Rabbi Debra Smith stood at the altar of the United Methodist Church in Chatham on Feb. 16 and told an interfaith audience of 400 people that “today we stand in unity. We pledge to stand up for one another. We vow not to be enemies.”
The occasion was one of 20 “unity vigils” across the country sponsored by the Sisterhood of Salaam Shalom, a national organization that builds relationships between Muslim and Jewish women. The group was founded by Middlesex County residents Sheryl Olitzky and Atiya Aftab in 2010. Its Essex, Union, and Morris county chapters joined forces to sponsor the Chatham vigil.
According to Robbie Weissenberg of Short Hills, a member of the Essex County chapter, clergy from United Methodist Church were welcoming, and approximately 150 members attended the event. “It was wonderful that another faith entered the picture with open arms,” Weissenberg said.
Nationally, an estimated 1,400 people took part in the ceremonies, according to Olitzky.
The purpose of the gatherings was “to affirm the harmony we see in one another,” said Smith, the founder and religious leader of Or Ha Lev, a Jewish Renewal congregation in Succasunna. She said the vigils were “a call for prayer to offer courage to one another in the face of the hate that surrounds us and to show our solidarity. We will rely on our faith and traditions to give one another the strength to be in control.”
“I was blessed to be a part of it. So many thanks!!!” wrote a Muslim woman named Hadiyah Dawan of New Jersey on her Facebook page. “I’m overwhelmed with the response we have been receiving and the outpouring of people who came to join us. Never doubt the power of women when they unite with a mission.”
Smith said her involvement with the sisterhood “is a major part of my rabbinate. I consider myself an interfaith activist.”
She called Jewish-Muslim dialogue “a rich experience because we share so much in common in our values and belief systems.”
Asked about the hostility that many Jews and Muslims feel toward one another, Smith said she did not know whether her movement could diminish anti-Semitism and Islamophobia on a global level.
“We are changing it one person at a time, and I think that is how change is made,” she said.
A tenet of Sisterhood of Salaam Shalom is creating those one-on-one connections. “Our country has been so divided, and it’s important that people reach out to the ‘other’ and find a way to understand that maybe they’re not as different as they thought they were,” said Weissenberg.
Relationships with Muslim women have inspired the rabbi to learn about Islam while sharing meetings, social engagements, and even seder meals.
“When I got to know them one-by-one, I discovered they are just like me,” Smith said. “They have the same concerns about their children and their aging parents; we both have traditions that are important.
“These women have become truly my sisters, and I feel blessed to have enlarged my family.”