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When Dialogue is Not Enough

By Ruth Broyde Sharone

Growing Interfaith Roots

“Where do we see ourselves five years from now?” asked Jean, a founding member and frequent facilitator for the West Los Angeles Cousins Club, a group of Jewish and Muslim women.

We were celebrating our ninth anniversary in the lovely, art-filled home of Shayna, a Jewish founding member who is a therapist and an interfaith minister. The first ceremony of the evening took place at the beautifully appointed dining room table, draped with an elegant cinnamon-colored Indian paisley tablecloth. Each of us lit a small votive candle and intoned words of gratitude for the camaraderie, the sisterhood, the learning, and the interfaith intimacy we had enjoyed these many years.

Some women had been there from the start. Others have joined along the way. Half were Muslim, some hailing from as far away as Pakistan, India, France, and Indonesia. I found myself thinking about two other Muslim members, originally from Sudan and Syria, who had moved away. I miss them. Most of the Jewish women, all American-born, had relocated to California from New York, Iowa, Indiana, Wisconsin, and Illinois.

Regardless of our origin and our age, we all had one thing in common. We believed that the only way to make sense of and get beyond our collective pain and grief brought on by the 9/11 tragedy was dialogue. We decided to engage in monthly, one-on-one conversations. For some of the Jewish women it was the first time being at arm’s length from a Muslim. For some Muslim women it was the first time learning about Judaism from a Jew.

Whether we knew it or not, we had signed up for an intensive course in healing and reconciliation.

For nine years we’ve met in one another’s homes for potluck dinner and conversation. Our interests are far ranging: customs we practiced during our respective holidays, food restrictions (kosher and hallal), modesty in dress, even dating rituals. We shared in great detail our personal accounts of sacred pilgrimages: Muslim women spoke about their life-changing “haj” to Mecca, and Jewish women spoke about standing and crying at the Western Wall in Jerusalem.

We attended an Orthodox Jewish wedding when Rachel married Yehudah. We went to pay a condolence call when our Muslim sisters, Noor Malika and Karima, lost their mothers. We “sat shiva,” the Jewish custom for mourning, when Jean lost her husband, Norm.

We celebrated “Eid,” the final day of Ramadan, at Bibi’s house in her garden where Nazrin’s husband and Vivian’s husband, meeting for the first time, recited their favorite poems to one another. We had two baby showers, one for Rabia and one for Fatima, the youngest members of our group. Many of us, Muslims and Jews alike, prepared meals for Nouria and her husband when he was gravely ill. We held a tearful going-away party for Qahira, when she moved north to be with her grandchildren. No milestone in our lives went unnoticed.

Handling Conflict

Discussing politics could have been a tinder box. We tried being delicate and careful when we discussed the Israeli/Palestinian conflict. That didn’t always work. Harsh words were spoken. Feelings were stirred up by hostile emails members had shared from outside organizations. After the finger-pointing, though, soothing phone calls were made. We renewed our vows to be respectful of our different political perspectives and not to allow it to dry up the oasis of understanding and empathy we had so carefully watered. We tried reading Michael Lerner’s book, Healing Israeli/Palestine but ended up putting the book aside to speak about our own experiences. We endured emotional rough spots from time to time, but no one ever left the group because of political differences.

We were determined to survive the most challenging events, and it worked. In September 2005 the cartoon controversy in Sweden erupted. People were killed by angry Muslims after the Swedish newspapers published images of the Prophet Mohamed wearing an explosive device on his head disguised as a turban. Our group met at the height of the media frenzy. We knew it was a potential flash point and that our conversation could spark a conflagration among us, as it had outside the confines of our interfaith sanctuary.

Nevertheless, we kept our calm. That night Noor Malika, a convert to Islam from Christianity, told a story about the Prophet Mohamed illustrating his kindness even to those who scorned him. “This is the Prophet that the great majority of my Muslim brothers and sisters around the world emulate,” she emphasized. “What has happened in Sweden is not representative of our faith or our values.”

Needing To Do More

Now, after nine years of dialogue and interfaith friendship, having weathered the vicissitudes of political events and email controversies, Jean is asking an important, provocative question: “Where do we see ourselves five years from now? Do we want to just continue meeting once a month as we have done, or are we ready to do something more in the outside world?”

We have raised money to buy solar cookers for women in the Congo but know that raising money and social action are not the same. Vivian said she wanted to organize something concrete to help other women in parts of the world where rape and human trafficking are rampant, including in America.

Many of us had attended a sobering exhibition called “Holding Up Half the Sky,” inspired by the book Half the Sky by Nicholas Kristof and Sheryl Wu Dunn. It is an unflinching look at the devastation of war and poverty especially on women in third world countries. Statistics of the violence and exploitation of women and children left us shaken. We understood why Vivian is eager to propel us into a greater commitment to our “sisters” around the world.

We didn’t answer Jean’s question that night. It will involve a longer discussion – our next few meetings are dedicated to the topic.

We are not alone. Dialogue groups around the world are sitting on the fence now, trying to decide whether to continue with their own status quo or start a new chapter. Our West LA group is on the verge of a new era in interfaith engagement. We have discovered that dialogue may not be enough to satisfy our long-term goals. We come to this realization naturally, not through outside pressure or inside discontent.

We don’t know how this new feeling will be reflected in our future activities and meetings, but we have reached an enviable place. Our interfaith sharing has led to a high level of trust and deep affection, reflected in the final ceremony at our ninth anniversary. Holding strands of multicolored yarn, we wove together a single braid in a dance for peace, dipping down and rising up, in and out, weaving the strands together as a testimonial of how our lives have been intertwined.

That braid has now been wrapped around and glued to a Tzakah (charity box), a box where we deposit money for the causes we support. Encircled by the multicolor braid, the box represents our interconnectedness. We don’t know where we are going from here. But we are here because we have invested our love, we care deeply for one another, and we are taking the next step. Each one of us has been changed. In some small way, we may have changed the world in a lasting, positive way. That is our fond wish and sincere prayer.