Women form sisterhood to celebrate religious differences

Photo Courtesy of Sheryl Olitzky
Members of the Essex County chapter of Sisterhood of Salaam Shalom gather at a recent event. The nonprofit organization, founded by Sheryl Olitzky, has grown to more than 150 chapters that bring together Muslim and Jewish women to form bonds and combat intolerance.

ESSEX COUNTY, NJ — A national organization dedicated to forming bonds between Jewish and Muslim women is looking to start a few new chapters in Essex County.

The Sisterhood of Salaam Shalom already has one local chapter, but co-founder Sheryl Olitzky said she wants to create two to four more in response to the demand the nonprofit has seen from area women. Olitzky said numerous Jewish women already have their names on the waiting list, though the organization would love to see more Muslim women become involved. And she certainly hopes they will, pointing out that having more women join means more barriers can be broken down between two faiths traditionally thought of as being opposed.

“When you care about someone, it’s really hard to hate them,” Olitzky told EssexNewsDaily in a May 5 phone interview. “My goal was to build these relationships all over the country between Muslim and Jewish women. That’s how we would not only change attitudes, perceptions and negative stereotypes toward each other in our community, but work to stop the hate we see that’s out there. And that’s exactly what we’ve achieved.”

Olitzky said the SOSS has allowed women in its 150 chapters throughout the United States and Canada to form strong friendships with people they might never have met otherwise. On top of that, she said these women are standing together against hate through means such as repairing desecrated synagogues and holding peace vigils. A recent gathering of New Jersey Sisterhood chapters in Chatham saw hundreds of members come together in response to President Donald Trump’s travel ban on several largely Muslim nations.

Clearly the organization has come a long way from the initial group of 12 women Olitzky gathered seven years ago. But the founder has never doubted the Sisterhood’s power. Olitzky, who started the nonprofit organization after seeing the effects of hate during a visit to Holocaust museums in Poland, said being part of the SOSS is simply “electrifying.”

“You’re there with the common goal of wanting to change the world,” Olitzky said. “You feel full of hope. You feel the positive energy when you realize that you share more in common with these women than with many women you have as your friends and you associate with. And you are sharing your stories, your concerns and your experiences in a format that you probably haven’t had a chance to (experience before).”

That format entails the following three aspects: socialization, social justice and dialogue. Socialization occurs through the celebration of holidays, while social justice involves doing charity work. Olitzky said each chapter supports a local cause in addition to helping less fortunate Christians around Christmas time as part of a national SOSS effort.

For dialogue, Olitzky said the Sisterhood provides a curriculum spanning everything from feeling like “the other” to raising children in the modern world to practicing one’s faith in the workplace. She said chapters are asked to wait two years before discussing Israeli-Palestinian relations so that all members will be more likely to listen to one another “with their heart as opposed to their ears.” When that time comes, she said the SOSS provides a curriculum for that topic alone to help guide the conversation.

Of course, the relationships between SOSS members are not limited to the context of discussing major issues during their monthly meetings. Hadiyah Finney, co-chairwoman of the existing Essex County chapter, said her members love to cook together and gather families together. In doing so, Finney said she has seen how similar everyone is despite their different religions. For instance, although she had never sat shiva, the Jewish ritual of mourning, when a Jewish member’s husband died and the member sat shiva, Finney said she was able to connect with her as someone who understands what it means to grieve.

Yet according to Finney, the friendships she has formed with the 15 other women in her chapter should not be defined by what they all have in common, saying their bonds go much deeper than that, to the point that she goes to her chapter for everything from recipes to life advice. And that is something any woman would want, she said.

“It provides so many different (benefits) when you develop a bond with a group of women,” Finney told EssexNewsDaily in a May 5 phone interview. “You just get so much inspiration from being with them, sharing in their experiences, sharing in their knowledge. I don’t think you can get that in another space.”

Fellow chapter member Miniimah Bilal-Shakir agreed that the group has truly lived up to its name as a sisterhood. Bilal-Shakir said she knows the women she has befriended through the organization would help her if she were ever in need, and she would do the same for them. In fact, she said she talks with one of the chapter members more frequently than her own sisters.

Beyond establishing those relationships, Bilal-Shakir said the SOSS has inspired her to speak out in favor of causes she supports. Whereas in the past she would simply become upset at what she saw on television, now she is willing to share her beliefs with others and take action. And she hopes other Jewish and Muslim women feel the same, considering President Donald Trump’s comments about Muslims and the recent bomb threats against Jewish community centers.

“It seems like things are flaring up,” Bilal-Shakir told EssexNewsDaily in a May 8 phone interview. “It’s important for us to stick together as two groups coming together as one. We need to support each other in the faith and in the things we do to make sure that there’s peace among us. Where people may talk negatively about you as a group, we need to make sure to bring out the positive.”

Finney also takes comfort in being part of the SOSS in today’s times. Though her faith has kept her from getting too upset by the president’s rhetoric, she said it is reassuring to be surrounded by friendly faces in the sisterhood.

“It helps to be in a space where you can say ‘There are likeminded people in the world,’” Finney said. “There are people who are fighting to make this a better place and to make our society comfortable and inclusive for everyone. And so having that space is a reminder that there is good in the world.”

To join the SOSS or to start a new chapter, visit https://sosspeace.org/.