Muslim and Jewish Women Celebrate Sisterhood
There are those who would not consider a place safe that accommodates only Jews and Muslims, but creating a safe space was all in a day’s work for the 500 participants of this year’s annual Sisterhood of Salaam Shalom Muslim & Jewish Women Leadership Conference (SOSS), held on December 4 at Drew University in Madison, N.J.
“We want to explore the power of a safe space, a space where there is a need to listen, a space that expresses the power of sisterhood,” said SOSS Co-Founder and Executive Director Sheryl Olitzky, setting the stage as she opened the conference that she called “the largest gathering to wage peace of Jewish and Muslim women in the U.S.”
Taking place less than a month after the American presidential elections, Olitzky noted that the demand for SOSS has swelled in recent days as the conference sold out and 250 women wait to be placed in chapters around the country. “Regardless of what side you’re on, what political party you represent, we are here to heal,” Olitzky said. Building on the energy in the room, she got a roar of affirmation from the record 500 attendees—up from 200 last year—to the question: “We are here to say ‘no’ to a registry for Muslims in this country. My Jewish sisters, do I have your commitment to that?” And an equally positive response to her second question: “Our Muslim sisters, do I have your commitment to say ‘no’ to Anti-Semitism?”
Started in 2010 by Olitzky and Rutgers University professor Atiya Aftab as a single chapter in Central New Jersey, SOSS has grown to 50 chapters across the country—from Los Angeles to Houston to Washington, D.C.—and is clearly filling a need.
“We want [Jewish and Muslim] women who crave to meet each to be able to do so,” Aftab, who is an attorney, told the attendees, adding that she thinks the group’s power is in the inherent inclusiveness of sisterhood. “We believe that Arab-Israeli conflict resolution groups were not successful because they were based on the idea of conflict. That doesn’t work in the current political climate. We prefer creating a comfortable environment where women can talk about difficult things.”
That approach was on view in abundance throughout the day’s program, which featured morning and afternoon breakout sessions that, among a host of other topics, included joint biblical and Koranic text study; strategies for preventing extremist narratives and bullying; and one entitled “How to Use Self Defense When We Are Vulnerable.”
The closing event literally brought the day’s agenda full circle when participants marched the perimeter of the university’s gymnasium in silence and then held hands to sing about peace, letting down their guard in the safe space sisterhood had created.
“We’re women together, Muslim and Jewish, standing in a circle,” explained an emotional Kay Halpern from Silver Spring, Md. “We’re looking to create a tipping point toward harmony so we can all move forward together, relishing our differences and taking pride in what we have in common.”
For Nancy Moustafa, Halpern’s friend and fellow Washington, D.C.-chapter member, the conference was above all a place to re-charge her batteries: “This is an opportunity for women peacemakers to connect and use their nurturing energy to help heal the battle scars before we go back out for the next round.”