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Building Jewish-Muslim Friendship One Woman at a Time

By Sheryl M. Olitzky


Five years ago, Atiya Aftab, a Muslim woman, and I, a Jewish woman, invited a group of 12 women – six Muslim women and six Jewish women – to meet together once a month. Other Muslim and Jewish women heard about our effort and asked to join our group and/or help them start their own group in another geographic area. In response to these requests, Atiya and I formed a national non-profit organization at the end of 2013 – the Sisterhood of Salaam Shalom (SOSS).

The SOSS is a national grassroots organization whose mission is to change the relationship between Muslim and Jewish women in the U.S., one woman at a time. Its primary goal is to bring together Muslims and Jews to work towards peace by the building of trust, respect, and friendship.  Together the women work against anti-Muslim and anti-Jewish sentiment.

SOSS members get to know each other over a meal. – Photo: SOSS

SOSS members get to know each other over a meal. – Photo: SOSS

Rather than inviting multiple faith groups to join our efforts, we decided to focus only on Muslims and Jews. Although a variety of independent Muslim and Jewish groups have been established throughout the U.S., there is an absence of a national organization that provides guidance, resource materials, and a network for those who want to encourage communication and the building of relationships between these faith groups. Furthermore, the challenges that ritually observant Muslims and Jews face in the U.S. (those who follow dietary rules; observe holidays, prayer times and the Sabbath; wear head coverings, and so on) are very similar and differ dramatically from those faced by Christians.

We made the decision to refine our target further by only focusing on Muslim and Jewish women, not men. Researchers in the field of neuroscience (Tannen 1990, Pease 2001, Benko and Pelster 2013) suggest that women’s brains work differently than do the brains of men, providing women with a greater capacity for consensus-building and the ability to have a conversation with one another to negotiate closeness.

A Different Way of Relating

Women have unique ways of communicating with one another. Unlike men, so often fixed on rules and regulations, women tend to navigate their lives through building relationships. The process of Muslim and Jewish women sharing their faith and other life experiences as women with one another encourages honest discussion and expands the potential for the understanding and acceptance of any differences, while embracing what they share in common. This leads to the development of friendships.

The SOSS theory of change is based on Contact Theory, conceptualized by psychologist Gordon Allport; he demonstrated that interpersonal contact is one of the most effective ways to reduce prejudice and change perception. Allport proved that when a positive meaningful relationship is developed with someone from another religious community, attitudes toward the entire community improve. This theory of change was further documented by University of Chicago scholars, Juliana Shroeder and Jane Risen (as reported in the New York Times, August 22, 2014). In other words, it is very difficult to hate someone with whom you have a positive relationship.

An unintended benefit of sharing dialogue partners is a deepening of one’s own faith commitment, enriching belief. As Rabbi Justus Baird, dean at the Auborn Theological Seminary, points out, “those who spend time learning about different religious traditions report that they come to understand their own tradition better and that they are stretched to grow spiritually.”

Through the process of women learning from each other’s faith practices, we make better sense of our own decisions in the practice of our own faith. In addition, as these women become curious about the specifics of their own religion, they engage in further study to better understand the rationale for what they believe and practice. Many women experience what theologian Krister Stendahl called "holy envy.”  But participating women are able to appreciate new ways to be practicing women of faith by listening to and learning from each other.

A group portrait of the SOSS leadership conference in Philadelphia last November. – Photo: SOSS

A group portrait of the SOSS leadership conference in Philadelphia last November. – Photo: SOSS

As part of the strategic plan for the national organization, we developed three ways for participants to have easy access to the SOSS: local chapter membership; attendance at an annual leadership conference; and participation in a yearly travel experience which we call a peace mission. Women may choose to take part in one or all of the three SOSS programs, as follows:

Built on the model of the initial chapter of SOSS we established, there are now ten chapters in the U.S. An additional six chapters are in the process of formation. The strategic plan calls for the addition of at least ten new chapters each year. Each SOSS chapter has a designated Muslim and Jewish co-leader. This ensures equal voice for both faith groups on any key administrative details. Chapter co-leaders make a commitment to schedule chapter meetings on a frequent basis, every four to six weeks. Frequent communication provides the chapter members with multiple opportunities to gain knowledge, trust, and the opportunity to develop growing connections with one another.

The chapters focus on three areas: dialogue, socialization and social action (an organized activity to focus on the betterment of others). While each chapter has full autonomy, chapter participants are required to sign a “covenant” that outlines appropriate dialogue and listening behavior and a commitment to refrain from participating in any behavior that would jeopardize the SOSS. Chapter members agree to forgo any discussions relating to politics or conflict until dialogue has entered a more advanced stage, usually after one to two years, when relationships are strong enough to be sustained when disagreement or listening to a painful story is the focus.

The national office of SOSS provides guidance and support to the chapters, including, but not limited to, assistance in recruiting participants, training chapter leaders in dialogue skills, storytelling, and compassionate listening, as well as providing a guidebook on best practices and curricula for meetings. Quarterly conference calls are offered to all chapter co-leaders to share ideas, discuss challenges, and learn about new resources.

While the chapters are the heart of the Sisterhood of Salaam Shalom, the organization provides additional opportunities for Muslim and Jewish women to meet and develop relationships with one another. The SOSS convenes an annual Leadership Conference for any interested Muslim or Jewish woman to gain skills in interfaith dialogue and engagement. The conference also provides a context to initiate relationships among the women. The attendees receive follow-up contact from SOSS on updates pertaining to Muslim and Jewish dialogue and engagement.

 The Sisterhood of Salaam Shalom also programs an annual peace mission trip similarly open to  Muslim and Jewish woman. With the SOSS, women travel to locations such as Albania or Bosnia, which have significant impacts on both faith groups. Like the other programs, the bonding that takes place when traveling together helps to quickly break down any barriers between the women and build positive relationships among them. At the same time, participants learn about a place and time where Muslims and Jews worked together. In some cases, the travel destinations reflect historical events in which Muslims and Jews protected one another, such as was the case in Albania during the Nazi occupation in World War II.

The chapters, conference, and travel programs provide a structure for the maximization of the number of Muslim and Jewish women who can become friends and form trusting relationships, outside of the walls of any formal institution such as a mosque or synagogue. The Sisterhood of Salaam Shalom enriches Muslim and Jewish women’s souls and builds bridges while shattering negative stereotypes, hate, and prejudice. This leads us all to a better world for everyone and our children.