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What’s a Nice Chabad Girl Doing at a Jewish-Muslim Interfaith Conference?


As I traveled from Brooklyn to downtown Philadelphia earlier this month, I didn’t quite know what I was getting myself into. Here I was, an Orthodox girl from a staunchly Chabad family, on my way to the Muslim-Jewish Women’s Leadership Conference, the inaugural event of a growing organization, the Sisterhood of Salaam Shalom (SOSS). It would be the first conference of its kind in the Unites States specifically for women, and also my very first involvement with an interfaith program.

Growing up in a strictly observant community in Australia, interfaith work was mostly shunned and viewed as somewhat dangerous, but also pointless. My home was essentially anti-Zionist in ideology, yet vigorously supportive of Israel in practice. I attended a decidedly Zionist, right-wing school. This all left me a little confused as to my own political proclivities—and living and studying in Israel as an adult only served to further confuse me. Right-wing, with a touch of disillusionment? Left-wing, with a lot more heart and less apologetics?

But while my love for Israel has always been boundless, it hasn’t much been challenged. I tend to steer clear of political debates, and I’m usually surrounded by people who follow the pro-Israel, all-Israel line.

One thing my school did leave me with was a thorough knowledge of the history of the state of Israel and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict (at least from an Israeli perspective), and, along with it, a hearty dose of skepticism about the possibility of a lasting peace in the region.

So when Sheryl Olitsky, the Executive Director of SOSS, called me a few months ago inviting me to the inaugural conference, I didn’t know what to say. On the one hand I was excited about this new opportunity. Then, as I imagined my family’s collective gasp and the closing rolodexes of every shadchan (matchmaker) in Chabad, I thought no, there’s no way I can attend. I hemmed and hawed until I got the green light from a Chabad rabbi who told me that although the Lubavitcher Rebbe had warned against getting into interfaith debates on theology or religion, he was supportive of endeavors that focused on building civil and economic goodwill across communities.

So, on the bitterly cold Sunday of November 2, with the rabbi’s blessing ringing in my ears, I traveled to Temple University where the conference was being held. As scores of spandex-clad runners braved the wind to get to Staten Island for the starting line of the New York Marathon, I headed further uptown to catch the train to downtown Philly.

As I sat on the train, I pondered my reasons for participating. Was I anxious? Not really. Hopeful? Nope. Curious? Absolutely. My curiosity is what finally swayed me, along with the excitement of participating in an event run solely by and for women.

Four hours and a Subway, Amtrak, bus and cab later, I arrived at Temple University. (The conference was organized in conjunction with the Foundation for Ethnic Understanding and the Dialogue Institute of Temple University.) When I entered the hall, the attendees—about 100 women in total, wearing hijabs, abayas, pants, and skirts—were already forming groups around tables, getting acquainted. I sat between a Sufi convert in her 60s, garbed in an intricately detailed pale green abaya and headscarf, and a more secular, bubbly, young Muslim woman on my left.

It was confronting to realize that though I’ve interacted with Muslims many times—on the light-rail in Jerusalem, in the halls of Hebrew University, haggling over produce in the shuk (market)—I’d never had a proper, in-depth conversation with anyone of the faith.

Yet, here we were, chatting like old friends, complaining about the blustering wind outside, and the commute from who-knows-where America.

Sheryl Olitzky founded the SOSS in 2011 after a trip to Poland in the early 2000s, where she was horrified to witness high levels of outspoken hatred directed at all other ethnic groups. “The hate was incredible and targeted towards anyone considered ‘non-Pole’,” she explained. “It spread to anyone gay, lesbian, Jewish, black, Muslim, Asian—anyone considered ‘other’.”

She returned to the United States, convinced that she had to do something to dispel the hate. She decided to begin close to home and turned to her local community which had fairly large Muslim and Jewish communities. While there were no overt negative feelings between the two groups, she says, there was little interaction at all.

Olitzky contacted a local Imam who put her in touch with Atiya Aftab, an adjunct professor at Rutgers University’s Department of Political Science, who now sits on the Sisterhood’s board. Together, they recruited a group of about 12 women—half Muslim, half Jewish—to get together for monthly discussions. Thus began the pilot program for what has now grown into a network of ten chapters across the East Coast and Midwest.

Linda Tondow was part of the pioneering chapter and now sits on the Sisterhood’s Advisory Board. She says that she always had an interest in interfaith work and it seemed to align with her professional work as the president of her local conservative synagogue, Congregation Anshe Emeth of Highland Park, NJ.

Tondow says the women would bond over common issues such as parenting and the practice of religion in their communities. They shared their concerns over sending their children to religious school, and the accompanying rules regarding attire and modesty. “The issues were really the same, even if the venues may have been different,” she said. She hosted the group for Sukkot, and joined the Muslim members for Ramadan celebrations.

The SOSS doesn’t recommend tackling political discussions until the groups have been meeting for a long time and are comfortable with one another. Once solid friendships have been formed, they then provide workshops to facilitate conversations around hot-button issues such as the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

But for most of the members, the goal is not to win a political debate. “I personally never went in wanting to change people’s minds on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict,” said Tondow. “I went in wanting to know what some of our similarities are… and to create bonds and relationships which are really critical for understanding.”

And if anyone has the skills to build these kinds of relationships, Olitzky believes it’s women: “Women are much more effective at forming relationships [than men], just based on how their brains are wired.” She and Aftab based the chapter model on Gordon W. Allport’s Intergroup Contact Theory, which argues that by forming close relationships with people from a different group, your views on the group as a whole can be changed.

With virtually no promotion or marketing other than word-of-mouth, these groups have proved increasingly popular. This year the Sisterhood is expanding to Minneapolis and Kansas City, and women in many more cities have expressed interest in forming local chapters of their own.

The organization wants to bring the skills acquired by members in local chapters to a larger audience around the country, and the conference at Temple University marked their first foray into a larger initiative. Panels were hosted by renowned scholars and activists such as Blu Greenberg, co-founder of the Jewish Orthodox Feminist Alliance; Daisy Khan, the executive director of the American Society for Muslim Advancement; and Rabia Chaudry of Serial podcast fame—who is also the president of the Safe Nation Collaborative.

The workshops and panels delved into more theoretical discussions on how to strengthen ties of communication and cooperation between the two faith groups, but also touched on practical tips such as how to use social media for peace.

While many attendees expressed great satisfaction with the event, calling it “invigorating” and “beyond fabulous,” some thought there was a concerted effort to steer clear of the more contentious topics.

Jessica Deutsch, a 23-year-old recent college graduate from New York, attended the conference hoping the conversation would delve a little deeper.

“Everyone acknowledges that with interfaith dialogue there are elephants [in the room] that need to be addressed,” she said. “I didn’t feel like these were really spoken of at all. The focus seemed to be more about learning about the other and through that creating a hopeful future, which is beautiful, but I thought we would confront the more uncomfortable topics as well.”

But as with their chapters, SOSS doesn’t encourage this sort of heated discussion on a larger scale until a strong bond has been formed. “Once you have built the trust and respect, then you can have those discussions, and they are very productive,” said Olitzky.

Internally, I breathed a sigh of relief. I wasn’t interested in getting into political debates. I’m more than happy to leave that to the experts in D.C. And while I really enjoyed meeting the other participants and learning about their lives, that came more from a curiosity about human nature than a determined belief that by doing so we’ll solve any big issues. Will I attend the conference next year, go on the peace mission trip in 2015, or get involved in the chapters that are soon to open up in New York? I still haven’t decided. One thing I do firmly believe is that there should be a stronger representation of Orthodox Jewish women in these kinds of initiatives. I was given one of only four kosher meals at the retreat, and I think it’s safe to say I was the only ultra-Orthodox Jew in the room. There seemed to be more religious diversity among the Muslim participants.

As I left the hall with a friend, we bumped into a young woman wearing a long black abaya and hijab. Israa* looked to be in her late teens or early twenties. We got to talking and she told us she was a refugee from Iraq who was seeking asylum in the United States with the help of some of the women at the event. She had come to America to study, but now her life was in danger should she return home. Her crime? Sharing pictures of her time in the U.S. online.

Traveling back to New York, I found myself reflecting on that young woman’s perilous journey. We may not have solved the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, but perhaps there other, more tangible progress was being made. The women I met—Olitsky and Aftab, and all the panelists and participants—are working in their own way to promote goodwill and positivity in a political climate that can often feel clouded and despairing. When I reflect back on the event, I don’t think first of what was discussed at the workshops, but rather the people I met and the warm, friendly, hopeful atmosphere that pervaded.

*Last name redacted.

Australian native Miriam Groner is a blogger and writer living in New York. Follow her on Twitter at @Mim_G.

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