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These Women Are Bringing The Muslim And Jewish Communities Together Despite Their Differences
By Erica Euse
Sheryl Olitzky and Atiya Aftab hope
their unlikely friendship will inspire others.
Sheryl Olitzky and Atiya Aftab are working to change the world one interfaith relationship at a time. As a Muslim woman and a Jewish woman, they seem like an unlikely pair from the outside. They live according to two religions that have historically found themselves at war, but their friendship is proof that their communities can still come together. We partnered with National Geographic’s The Story of Us With Morgan Freeman, a new six-part series about the common humanity in us all, to share how Olitzky and Aftab put aside their differences to create a better future for everyone.
Olitzky was first inspired to start her interfaith organization during a trip to Poland in 2010. She had planned to visit Auschwitz to bring attention to the power of anti-Jewish sentiment and hate, but once she was there she realized that the struggles of Jewish people were shared by so many other religions, including Muslims.
“It was at that point when I said I cannot change the past, but I can change the future,” Olitzky told Huffpost. “When I came home I realized that there was a moderately sized Muslim and Jewish community in my backyard. There was nothing overtly negative between both communities, but there was nothing. I decided to change that.”
Olitzky reached out to the religious director at a local mosque in South Brunswick, New Jersey, who told her to contact Aftab. Aftab was an attorney and activist, who was also a chairwoman at the mosque.
“Sheryl was super persistent in trying to meet me,” recalled Aftab. “When we ended up meeting, we really hit it off. We agreed there was something we should do because we have to work together as minority groups. We have to speak up for each other.” Olitzky and Aftab made a plan to bring together a group of Muslim and Jewish women. Their goal was to foster more intimate relationships with the hope that it would build a better understanding between them. After a month of recruiting, they invited five Jewish and five Muslim women to meet at Aftab’s home. Some were apprehensive to join, but they took the risk. “We ended up sending emails to each other to say how electric the room was [during that first meeting],” said Aftab. “It was just so impactful to all of us to get to know each other. We talked a little bit about family, a little bit about career. It eased into the challenges of being a Jewish woman and the challenges of being a Muslim woman.”
The women in the group quickly realized that they had a lot in common, particularly their difficulties navigating a life of faith in a majority Christian country. Olitzky and Aftab decided to keep the conversation going and started planning meetings each month. Eventually, other women were contacting them wanting to join the group, too. As the interest continued to grow, they started to encourage other women to start their own chapters.
“It started growing organically and then Sheryl had this idea to have a national organization to foster the creation of these groups of Muslim and Jewish women around the country,” explained Aftab. In 2014, they officially became a non-profit called the Sisterhood of Salaam Shalom.
Despite the organization’s successful expansion, the founders have been criticized for bringing the two faiths together. Olitzky admits that she has lost friendships over what they are doing. The ongoing clash between Muslims and Jews in Israel-Palestine has been a major point of contention for those who disapprove. Most don’t understand why these religions would work together. While Aftab and Olitzky do have differing opinions on the conflict, they aren’t letting that keep them apart.
“Three summers ago when there was the bombing going on in Gaza, it was the month of Ramadan and one of our women hosted an iftar [a meal] to break the fast together,” Aftab shared. “One of the Jewish women knocked on the door and a Muslim answered and said ‘I really want to hate you right now because of what’s going on, but I can’t hate you because you’re my friend.'” Aftab said that mentality is at the heart of the Sisterhood of Salaam Shalom. Over the years they have not only worked to bring these women face to face, but create meaningful relationships between them. The premise came from the “contact hypothesis,” a theory that found the best way to get rid of prejudice between groups is to have interpersonal interaction. Along with the chapter meetings, the Sisterhood also hosts an annual convention and group trip. Through these relationship building events the women become like sisters.
“These are women that you wouldn’t expect to have these intimate relationships,” Olitzky explained. “These are women that are calling each other in the middle of the night because there was a death in the family or they need advice on their job. I am talking about major roles they are playing, as if they are truly part of a family.”
Olitzky and Aftab are the perfect example of this bond. When Olitzky’s husband became critically ill three years ago, it was Aftab’s husband who spent five hours saving him. “The only person I wanted by my side was Atiya,” said Olitzky. Since founding the organization three years ago, the Sisterhood of Salaam Shalom has expanded to 100 chapters around the country. They currently have several thousand women still waiting to join, and are in the process of starting 40 new chapters.
As reported hate crimes have risen in the current political climate, the founders feel that these two groups coming together has taken on even more significance.
“Women are realizing that all we have to do is get rid of the ignorance and get to know each other,” said Olitzky. “Not only are you standing up when you hear hate against each other, you are standing up when you hear hate against each other’s communities. Through those relationships, you are influencing others and the greater community of folks who are of another faith group other than Islam and Judaism.”
The Sisterhood continues to get hate mail because of what they are doing, but the pair said that they won’t let that stop them.
“Ultimately, we are one humanity, but it’s not about the ‘Kumbaya’ of saying we are one humanity,” said Aftab. “When you get to know someone on a personal level you have a face behind that concept. Maybe they feel hostile, maybe they feel uncomfortable, but they are taking that chance to know somebody who they think is very different.”
People around the world like Olitzky and Aftab are accepting each other’s differing beliefs in the hope of making a better future for everyone. The Story of Us With Morgan Freeman, a six-part series by National Geographic, will put the spotlight on transcendent journeys like these and the unexpected people who come together to drive humanity forward around the world.
The Story of Us With Morgan Freeman Wednesdays @ 9/8c on National Geographic. Go to natgeotv.com/StoryofUs for more information.
Jewish, Hindu communities unite for first joint Hanukkah-Diwali celebration in Michigan
David Kurzmann, executive director of the Jewish Community Council of metro Detroit/American Jewish Committee explains the meaning of the Jewish holiday Hanukkah. He’s joined on stage by Padma Kuppa and Fred Stella of the Hindu American Foundation.
Inside a Hindu temple in Troy, the priests recited in Sanskrit an opening prayer calling for peace: “Om shanti, shanti, shanti.”
Moments later, a rabbi recited in Hebrew prayers for Hanukkah as another Jewish leader lit a menorah candle.
The scene inside the Bharatiya Temple in Troy Thursday night was part of what organizers say was the first-ever joint celebration of Hanukkhah and Diwali, the Jewish and Hindu holidays celebrated late in the year. About 250 gathered inside a prayer hall in the Hindu temple to sing, pray and nosh on Jewish and Indian food — potato latkes and jelly donuts representing Hanukkah delights and samosas and sweets for the Indian side — followed by a panel discussion about the meaning of the holidays for the two minority communities.
“There’s a need for dialogue across various barriers,” Nasy Sankagiri, a temple member of Bloomfield Hills, said to the predominantly Jewish crowd. “We thought this is a great idea to come together, celebrating the lighting of the lamps.”
For both Diwali, which fell on Oct 19 this year, and Hanukkah, which starts in two weeks, lamps are lit, symbolizing the triumph of good over evil rulers.
The event was organized by the Jewish Community Relations Council of metro Detroit/American Jewish Committee and the Hindu American Foundation, which have been trying to increase ties between the two communities. Hindu-American leaders say they can learn from the Jewish community about how to advocate and get involved in interfaith dialogue and activism.
Metro Detroit has a well-established Jewish community of about 65,000. There are more than 90,000 Indian-Americans in Michigan, according to Census figures. Many of them are Hindu, and there are also Hindus in metro Detroit with roots in Bangladesh, Pakistan and other countries.
The turnout Thursday night was larger than expected and organizers hope to make this an annual event, providing tours of the temple for Jewish visitors.
“Hanukkah celebrates the miracle of the light in the temple lasting eight days,” said Alicia Chandler, president of the Jewish Community Relations Council of metro Detroit/American Jewish Committee. “Diwali is also a celebration of light, so both holidays are that celebration of light. Light is a wonderful metaphor for what we can bring into the world.”
Several years ago, Padma Kuppa of Troy, a board member with the Hindu American Foundation and the Michigan Roundtable for Diversity and Inclusion, celebrated Hanukkah and Diwali together in a Jewish home. They thought it would be good to have a public event highlighting the two faiths. “It’s really a great opportunity for us to share our traditions and draw the communities closer together based on our common pursuit of social justice,” Kuppa said. “We have a lot in common in being very education oriented and being committed to the idea of pluralism.”
At the event, visitors were greeted with tables of menorahs, Ganesh statues, and diyas, which are lamps lit during Diwali. On stage behind the panelists was a big “Om,” a word symbolizing peace in Hinduism.
David Kurzmann, executive director of the Jewish Comunity Council of metro Detroit/American Jewish Committee, spoke to the crowd about the meaning of Hanukkah and and how his group speaks out against hatred, a concern shared by both communities amid increased anxiety about bias crimes. In October, the Jewish Council held an interfaith event with the Muslim community to build bridges.
This brings our communities closer and is an opportunity for learning and sharing each other’s faith traditions,” he said.
Fred Stella, a Hindu advocate from Grand Rapids with the Hindu American Foundation, spoke of the commonalities between the groups and also the growing ties between Israel and India.
Stella joked about the Jewish-American tradition of eating at Chinese restaurants on Christmas.
“We want to replace Chinese restaurants with Indian restaurants as the go-to place for Christmas dinners,” Stella said as the crowd laughed.
Later, the crowd held hands as Rabbi Aura Ahuvia of Congregation Shir Tikvah in Troy and Sankagiri led them in singing “We Shall Overcome” in English, Hebrew, and Hindi.
In schools, a growing push to recognize
Muslim and Jewish holidays
By Debbie Truong – The Washington Post
When her daughters were children, Khadija Athman packed the major Islamic holidays, Eid al-Fitr and Eid al-Adha, with celebration.
They opened gifts and covered their hands in henna. After prayer, they had breakfast at a pancake house before spending the day at the movies and Chuck E. Cheese’s. “Eid is like our Christmas,” Athman said, her face brightening as she recalled the family’s traditions. “I grew up being so excited about Eid, and I wanted to raise my kids with that same excitement.”
But for her daughters, the warm memories faded each time schoolmates in Prince William County, in suburban Northern Virginia, were awarded perfect-attendance certificates. The honor eluded Athman’s daughters, Nusaybah and Sumayyah, who were resentful because they missed school each year for the Muslim holidays, their mother said.
Muslim and Jewish students in Fairfax and Prince William counties have long had to decide whether to observe a religious holiday or attend school, a choice some parents and students say they shouldn’t have to make.
In September 2010, Khadija Athman and her daughters Nusaybah, 9, and Sumayyah, 7, and husband Rutrell Yasin celebrated Eid al-Fitr at a friend’s home. When the girls observed the Eid holidays, they missed school in Prince William County. It’s a struggle diverse communities throughout the country have encountered as they seek to accommodate students from different religious backgrounds. In some cases, students feel they are compelled to choose between faith and school. “They don’t want to observe the holiday with their family because they don’t want to miss school,” said Meryl Paskow, a volunteer with the interfaith group Virginians Organized for Interfaith Community Engagement. Earlier this year, the interfaith group persuaded school leaders in Northern Virginia to be more forgiving of students who miss tests because of a religious holiday. The Fairfax and Prince William superintendents agreed to keep tests and major school events from falling the day before or after major Muslim and Jewish holidays, but school remains in session on those holidays.
The change brings the two Northern Virginia school districts in closer alignment with other diverse school systems in the country, including several in Maryland, New York and New Jersey. In Prince William, school absences for religious holidays are no longer counted against a student’s attendance record. That option would have provided Athman relief years ago. “I want them to be proud of their heritage, to be proud of their religion,” the mother said. “It feels more like a competition when it shouldn’t be a competition. You should be able to practice your religion without having to compete with school.” More than a year ago, the interfaith group – which addresses issues including affordable housing, health care and immigrant rights – adopted school religious holidays as a cause. “These are great students,” said Rabbi Michael G. Holzman, with the Northern Virginia Hebrew Congregation. “They don’t want to miss a test.”
The interfaith group made a request – no tests, major assignments or school events on Rosh Hashanah, Yom Kippur and the first night of Passover, as well as Eid al-Fitr and Eid al-Adha.
They delivered the request to Steven Lockard, then interim superintendent in Fairfax, and Steven Walts, superintendent in Prince William. Fairfax teachers were directed not to schedule tests on certain religious holidays, and the district sends principals quarterly reminders, district spokesman John Torre said in an email. In Prince William
school district regulations were updated during the summer to say that students who miss school for religious observances would be allowed to make up work and tests. Some school districts elsewhere in the country have made religious accommodations for decades by giving students the holiday off or excusing absences.
In New York, schoolchildren have been given Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur off since the 1960s, school district spokesman Michael Aciman said in an email. Eid al-Fitr and Eid al-Adha were added in the 2015-2016 school year. “These school holidays help ensure that a significant number of NYC families and staff do not have to choose between observing a religious holiday and attending school,” Aciman said.
In Paterson, N.J., schools close for only one holiday for each major religion, schools spokeswoman Terry Corallo said in an email.For example, students have class off for only one of the Eid holidays, a decision the district makes in consultation with faith leaders.
Closing for all religious holidays would prevent the racially diverse district of about 28,000 students from reaching the number of school days mandated by the state, she said. Montgomery County schools, in suburban Maryland, are closed on Yom Kippur and Rosh Hashanah and, after years of lobbying from local proponents, the school board voted in 2015 to give students the day off on Eid al-Adha. About the same time, Howard County Public Schools in Maryland added days off on Eid al-Adha, the eve of Lunar New Year and the Hindu holiday of Diwali.
Rabbi Ronald Halber, executive director of the Jewish Community Relations Council of Greater Washington, said school systems in communities with large Jewish populations generally show a greater sensitivity to the holidays. The Jewish population in Fairfax, he said, has grown substantially in the past two decades. If the school system examined the number of Muslim and Jewish students, Halber said, “they might be surprised.” Despite the commitments in Northern Virginia, leaders with the interfaith group are not convinced that all teachers are following the directives. Students at Holzman’s congregation in Reston reported that they had academic conflicts on Rosh Hashanah earlier this school year, as they had previously, he said. “I thoroughly believe that our leaders at the county level are committed to solving these problems,” he said. “I also thoroughly believe that the message is not getting to the classroom level.”
Eli Sporn, 16, notches nearly straight As. He’s enrolled in Advanced Placement and honors classes at McLean High School, plays soccer and basketball, and participates in theater. He also spends time Sundaymornings as a teacher’s assistant at Temple Rodef Shalom and belongs to its youth group. Each year, he misses school for Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur. His teachers are understanding, but the specter of schoolwork still looms. His mother, Melissa Sporn, added: “We think it’s obligatory. It’s part of being Jewish.”
Before she graduated from Washington-Lee High School in Arlington, Hanan Seid would be seized by a familiar anxiety as she approached teachers each year for permission to make up assignments or tests that fell on Eid. Seid has always prioritized her faith, but that did little to ease the worry of having to ask teachers for accommodations. “You’re asking a teacher not to give you a test. You’re not sick,” Seid said. “For kids sometimes, it feels like they’re asking for too much.” Seid said she attended school once on Eid al-Adha, known as the festival of sacrifice, because she had a test. Dressed in full makeup and an abaya – a loose-fitting cloak – she felt out of place. “It was the oddest feeling, because it doesn’t feel like it’s your holiday,” said Seid, who works at Dar Al-Hijrah Islamic Center, a mosque in Falls Church. School districts should go further, she said, and give students the day off on religious holidays. During Christmastime, she said, “you can feel the spirit in this country” – not so for Muslim holidays. To her, having the day off would symbolize a broader acceptance of Islam. It would convey the message, Seid said, that “they do like us here. They do understand. They do accept us, and they’re willing to learn.”
AJC/JCRC Executive Director David Kurzmann urges congress to “Push away Darkness” in Church’s
“Creating Welcoming Community” series
Jewish Community Relations Council/American Jewish Committee
From L to R: Pastor Manisha Dostert, Pastor Joyce Matthews, David Kurzmann, Pastor Imogen Rhodenhiser, Fr. Bill Danaher.
Executive David Kurzmann spoke on Sunday, Dec. 3 on the value that the Interfaith Leadership Council has added to his community outreach work and of pushing away the darkness of marginalization with the light of hospitality as part of Christ Cranbrook Church’s yearlong “Creating a Welcoming Community” series. The speaker series, a long-standing tradition at Christ Cranbrook Church, invites a guest speaker to address the first Sunday evensong service of each month. In addition to Kurzmann, the church this year has already hosted Joe Summers, a local Catholic who has championed LGBTQ rights, and the Rev. Dr. Niklaus (Nik) C. Schillack who serves as the Director of Congregational Engagement for social services non-profit Samaritas.
Upcoming guest speakers this year at Christ Cranbrook Church include:
January 7 Jack Krasula, host of the weekly WJR-760 AM Radio show, Anything is Possible, which features guests who share stories of overcoming simple beginnings and many obstacles in their life to achieve their goals.
February 4 Dominic Demarco, President of Cranbrook Educational Community
March 4 Christopher Johnson, Rector- All Saints Pontiac
April 8 Chris Skellenger, founder of Buckets of Rain, an organization that wishes to bring nutritional resources to inner-city Detroit through urban gardening.
Christ Church Cranbrook’s Father Bill Danaher said his congregants look forward to hearing the guest speakers every month, where they can also chat with them at a post-service reception. Like all services, these monthly Evensong services are open to the public. “All our guests are stellar in their work of promoting inclusivity and strengthening the wider Detroit community, as well as being engaging and engrossing speakers.” said Father Danaher.
As he addressed the congregation of 152 attendees on this first Evensong of Advent, Kurzmann reflected on his Jewish upbringing and how it led him to his work in community relations within and outside the Jewish community.
“I grew up in sort of a Jewish bubble. I went to high school and college and then in my early professional life surrounded myself with mostly Jewish friends and associates. I’ve been to Israel 10 times without even visiting a non-Jewish holy site,” said Kurzmann to the congregation. “It was not until I led a group of mostly non-Jewish college-aged leaders to Israel and visited places like The Church of the Holy Sepulcher and Capernaum did I see the importance of this land through a different lens. It is what led me to my work in community outreach.”
Speaking upon the messages of Chanukah – overcoming darkness with light and rededication (of the Holy Temple of Jerusalem) – Kurzmann said it is incumbent on all of Detroit’s residents to not be complacent in a time of rising hatred towards minorities and other ethnic groups.
JCRC/AJC carries the dual responsibility of reflecting the Jewish community’s consensus while providing leadership in pursuit of traditional and contemporary Jewish values. It is both a gathering of activists and a platform for advocacy, agents of social change and stewards of conscience. JCRC/AJC serves as a catalyst to heighten community awareness, encourages civic and social involvement, and provides a forum to deliberate key issues of importance to the Jewish community.
“The message of Chanukah is Rededication. At a time when hate acts are on the rise towards many minority and ethnic groups and suspicions rise against the newcomer and the refugee, we at this time of year, when we celebrate the holidays of our many faiths, have to ask ourselves: How will we in the coming year rededicate ourselves to the importance of strengthening the value of creating community? “JCRC/AJC is a constituent agency of the Jewish Federation of Metropolitan Detroit. JCRC/AJC is also an affiliate of the Jewish Council for Public Affairs, which serves as the national representative voice of Jewish community relations councils.