Photo credit: Judit German-Heins. Clasped Jewish and Muslim hands at Sisterhood of Salaam Shalom 10th Annual
Conference, Rutgers University, New Brunswick. November 2023.

A Jewish-Muslim Solidarity Group Faces a Fractured Moment

This post has been updated and corrected to reflect input from leadership at Sisterhood of Salaam Shalom. Please read their collected historical statements on Israel and Palestine programming here.

Sometimes you have to be open to the possibility of irrational, unexpected joy. Despite everything.

After October 7, I thought my little eight-person chapter of the Sisterhood of Salaam Shalom might be facing its end. As a local branch of a national organization we were four Jewish women and four Muslim women. We had been meeting for four years, first in person then, post-Covid, on Zoom. The organization’s grassroots model looks like this: Jewish and Muslim women come together to get to know each other, and then stand up against prejudice together. Each chapter needs a Jewish and a Muslim co-chair. 

One of the cardinal rules of the Sisterhood is to avoid the third rail of Jewish-Muslim blow-ups – Israel-Palestine. When I joined the Sisterhood of Salaam Shalom, the guideline was that Israel-Palestine was not be discussed until we’d been together for at least two years, and then only in person. IN 2020, the Sisterhood added Israel-Palestine to its agenda. About six months ago, one of my group’s members suggested it was time to talk. But when she wasn’t at the next meeting, we tabled it. 

Then came October 7, followed by our October Zoom chapter meeting. All the Jewish members showed up (one on Zoom from Japan). Only one of our Muslim sisters – our chapter’s Muslim co-chair – was present. I fretted. After all, this crisis is why I thought the Sisterhood of Salaam Shalom was founded. Our co-chair, a Pakistani trained in crisis management, spoke of her family trauma from the bloody India-Pakistan Partition. (None of us drew any concrete lessons for an Israel-Palestine two-state solution.)

We canceled the November meeting. Instead, I attended the Sisterhood’s 10th annual conference that month at Rutgers University in New Brunswick, NJ, with a turnout of 165 in person and another 75 online. Regional West Coast and Midwest conferences had been canceled since, I was told, “People are not ready.” It felt like a disheartening outcome for an organization devoted to Jewish-Muslim friendship and peace, starting with women. 

The Sisterhood, started in 2010, was the brainchild of one Jew and one Muslim, Sheryl Olitzky and Atiya Aftab.  According to the national office, it currently numbers some 2,500 chapter members in 100 chapters in 30-plus states and 2,500 members at large, with a small presence in Toronto and Berlin. Social media attracts some 5,000 followers on the Sisterhood Facebook page and some 9,400 followers in its global Facebook group. It’s now in its second generation of leadership. Roberta Elliott, long-time journalist covering Jewish issues is president of the board and Tahija Vikalo, a Bosniak survivor of genocide, is executive director.

At the recent conference, a Bosniak keynoter brought tears to our eyes recounting her childhood experience of being told by her beloved teacher, “Go home, children. Your Christian classmates have abandoned you.” After that, a Jewish sister took the mic to attack the speaker for not singling out the atrocities of Hamas. A group of Jewish women rushed to surround their Jewish sister with support. Away from the mic, she said she loves her South Jersey chapter but feels she’s being torn in two. She deeply opposes the national Sisterhood’s becoming more political, saying, “All I want from this group is to meet other Muslim sisters.” This was surely a moment when the newly minted graduates of the Sisterhood’s training in deep dialogue on difficult issues would have been just what we needed.  I’m hoping one of them will be at our future chapter meeting. 

Since the conference,  the organization has shifted its positioning. A statement from Elliott and Vikalo now calls the organization Sisterhood of Salaam Shalom: Women for Peace and calls for “the immediate and permanent cessation of all violence. … The only way forward is through robust negotiations leading toward the end of the Occupation and a political/diplomatic solution to the conflict itself.”

In the months since the October chapter meeting and then since the conference, each day’s news feels more shocking. I’ve had plenty of time to try to speak to my chapter sisters and connect on WhatsApp with friends from past Sisterhood trips to Auschwitz, Morocco, the US-Mexican border, US civil rights sites. 

Personal conversations have been intense and frustrated – Muslims feeling Jews don’t understand their fears of America’s hatred of Muslims. Jews concerned with Israel, the hostages, the Hamas murder victims, and antisemitism. I keep trying to hold onto the mantra of a guide from our Berlin-Auschwitz trip, Dr. Mehnaz Afridi, the Muslim director of the Holocaust, Genocide and Interfaith Education Center at Manhattan College in New York City. Her oft-repeated words: “This is not an Olympics of suffering.” And now in Gaza, I ask myself – Is it war? Is it genocide? Is it Israel’s fight for existence? Are we in a room full of invisible, unacknowledged ancestors weighing on all of us?

Back to the third rail – Israel-Palestine, the “situation” too dangerous for sisters to approach. But on the Sisterhood’s 2020 pre-Covid trip to the Mexican-Arizona fortified border, how could Israel’s walls in the West Bank and Gaza not be reckoned with? In a debriefing, Muslims and Jews expressed our feelings about Israel’s policies. The Sisterhood’s Muslim co-founder was amazed and moved to hear Jewish women speak not just of our attachment to Israel but, for many of us, our deep opposition to the Israeli government’s West Bank and Gaza policies. What had taken us so long to speak out? Yes, the danger of chapter blowups was real but maybe silence was just as lethal.

With the October 7 Hamas carnage and Israel’s murderous response, our Sisterhood chapter had no previous tough conversations to fall back on. Now members were saying, “Wait till it’s over to talk.” I had expected a response similar to the Muslim sisters who stood with us at the entrance to Auschwitz and said: “We’re here to support you.” Or at least, post October 7, both Muslims and Jews saying, “I feel your pain and I need you to feel mine.” That didn’t happen. Maybe our chapter connections weren’t all that deep, especially since we stopped meeting in person. 

Then came our December chapter meeting with only half our little membership present – two Jews and two Muslims. We were there to discuss the future of our chapter, not the future of Israel and Palestine. I thought this might be the end.  

“Pain has no face and no body,” our Pakistani co-chair tells us over Zoom. She speaks from her own physical pain throughout her body and the pain of the abused women she works with. “I’m still in pain, but you can’t see it.” This is her answer when friends ask how she’s always smiling. The realm of the invisible is where our little group needs to go. 

She describes her mirror exercises, telling her reflection: “You are brave. You are beautiful. God is with you. Allah is with you. If you want to cry, cry. Don’t be afraid. Go! Go!”  That and the words of wisdom of the Qaran’s Surah Rahman calling us to see the wonders of God’s creation. We can all relate to her telling us: “We are facing a lot. We are thinking too much. Feeling too much. Sometimes overthinking.”

Our African-American sister, now with the joys of her newborn grandson in Georgia, tells us that her breathing meditation after early morning prayer helps her relax. Writing in her journal, time with the baby, hearing the birds, feeling the breeze blowing, and dancing – tap, jitterbug, ballet, just moving. Inspiration comes for her poetry. And daily gratitude. After her husband’s death in the early days of Covid, amazingly she remained a tower of strength and gratitude. “If we are laughing, singing, crying, we are still young. We don’t want to be dead in our life.”

All four of us are unexpectedly feeling joy.

The other Jewish sister present besides myself is a rocket scientist (retired) who grew up in a household with Hungarian-born Holocaust survivors with numbers on their arms. She extracts the non-rational brain functions of music, poetry to bring us to a deeper understanding: “The idea that we should not discuss anything until we’re ready is very powerful. We have to pick up the pieces and find a way forward.”  

And there are more pieces than ever to pick up. As the new Jewish co-chair of our chapter, I send out the sad email telling our little group that the imam of one of our New Jersey Sisterhood members has been murdered outside his mosque in Newark. I include information on donating to the mosque’s fundraiser to update its surveillance cameras. 

So what will we discuss at our next meeting? I’m going to suggest we talk about whether we’ve personally experienced any antisemitism and Islamophobia post October 7. We’ll only speak of our own experience – as Jews, as Muslims. I’m not counting on the reappearance of unexpected joy but it’s a chance for us to support each other.

Amen. Ameen.


Photo credit: Judit German-Heins. Clasped Jewish and Muslim hands at Sisterhood of Salaam Shalom 10th Annual Conference, Rutgers University, New Brunswick. November 2023.