By SALLY FRIEDMAN
For the Voice
Astranger seeing the women gathered in a living room in Voorhees one night this past Chanukah would likely have assumed they were old friends celebrating together.
The fact that their attire was varied, from simple slacks to full Abaya, the long traditional garb, and the Hijab, head covering, of the Muslim women didn’t seem to make any difference. The talk was warm and vibrant and so was the connection.
Welcome to the remarkable world of Salaam Shalom, a local chapter of an organization that is springing up nationally with the goal of uniting in friendship and understanding Jewish and Muslim women.
“And it’s working!” said Amy Purdy of Cherry Hill, who shares leadership of the “sisterhood” with her Muslim counterpart, Muqaddas Ejaz.
The need for connection and understanding was emphasized by both the Muslim and Jewish women, who shared spirited conversa- tions about their customs and beliefs in the art-filled living room of Phyllis Levy.
Levy, a member of Cong. M’kor Shalom, has deep feelings about interfaith connecting and understanding. She also added the concept of Tzedakah to the special evening. Women from both groups were asked to bring items desperately needed by Camden’s Catholic Charities for immigrants to the area. “We’re truly ecumenical tonight,” said Levy, whose home was temporarily trans- formed into a “warehouse of giving.”
A highlight of the “Sisterhood of Salaam Shalom “ gathering was a candle-lighting for the sixth night of Chanukah led by Phyllis Levy’s daughter, Cantor Lauren Levy, of Beth David Synagogue in Gladwyne, PA.
Together, the women led by Cantor Levy, joined in the singing of the Shehecheyanu, the Jewish prayer of gratitude for reaching special times.
Cantor Levy also led a lively discussion of the symbolism of light in Judaism and in the Muslim world, with notable parallels that intrigued the women. She sparked more conversation about prayer, symbols and customs that revealed other similarities.
But the real spirit of the evening, explained Amy Purdy of Cherry Hill, reaches beyond custom and ritual. This group, which has met three times, including the December gathering, is committed to making personal bonds possible through a written leadership guide that gently promotes sharing.
“We actually began by learning not just each other’s names, but what those names meant in each culture,” said Purdy, who was actually led to Salaam Shalom by her daughter, Gilana Levavi, a junior at Rutgers-New Brunswick who is co-president of the college’s Salaam Shalom group. The organization works to facilitate strong relations between Jews and Muslims, as well as people of all faiths and cul- tures on and beyond the campus.
Groups are limited to 20, ideally with 10 Muslim and 10 Jewish women in each group. Friendships have developed that Phyllis Levy describes as “wonderful and meaningful.” Meetings alternate between the homes of Jewish and Muslim women, and often- typical foods of each culture are served.
For Leslie Blau-Berlin of Cherry Hill, a member of Cong. Ner Tamid and a web and graphic designer, an invita- tion from a friend began the experience. “I frankly had no Muslim friends, and really didn’t know a great deal about the culture. And frankly, my husband was a little skeptical about the possible political issues.”
Those disappeared when Blau-Berlin attended her first gathering and was immediately struck by how quickly a comfort level was established.
For Zara Asad, 24, of Moorestown, participation at the recent Chanukah event was both personal and professional. A freelance writer and photogra- pher/videographer, Asad was present to take in all she could. She loved the experience.
Growing up Muslim in Moorestown, where there are few Muslim families, she had de-emphasized her identity until her junior year at Moorestown High. “I was finally ready to be who I am,” she explained. “I had tried to blend in, but I was trou- bled about hiding my true iden- tity. Once I put on the Hijab (headgear), I felt authentic and even empowered.”
Asad wants to continue in the group because, she says, it’s a wonderful way to connect and learn. Naseem Badat, a Voorhees mother and grandmother, and also a longtime leader in the Muslim community, already feels connected to the sisterhood of Salaam Shalom. She and her
husband helped to organize the first mosque in the Palmyra area, and she continues to reach out to others about Islam in informal teaching settings.
“I’ m particularly interested in Judaism and Islam—we both believe in one God, which is so fundamental, and I’m sure that this sisterhood group will help to break down barriers through learning.”
For Muqaddas Ejaz, co-leader with Amy Purdy in the Sisterhood, a warm sense of friendship with Amy—and also a sense of connectedness with the other women—has been, in her words, “wonderful and warm.”
“We are learning each other’s ways, but most important, we are coming to know one another as women.”
To learn more about the Sisterhood of Salaam Shalom, please visit http://sosspeace. org.