Eight years ago, Sheryl Olitzky visited a Holocaust site in Poland. During her trip, she realized that the most horrific pieces of our world’s history grew out of a warped perception of those who are different from us. She remembered a teaching from the Jewish Talmud (oral law) that asks, “Who is a hero?”
The answer: “One who makes one’s enemy into a friend.”
So Sheryl decided to start building bridges in her own community. That’s how the Sisterhood of Salaam Shalom (SOSS) was born.
She got together with her friend Atiya Aftab, and together they started SOSS for the purpose of bringing women together across social boundaries, breaking negative stereotypes, and changing people’s attitudes towards each other.
It started with a single small group in 2010 and has since expanded beyond Sheryl and Atiya’s wildest expectations. Over the last couple years, the number of chapters has tripled. Last November, they held their first national conference, attended by over 600 women from 26 states.
At the conference, there were workshops like “Encountering ‘Us vs. Them’: How to Talk to a Bigot,” which discussed practical tips for having conversations with people who are prejudiced. There was a breakout session called “What You Wanted to Know About Judaism and Islam and Were Afraid to Ask,” and one that taught self-defense to these two groups of women who are so often the victims of harassment and assault because of their race or faith (or both).
The former president of the Islamic Society of North America, Dr. Ingrid Mattson, was one of the keynote speakers. She summed up much of the Sisterhood’s mission when she said, “Love doesn’t mean the absence of conflict. It means that despite that conflict, we will work together.”
But more powerful than what anyone said are the relationships that were built, the love that was shared across “enemy” lines. Because prejudice and hate rarely survive proximity. By bringing women together, the Sisterhood of Salaam Shalom is laying the foundation for peace and changing the way our culture functions.
I wonder if it feels that way to the women who are participating… or if it just feels like friendship.
Either way… laugh by laugh, friendship by friendship, these women are unmaking violence and paving the way for a more peaceful future. As Sheryl so perfectly summed it up, “We are changing the world, one Muslim and one Jewish woman at a time!”
If peace is made one new relationship, one new friendship at a time, who will you reach out to in your community? How will you take the first step? Ask yourself, “Who is my enemy?” and think of one small step you can take to love across enemy lines. You don’t have to turn them into a friend overnight, but you CAN take A SINGLE STEP forward.
Peacemaking doesn’t have to feel like an endeavor. It can feel like friendship, because that is so often how it starts… and what it leads to.
Prejudice and hate rarely survive proximity.