There were no scones in sight at the Multicultural High Tea at the Woodland in Maplewood on Sept. 15, but the crowd of more than 200 women didn’t come for the clotted cream. They were thirsty for conversation that brooked religious, cultural, and ethnic divides.
“There’s a real hunger to meet people they wouldn’t normally meet in their daily lives: you know, Jewish women and Muslim women and Christians and women that have no faith who all live somehow in the area but have never had the opportunity to actually talk to each other,” said Marcia Bloomberg of Maplewood, one of the event’s six organizers.
The gathering of women was diverse — some were students, others were professionals or retirees; some wore hijabs, others wore summer dresses and sandals. Sitting at dozens of small tables, set up with tablecloths and white folding chairs, the attendees introduced themselves, made small talk, and tried to find common ground.
Chatting was the point of this event, planned over the course of several months to bring women from different backgrounds together. It was free but registration was required, and within a few days all the spots were filled and registration was closed.
Bloomberg is a member of Congregation Beth Hatikvah in Summit and Congregation Beth El in South Orange. She also chairs the religious justice committee of SOMA Action, a social justice advocacy organization in South Orange and Maplewood.
The other organizers were Elyse Carter of West Orange, Nada Alzoubi of Maplewood, Saba Khan of Livingston, Mona Karim of Maplewood, and Roberta Elliott of South Orange. The event was not affiliated with an umbrella organization, although many of the organizers are members of Sisterhood of Salaam Shalom, the national group for Muslim and Jewish women with 31 chapters in the state, including three in Morris, three in Essex, and two in Union counties.
Reasons for attending seemed as diverse as the composition of the crowd.
For Emily Quaye of Union, the goal was simple: “Understanding.”
“I’m Christian, my son is Muslim,” she said. “I respect all the religions and any time to mingle with them is welcome.”
Cheryl Forbes of West Orange attends First Presbyterian and Trinity Church in South Orange. She said she was looking to connect with women from different backgrounds interested in social issues.
Sandra Johnson of Short Hills, a member of Christ Church in Short Hills, just wanted to cut through all the divisiveness. “I think the work, fellowship across the Abrahamic faiths, is really important, particularly now, and that we should all do everything we can to further it,” she said. “There’s just an awful lot of tension that continues that we haven’t solved.”
Lisa Novemsky of Maplewood, who is Jewish, brought a political agenda to the tea. “I’m doing the opposite of what [President Donald] Trump is doing,” she said. “Mixing and matching people rather than dividing them.”
Randa Assaf came from Piscataway with a friend after reading about the event online and discussing it with friends from the Islamic Center of Union County in Union, where several of the event organizers worship. She said she was interested in the idea of women together from all walks of life “unifying on the basis of being women,” she said. “I hope we’ll look beyond our racial divisions and other differences like religion, and moving forward, we will have a united front.”
Miniimah Bilal-Shakir of Hillside, a member of Salaam Shalom, came to meet women of other faiths to see how they are working on behalf of refugees, an issue she is eager to be more involved with. She was disappointed, however, that the crowd seemed comprised mostly of Muslims and Jews. “I love my sisters,” she said, referring to fellow members of Salaam Shalom, “but I think I need to learn some more about other cultures.”
The idea for the tea grew out of a vigil at the Union mosque in the aftermath of the murders of 51 worshippers at mosques in Christchurch, New Zealand, in March. Bloomberg and Carter gathered a group of women who stood outside the mosque during Friday prayers with signs that read “We mourn with you.” That day they met Alzoubi, and together they hatched the plan to organize an interfaith group of women who might not meet otherwise. Eventually the idea became the multicultural tea, and the other women joined the core group of planners.
Local restaurants donated some of the food, which included hummus, baba ghanoush, and baklava, as well as finger sandwiches with the crusts cut off and chocolate cake. NJ Assembly Member Mila Jasey (D-Dist. 27) and South Orange Village President Sheena Collum both spoke, while organizers shared stories of their personal journeys. Siona Benjamin, a Montclair artist who grew up Jewish in India and is known for her images of blue women in a style influenced by Hindu, Jewish, and Christian references; and Heba Macksoud of South Brunswick, a media professional and board member of the Sisterhood of Salaam Shalom, gave keynote addresses.
Organizers said they are hoping to build on Sunday’s success, but there are no formal plans to date.
“It was amazing that there were so many people who came from different backgrounds to be together,” said Colette Gill Pierre of West Orange.
“I was just open to whatever was going to happen.”