If our Jersey sisterhood of Jews, Muslims can bond, so can the world | Opinion
By Heba Macksoud
Published March 8 2018
When I first heard about the Sisterhood of Salaam Shalom, it sounded strange to me: A few older Jewish women wanted to get together with a bunch of Muslim women in New Jersey to "get to know them."
Heba Macksoud with fellow Sisterhood of Salaam Shalom member Heather Ciociola in Trenton. The Siterhood is a Muslim-Jewish organization that focuses on building strong relationships between women to end anti-Muslim and anti-Jewish sentiment. (Photo courtesy of Heba Macksoud)()
I joined as one of the Muslim women. It was my first exposure to the Sisterhood, an organization focused on building relationships between Jewish and Muslim women in an effort to end anti-Muslim and anti-Jewish bigotry.
I had two sets of twins, aged four and 10, working full-time in Manhattan and running a full-time business, as well as volunteering. I was only ambivalent because the long-term goals seemed monumental. However, I absolutely needed to be part of it.
At Sisterhood meetings, we discuss our lives and stories in the comforts of each others' homes; I have learned that the Sisterhood of Salaam Shalom is built on a premise we can all learn from: the idea that simply sharing our stories with each other -- and empathizing with those of other faiths and backgrounds -- is the first step toward building a more peaceful world.
There is a big misconception that all Muslims and Jews do not get along because of the Palestine-Israel state of affairs, and that is simply false.
There are 1.7 billion Muslims in the world from over 50 majority-Muslim countries. There are almost the same number of Muslims as Jews in the U.S. (approximately 6 million) but less than 18 percent of Muslims are Arab and even less than half of that number are Palestinians.
I do not mean to minimize the importance or reverberating effects of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict -- only to point out that it is not the defining backdrop against which all Muslim-Jewish relations take place. The issue that actually unites me with Jewish people is the way we are sometimes vilified because of our faith.
Fighting anti-Semitism and Islamophobia is core to our mission.
That's why there are 26 chapters of the Sisterhood in New Jersey alone: starting on the local community level creates change that reverberates far beyond a single meeting or even a certain town.
For example, the Princeton chapter includes women from Lawrenceville, Princeton and East Windsor, but as more and women join, the chapters become more centralized for the town. The chapter leaders attend online meetings in order to share best practices and learn from each other. We have an annual conference where chapters from across the country -- and a few international ones -- get to meet in person.
My new friends and I are all from North Brunswick and South Brunswick, and the relationships we've created in the Sisterhood extend beyond the bounds of our discussions in meetings.
We have learned to participate in each other's traditions, met each other's families, and ultimately forced that boundary of other-ness to fall away. A few years ago, Sheryl, one of the founders as well as an observant Jew, hosted a Ramadan dinner (known as an iftar) for all the sisters and their families in her North Brunswick home. The experience blew me away.
Sisterhood of Saalam Shalom members Heba Macksoud, right, Sheryl Olitzky, center, right, Amaney Jamal in South Brunswick. (Courtesy Heba Macksoud)
She offered the most elaborate dinner I've ever seen, complete with custom stuffed dates and decorations. Her husband, a rabbi, invited us to pray our sundown prayer in his sanctuary room where he reads the Torah. The best part was to be able to share that experience with my husband and four kids: it taught my family how we should be as Muslims.
I often hear from people that they are not happy with the current state of divisiveness that has plagued our country, but they are not sure what they can do about it. The Sisterhood of Salaam Shalom has created a framework for women to bond together and then commit to resolving some of this hateful rhetoric. Simply being around others who, through the bond of friendship, can teach you about something you didn't know, offer advice, or provide an ear to listen is a start.
We have also all committed to doing at least one act of charity together every single year. Recently, my chapter made food and served people both at the men's and women's shelter at the Reformed Church in New Brunswick. The act of bonding together while doing something good and being visible to others while doing this was an incredible experience.
So this International Women's Day, let's look to the Sisterhood of Salaam Shalom as a model that all of us, no matter our background, can follow.
What begins as sharing sharing stories can transform into connections that transcend social divides and ultimately help chip away at bigotry and hatred. We can do nothing, or we can do something -- and I honestly believe this is a very powerful way to "wear someone's else's shoes" and see the world differently.
Heba Macksoud has spent over 20 years working at major media companies such as MTV and The Wall Street Journal as well as over four years at Zaytuna College, America's first and only Muslim Liberal Arts College as a Digital Media professional. She is also Board of Trustees member of The Islamic Society of Central Jersey in South Brunswick and on the Board of Directors for The Sisterhood of Salaam Shalom. She lives in Princeton with her husband and four children.
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