Occasionally, people who you’d think couldn’t be more different find out that they actually have a lot in common. That was what moved Jewish and Muslim women from the Five Towns and surrounding communities, including Malverne, Rockville Centre and Queens, to join forces and try to build a bridge between the two religions.
Members of the Western Nassau chapter of the Sisterhood of Salaam Shalom and their families gathered at Grant Park, in Hewlett, on Sunday for the chapter’s inaugural potluck picnic to get to know one another. They shared freshly prepared dishes that abided by the religions’ dietary restrictions.
Shireen Baqir Quaizar, a member of the national Sisterhood of Salaam Shalom organization for three years, helped establish the Nassau chapter more than two years ago. “I decided to join after the primary elections back in 2016, and I was seeing these waves of anti-Semitism and anti-Muslim sentiment,” Quaizar said.
The Nassau chapter now has 18 members, half of them from the Five Towns and one from Malverne. “We’ve seen what hate does, but the more we get to know people that are different from ourselves, the less likely there’s a divide,” said Rabbi Susan Elkodsi, spiritual leader of the Malverne Jewish Center, who joined the group shortly after its inauguration.
Quaizar, who lives in Queens, started the chapter in Nassau because the metropolitan chapters of the sisterhood were full, she said. “I thought we had to put our religious differences aside and come together,” she said. “I was asking people to tell every woman they knew to join if they were interested.”
The organization now has 170 chapters in 32 states and three Canadian provinces. Its name combines the common greeting in many Arabic-speaking and Muslim countries, and the Jewish salutation meaning peace.
New Jersey residents Sheryl Olitzky and Atiya Aftab founded the sisterhood after Olitzky returned from a trip to Poland in 2010. She said she was shaken by the visible remnants of the Holocaust and what she viewed as the discrimination of marginalized groups. The organization’s mission is to use the relationships among Jewish and Muslim women to reduce hate between religious groups and engage in social action work.
On a local level, Elkodsi said the group hopes to continue that mission. “It’s amazing to see how people are setting aside differences for the greater good of humanity,” she said. “I hope that this will spread to other faith communities and ethnic groups and that we can show the world that hate has no place here.”
Since 2015, the national organization has sponsored annual trips to locations such as Albania, Azerbaijan, Bosnia and the civil rights trail in the southern United States, which help its members learn about other countries and cultures.
This year’s trip to Poland and Germany brought the group back to where the metaphorical seeds of the organization were first planted. Members visited the Auschwitz concentration camp, the Polin Museum and the Krakow Jewish Community Center. At Auschwitz, they conducted a memorial service that featured prayers in Hebrew, Arabic and English to honor the roughly 1.1 million people killed there.
The women also went to Berlin. “It was a deep dive into painful Jewish history,” said Woodmere resident Cipora Eisenberg-Simms, a Nassau chapter member for over a year. “It shook me from this comfortable life, and it gave me empathy for Muslim women. We had one or two incidents where people made obscene gestures towards us, and it opened my eyes to what they have to face on a daily basis.”
The group of more than 50 Muslim and Jewish women divided into smaller groups of 10, and then spoke with one another about each place they visited — sharing their impressions and emotions. “It was a very emotional trip,” Quaizar said. “It’s easy to read about it in books and see it on television, but when you see it in person, it’s a different experience entirely.”
Locally, the Nassau chapter has helped Cedarhurst-based Rock and Wrap It Up! — an anti-poverty think tank — with its program Hannah’s Project by placing donation bins for feminine hygiene products in mosques and temples. The items are given to girls and women in need.
“The reason why I joined is because I wanted to help build bridges,” said Lawrence resident Cherie Feinberg, a member since 2017. “I believe that we have more things in common than people think, and that it’s important for us, regardless or race or color, to get to know one another.”