From Temple Sharey Tefilo-Israel:
A memo circulated two years ago at Temple Sharey Tefilo-Israel (TSTI) sparked a fire within two members of the Reform synagogue to make a profound difference in Jewish-Muslim relations on a local level. Cyndy Wyatt and Robbie Weissenberg, both of Short Hills, are also members of the Essex County chapter of Sisterhood of Salaam Shalom, a movement that has grown to 150 chapters throughout North America. The Sisterhood was envisioned and co-founded by Sheryl Olitzky in 2010, whose son is Rabbi Jesse Olitzky of Congregation Beth-El, one of the three South Orange synagogues (along with TSTI) that is spearheading a refugee settlement initiative.
Wyatt and her Muslim counterpart, Hadiyah Finney of North Brunswick, co-lead the Essex County chapter, which was founded two years ago. Interest has grown so much that plans are underway to open two more chapters in Essex County. “The Jewish women are there and ready; we’re seeking Muslim sisters to join us on this amazing journey,” said Wyatt.
Befitting its grassroots, community-based structure, Wyatt and Olitzky spoke at a panel at Congregation Beth-El about the organization; Wyatt said that of the 150 women who attended, “they all wanted to join a chapter.”
In addition to her work with the Sisterhood of Salaam Shalom, Wyatt is on the board of the Interfaith Food Pantry of the Oranges, which TSTI supports. She was recently given an award of recognition for her work there at a Pakistani tea at a local mosque.
Building connections through personal stories
According to its website (sosspeace.org), “The Sisterhood of Salaam Shalom builds strong relationships between Muslim and Jewish women based on developing trust and respect and ending anti-Muslim and anti-Jewish sentiment … to build bridges and fight hate, negative stereotyping and prejudice. We are changing the world, one Muslim and one Jewish woman at a time.”
A core way the sisters build these relationships is through sharing personal experiences. “We tell stories about our own and our families’ lives,” explained Wyatt, who joined TSTI with her family in 2001. “For instance, I converted to Judaism and have my own Jewish journey story to share. Some of our African-American Muslim sisters are also converts to Islam. Although our religious experiences may be different, all are accepted and valued.”
Their stories include recounting trips to faraway places. The Sisterhood arranges a trip every year to areas with a history of Muslim-Jewish cooperation; the entire Sisterhood was invited last year to the Balkan region and one Essex County member went to Azerbaijan this March. In September, co-leader Finney will be going on Haj, the annual pilgrimage to Mecca.
The intimate chapter of 14 women meets monthly in members’ homes. In addition to programs such as tracing family trees, the sisters share religious and cultural observances, including a Passover Seder for which they created their own hagaddah, and an Iftar communal meal that ends the daily fasting during the month-long holiday of Ramadan. Members’ families are invited to these celebrations to further the bonds that have grown among the sisters.
Robbie Weissenberg seconds Wyatt’s enthusiasm for what the Sisterhood has brought to her personal life as well as how it has enhanced her involvement in community life at Temple Sharey Tefilo-Israel. She has been a TSTI member for 18 years, has served as treasurer of the Women’s Connection group, and participates on the synagogue’s Caring Community committee, which supports the recently bereaved. Her children attended the religious school with one graduating Hebrew High and one becoming confirmed there. She joined the Sisterhood to deepen her understanding of other people’s backgrounds and beliefs.
“I’ve met these wonderful women—both Muslim and Jewish—whom I would not have met otherwise, with new relationships forming all the time. The Sisterhood is such a pleasant way to learn about a religion and culture I knew nothing about, and I hope it continues to expand.”
Weissenberg attended the third annual conference in December at Drew University in Madison which enjoys growing attendance every year, from 100 attendees the first year to 500 in 2016. “It was incredible to see the support and how the organization is growing,” said Weissenberg. “We are anticipating even higher attendance at this year’s conference in November.”
Citing recent anti-Semitic incidents that have occurred in the area, Weissenberg said, “We are finding common ground and standing up for each other. The support goes both ways. After all, we’re now sisters.”