join the Sisterhood of Salaam/Shalom — or to create it herself if necessary — in January. “It was after the election, after I got to the point where I could stop crying about it, one of the many things on my mind was that I was thinking about how I didn’t want to be seen as part of a group that either could hurt others or that could be hurt,” she said. “I could have gone in any number of directions, but I have a friend who is very involved in interfaith stuff, and he told me about Salaam/Shalom.

“I wrote to them — they said they had hundreds of people writing the same thing — and eventually a group of us who were in the same geographic area said okay, let’s start a chapter.”

Actually, it was Ms. Kuttner herself who said the thing about starting a chapter. “It was the last thing I needed, a new thing to do,” she said; it’s far more comfortable to wait for someone else to do it. But she offered her house for the first meeting, “and by the end I was a co-leader.”

There is a handbook about how to start a group; there are so many sensibilities involved, so many potential minefields, that care is necessary. The basic structure, Ms. Kuttner said, is that the participants — 10 to 12 is the ideal number, big enough to include a range of voices, but small enough to be intimate — go around the circle and talk. “It’s about getting to know each other,” she said.

“And a lot of it has to do with listening skills.

“We learn things like not to say ‘Jews do this.’ Instead, we say, ‘In my house, we do this.’ You learn to speak for yourself, not for the group. It’s a good practical skill.”

The group includes women of a range of ages and religious backgrounds. Some of the Jewish women are Orthodox, and others are not; at least one is entirely secular.

That’s Vera Golubkova, who lives in Cliffside Park. Ms. Golubkova grew up in Russia, where her ties to Jewish life were both fragile and uncomfortable. She feels herself a bit of an outsider in the group, she said, although she is welcomed with warmth. “I am pretty much learning as much about Judaism as I am about Islam,” she said. “It has been fascinating.

“And it is music to my ears to see both sides, Jews and Muslims, come together and say such positive things.”

She also has learned about the similarities between Judaism and Islam. Take interest, she said. “I never knew that when they loan money, Jews are not supposed to charge interest to Jews, and it is the same thing for Muslims lending to Muslims,” she said. “It’s a little thing, but it’s fascinating.”

Like Ms. Kuttner, Ms. Golubkova felt that the presidential election propelled her into this group. “The night of the election, I went to mosques and left flowers and candy,” she said. “I felt that Muslims were being ostracized, and I couldn’t think of any other way to make them feel less ostracized than to do that.”

Similarly, the Salaam/Shalom Sisterhood is a way to show solidarity, as well as to grow to feel it, she said. “I know that by definition, the group’s members are more open-minded than most in our community.” So it’s a necessary step to do such things as cook and serve at a homeless shelter, with the group, on Christmas Eve. “It’s important for us to show what we are doing,” she said. “If we only sit behind closed doors, we’re not showing anything. We must show our group doing something positive.”

Asma Ali of Wyckoff is a member of the Salaam/Shalom Sisterhood. “Our group is still young, we are still forming, but I see that some of the work that’s been done already has formed some really strong bonds,” she said.

She sees two parts to the work that both matter greatly; not only are the participants Jews and Muslims who make a conscious decision to trust each other, and to grow that trust, but that all the participants are women. “Women are usually the ones who change the world,” Ms. Ali said. “We have a different kind of leadership, based on what our families need.

“What is important to us is to grow our communities with that kind of leadership. It is absolutely crucial to the survival of our families and our communities.”

Ms. Ali grew up in Wyckoff from the time she was 14, a member of one of the few Muslim families in town. After moving to Houston and starting a family there, she, her husband, and their three young children moved back to her hometown when his career brought them back east. “We ended up buying a house next to my parents,” she said. “My kids were in elementary school then.” Now, the youngest is in high school, where some of the people who taught her now teach her daughter.

She’s always felt a kinship with the Jewish families around whom she grew up, Ms. Ali said. When she became a public-school parent, she realized that she had a problem that the Jewish community already had confronted and largely solved. What to do about Muslim holidays?

“I was talking to one of my oldest friends, who is Jewish, and I said ‘I wish I could figure out a way to get my kids out of school for Eid,’ and she said ‘You need to take your kids out those days.’ It’s the same thing as for Jewish holidays.”

Her friend, Ms. Ali continued, was in public school in Englewood, “and she said she remembers her parents petitioning the school board to have those holidays off.”

The Muslim community in Bergen County is far smaller and newer than the local Jewish community, Ms. Ali said, and can learn a great deal about how to flourish from the Jewish example. “And it’s nice to have a community of Jewish sisters who understand the process, because they have been there.

“My kids really can relate, because we are a smaller subset. We have unique holidays and different traditions from the larger norm. Take Christmas. It was always the Jewish kids who didn’t celebrate Christmas, and who would always talk among themselves at school about how they knew that Santa Claus wasn’t real, but they had to be sure that they didn’t let their Christian friends know that.

“They had different traditions, and they were able to understand, with compassion, about someone else’s traditions.

“We have so many more similarities than we have dissimilarities,” Ms. Ali said. “We have to understand and embody that, because we have so much that is shared.

“There is very little that should be dividing us.”

Ms. Ali’s daughter, Aisha, is her youngest child, and “she is my activist,” her mother said. Sixteen-year-old Aisha, a sophomore at Ramapo High School, is a member of the Salaam/Shalom Sisterhood.

“I won’t lie to you,” Aisha said. “I definitely went to the first meeting because my mom dragged me to it.” Now, though, she goes because she wants to. “I really enjoy talking and listening to the different perspectives,” she said. “I think that hearing the Jewish perspective on different aspects of tradition and family life and culture, I realize that often it is so similar to my own.”

She’s particularly struck by the role food plays in both cultures. “They were saying that they cook the same foods every holiday. We do that too.” Religious observance is another, perhaps deeper shared thread. “I have a lot of Christian friends at school, and they don’t observe their religion nearly as much as I do.

“So when I heard the perspective of the Jewish women, I realized that many of them practice as much as I do. So their lives are more similar to my life.”

Does Aisha identify more with the group’s youngest members, the high school-age daughters, even though they are Jewish? Or does she identify more with the Muslim women her mother’s age? “It depends,” she said reasonably. “It depends on what we are talking about.

“If we are talking about tradition, I probably relate more to people my own age. In terms of different practices and feelings, I probably relate more to Muslim women.

“It’s a very fluid conversation,” Aisha said.

She is not recruiting more members for her own Salaam/Shalom Sisterhood, Ms. Kuttner said. It’s reached a good size now, and its members have begun to weave a strong web of trust and friendship. But there is another group forming in the county, and of course women are encouraged to start their own. There’s information about how to do so at the national organization’s website, sosspeace.org.

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