Muslim And Jewish Women Formed A Soliarity Movement To Stand Against Religious Bigotry

If we only listened to the narratives from politics and news media, it’s normal to assume we would think people of different faith backgrounds cannot intermingle or even work together for a common good. Thank goodness we have stories of people doing just the opposite, all over the world.

One of the most inspiring inter-faith stories we reference is the work of Christian and Muslim women in Liberia who, under the leadership of activist Leymah Gbowee and a number of others, managed to unite in force, help end a devastating civil war and bring down dictator Charles Taylor. Their bold action also led to the country electing its first female president Ellen Johnson Sirleaf.

It is important to talk about the positive steps people of faith are taking toward unity and understanding, especially at a time when we see so much division and hatred fueled by misinformation and political rhetoric. Here in the US, another group of ladies are proving that power in the hands of women can lead to incredible outcomes. Collectively they are called the Sisterhood of Salaam Shalom, and as the name suggests, they bring together Muslim and Jewish women in an effort to bring peace and solidarity in their communities.

The group was started by Sheryl Olitzky and Atiya Aftab in 2010. They began with a mere dozen women in New Jersey, and to date they have thousands of members joining their cause across the United States and Canada. On the SOSS website, Sharon shared how a trip to Poland in 2010 was the spark that made her realize how different types of people are demonized, when understanding and dialog is absent.

“I left Poland knowing that I had to do my part to stop hate and negative stereotypes. It was the hate of the ‘other’ that created the devastation of the Holocaust. The Talmud (oral law) asks, ‘Who is a hero?’ and answers ‘One who makes one’s enemy into a friend.’ The Rabbis communicated that it’s possible to change people’s attitudes and that it is desirable to strive to do so. I knew I had to change attitudes,” she wrote.

In a guest op-ed for ReligionNews.com, Sheryl also says SOSS is the only national organization of its kind among Jewish and Muslim communities in the US, making their work even more important. The chapters are growing in number as well as in type. They recently launched teen groups and are also adding professional-focused groups to the movement.

Sheryl explains how the election of Donald Trump in November 2016 and the shocking number of anti-Muslim, anti-Jewish rhetoric and violence caused them to double-down on their efforts to promote peace and stand against misconceptions about the two faith communities.

“When SOSS began some years prior to the last national election, there was no way to envision the magnitude of anti-Muslim and anti-Jewish sentiment that surrounds us. The rise in religious bigotry in the United States is also troubling to confront because of the perception that Jews and Muslims are very different from one another and just don’t get along. My experience over the past seven years shows this couldn’t be further from the truth. The so-called ‘Trump effect’ has brought Muslim and Jewish communities together in new ways,” she wrote.

The “forced advocacy” in response to Trump is pretty much the only positive thing relating to his election, and it is heartening to see how ordinary people are rising up to do the extraordinary in their communities. SOSS has a number of outreach efforts including social media campaigns, making space for dialog with people who may not know about the Muslim or Jewish faiths, to joining anti-hate rallies and helping to repair desecrated synagogues and mosques that have become the target of violence.

In addition to their ongoing work, SOSS members convene at an annual conference where they get to tap into a larger inter-faith support network and learn skills to deal with hatred and bigotry. The most recent conference saw 650 attendees and is said to be the largest gathering of Muslim and Jewish women ever in the US. The theme in 2017 was “Rising Up Against Hate”, an appropriate focus given the culture we are seeing right now.

Similar to the way Christian and Muslim women in Liberia proved working together makes for a stronger, more formidable force, the SOSS women have been proving to critics that their focus on breaking down misconceptions in the name of peace does in fact have the ability to change minds.

“A recent study conducted by Civil Politics, a team of university-based researchers, indicated that four out of five women who join become more dedicated to speaking out against hate and also more committed to protecting the stranger. The study also found that nine out of 10 members are proud to tell others about their experience,” said Sheryl.

Their growth alone shows how dire the need is for more similar types of organizations and gatherings in order to dismantle harmful narratives about the ‘other’. This kind of action could be used among so many different types of communities, not just religious ones.

Sheryl says they have proven that when you bring together women from two different faith traditions that have hardly anything to do with each other typically, you can create something that is much greater than just the individual.

“Women navigate the world through relationships. The relationships that are built by bringing together Muslim and Jewish women, who share so many practices and beliefs, are life-changing and can help put an end to anti-Muslim and anti-Jewish sentiment. We influence family, friends and the general public about our strength in coming together to build bridges and fight hate, negative stereotyping and prejudice,” she said.

Change starts with each person being willing to go beyond their comfort zone and reaching out to those who perhaps they would normally not associate with. There is something inspiring each of us could learn from SOSS, whether you are religious or not: that we have the power to break down barriers and fill the world with more peace, love and understanding. Not just in a cheesy way, but in real tangible steps.

You can learn more about the Sisterhood of Salaam Shalom on their website, and in the video below where co-founders  Sheryl Olitzky and Atiya Aftab sat down with ‘Today’ show host Megyn Kelly:

 

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