Breaking Religious Stereotypes to Foster Understanding: A High School Student’s Perspective

Kaitlyn Dundorf, a freshman at Hillsborough High School in New Jersey, visited a local chapter of the Sisterhood of the Salaam Shalom as part of an assignment for her Exploring Journalism class. The assignment required her to write a feature story, highlighting a local event or organization. She was interested to find out more about SOSS, so she attended a meeting hosted by Adla Karim.

One ordinary Thursday evening, a family huddles together in a warm home as they chat about their lives, each lending understanding and support for their fellow sister. As many sisters do, these women trust one another and are able to share their stories as they further develop the bonds that have connected them all their lives. However, what if you were told the bond that connects these sisters is not blood? What if you were told these sisters are members of two religions known and stereotyped often for vicious conflict between them? They are a family of sisters that in many people’s eyes, could not be more different, yet they sit beside one another in peace, breaking down the walls of stereotypes that plagues not only the media, but the homes of thousands of Americans throughout the country.

This group of women represents one sector of an organization called The Sisterhood of Salaam Shalom®. The nonprofit organization was developed in 2010 as a way to bring together Muslim and Jewish women in order to foster understanding between the groups, build relationships of trust and respect, and to fight hate by building bridges and supporting one another.

As written in a letter from the Executive Director, Sheryl Olitzky, what started as a simple outlet to stop hate and combat negative stereotypes, “blossomed into a real sisterhood that shares in public advocacy, participates in life cycle events and holiday celebrations, and has regular get-togethers.” The organization currently has 150 chapters and is working with women to establish new chapters throughout the United States and Canada.

On March 23, 2017 a new chapter was established in Hillsborough, New Jersey. As the day melted into evening, Muslim and Jewish women alike came together for an introductory meeting at the home of Adla Karim, a Hillsborough resident and follower of the Islamic faith.

“The dialogue between Muslim and Jewish women and the similarities we have, intrigued me to come,” said Saba Rahman, one of the women who attended the first interest meeting at the Hillsborough sector, “I think it will be very valuable because it will increase the dialogue and understanding between the two religions from a woman’s perspective. I am here to find out more.” While it was clear these women were connected by their similar desire to discover more about the organization, as the night progressed, intrigue and near amazement illuminated the faces of many of the women as the dialogue between one another revealed striking, unknown similarities.

One member, Pamela Sloan, said before the meeting began, “I think this would be a wonderful and loving environment to promote understanding about each other, our different cultures, and just to learn.” The women did just that as they sat together in a circle listening and asking questions as introductions grew into in depth descriptions of cultural and religious practices. The room jostled with questions and moments of enlightenment as scattered voice proclaimed statements of surprise at just how similar they all were.

Adla Karim, who moved from Egypt to the United States in 1977 as an exchange student and has stayed here ever since, described, “The core values and bases of all religions are the same. They all have the same value for human life and decency. How we practice may be different, but the tenants of the religion are the same.”

The group hopes to bring together specifically Muslim and Jewish women because as described by Karim, “Throughout recent history there has been conflict throughout the middle east between Jews and Muslims so this has put out a bigger conflict in the global environment. Also, both groups are minorities and are more targeted than any other groups right now, so we hope to come together to have a better understanding of the culture, tradition, and religious differences to break stereotypes and lend support where it’s needed for the other group.” In the future, the group plans to expand their influence to other women and to find out what is going on in the community that needs their support.

As Olitzky said, “It is easy to hate someone you do not know. But when when you know them, it’s hard. And when you love them and care about them, it’s nearly impossible.” As such, The Sisterhood of Salaam Shalom® is founded on the idea of women standing beside one another in support to teach others that we are not so different.

Karim commented, “What I hate about the media is that they stereotype people, especially for the Muslims with terrorism. It is a religion of two billion people so the people committing terrorism represent 0.00009 percent of the community.” She continues to say, “There is a big difference between the religion and the politics. Politics, it has to do with politics, power, and what people want. Someone always does not want peace. But Muslims religiously have an obligation to love and care for our neighbors regardless of what religion they are.”

Similarly, Sloan comments, “I feel that we are vehicles to promote peace and understanding.”

The group hopes to influence others starting with one Muslim and Jewish women at a time in the hopes that the love and relationships created will influence other people’s perspectives as well.

Karim says, “Everyone wants people to conform to what they are. So if they see a woman wearing a headscarf, they think she is oppressed. They do not stop to think, maybe it is her choice, maybe it is culturally what she knows, maybe that is how she grew up. But she is not really oppressed in any way as a matter of fact, some women tell me it is liberating!”

She goes on to explain how many women feel it is a form of freedom to be able to wear a Hijab and focus on building relationships based on who a person is, not how they look. Karim continues, “It’s a different type of thinking and it gives you a shift in your thinking and perception. But that is what people do not stop to think. That difference between us is really what enriches us. And that is what this country is built on: the melting pot.”

Therefore, what may begin as a collection of hesitant new faces joining together for a single meeting, can be transformed into a family of sisters who prove love and understanding can overcome hate and prejudice. As seen by countless chapters of The Sisterhood of Salaam Shalom®, despite differences in cultural backgrounds, sisters do not have to be bonded by blood, but instead they can be connected by love and support to stand beside one another in strength.

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