Presentation For the Ahmadiyya Muslim Women’s Association Conference

I am so honored to have been asked to speak to you from a Jewish perspective on the topic of  “ How Women of Faith can Contribute to Building Peaceful Societies.”  There are many ways that Jews practice our religion, but the basis of our tradition stands on three things- on Torah (which is our scroll- the first 5 books of our scriptures), on prayer and especially on acts of loving kindness. All over the world Jewish women have been and continue to be at the forefront of charitable organizations- building bridges, working for peace, promoting education for all and standing up for human rights. We have 2 Jewish women on the Supreme Court. We have teachers, writers, businesswomen, entertainers, mothers- all nurturers of our values. All of these women are my inspiration to work, as they do, to repair the world in whatever small ways that I can.

When I was young my grandmother brought me to see the Statue of Liberty in New York Harbor. Grandma Sarah came to America by herself in 1920 when she was 14 years old. Her family sent her across the ocean by boat to escape the persecution and killing of Jews in Russia and Poland at that time, and they dreamt that she would get a good education here.  Grandma made sure I saw the poem on the bronze plaque at the statue’s base. It was written by Emma Lazarus, a Jewish woman. “Give me your tired, your poor, Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free, The wretched refuse of your teeming shore. Send these, the homeless, tempest-tost to me, I lift my lamp beside the golden door!”

For Emma Lazarus and my grandmother the golden door of America was open to all people- regardless of religion, race, nationality or color.

Anyone who sought shelter here was welcome and valued- and should enjoy equal opportunities and rights as human beings in the land of freedom. This was my education as a child- hearing the stories of my grandmother who grew up to join with other Jewish and minority women to fight for decent wages, decent hours and decent working conditions for all in the sweatshops of New York City in the 1930’s and 40’s.

I grew up on Long Island in a town with a mixture of people of Italian, Irish and Jewish backgrounds.  Our family belonged to a Reform synagogue. I was proud of being Jewish- I loved our Jewish music, our Jewish holidays and our Jewish food- bagels, lox, brisket, challah that my grandmother baked and you could smell all the way from the elevator in her apartment building. But mostly what I loved about Judaism was that we had many discussions in my house about values- how to be a better person, a mensch. This was the definition of a good Jew. What could we do to improve the world- what could I do?

During my childhood I learned about the strong and heroic matriarchs in our Torah.  There was Abraham’s wife Sarah who waited for over 90 years to become a mother as promised by God. Her son Isaac was to carry on God’s covenant.  Ishmael, her handmaiden’s son, was also destined to become the leader of a great nation. At our Passover seder we read about Miriam, who watched her baby brother float away in a basket down the Nile to escape the Egyptian pharaoh’s edict that all Hebrew baby boys be killed. When the pharaoh’s daughter found baby Moses, Miriam had the courage to speak to the princess and reunite her family by offering her mother as his nursemaid.  In this way Moses could grow up learning about his birth heritage and his responsibility to lead his people out of Egypt to freedom.

Our rabbis teach us also about Ruth, a Moabite woman, who marries Naomi’s son, an Israelite, and then becomes widowed. Ruth pledges her friendship, trust and loyalty to her mother- in- law, cares for her and follows her back to the place where Naomi came from- far away from all that Ruth grew up with.  This beautiful story of sisterhood, loving kindness and acceptance of the stranger was the focus of our confirmation class when I was 16.

For college I decided to go to the University of Virginia to see what the rest of the world was like- a place where there weren’t many Jews.  I went to medical school and did my pediatric residency in Richmond- not many Jews there either. I felt different, I was clearly a minority- in fact I was the first Jew that many of my friends had ever spoken to.

After residency I moved to Northern Virginia, found my husband, and met our amazing Rabbi who performed our wedding ceremony. And with the help of our extended congregational family at Temple B’nai Shalom, we raised our 2 children- Jacob and Hannah. Under the leadership of our women Rabbis, our temple community has exemplified social action- in words and deeds- setting a standard for all the children that come through our doors. Every year we look forward to our Thanksgiving Eve service with our Lutheran friends, who generously shared their church space with us before we had a building of our own. Our temple collects groceries for a local homeless shelter on a regular basis. We  prioritize community building and respect for our neighbors.  We have ongoing youth projects to help others in need and to better understand the issues in our world.

We support each other through good and bad times- through all our life cycles and holidays, in sickness and in health- following Jewish traditions at home and in our synagogue, each in our own way.  Together we pray for and actively pursue peace in our homes and community- not only for Jews but for all peoples.

My children are the reason I am so passionate about being here today. I want, as every other mother wants, a better world for them. Their interests and work now embody Jewish values of kindness, welcoming the stranger, and seeking justice.  And I can do no less. I look around and see so much work that needs to be done in our country and beyond. How can we learn to speak more peacefully and with greater love for our neighbors?

So when I was asked to consider forming the first chapter of the Sisterhood of Salaam Shalom® in Northern Virginia, I thought about it for about 1 second and said yes. Sheryl Olitzky, whose husband is a rabbi, and her Muslim friends founded the Sisterhood of Salaam Shalom® and are thrilled to report that new chapters are forming all over the country.  They organized the annual Muslim and Jewish Women’s Leadership Conference at Princeton this fall where we heard amazing stories of struggle and hope- including women from the United Kingdom working together for economic equality, an Israeli woman and a Palestinian woman supporting each other through their battles with cancer, and a talk about the exciting work of the American Jewish World Service in caring for people of all faiths who are in need- women working for peace.

Sheryl and her Muslim colleagues founded the Sisterhood of Salaam Shalom® to organize small groups of Jewish and Muslim women to begin to form friendships and have meaningful conversations. She writes, “The primary goal is to build trust, respect and sustainable relationships between Muslim and Jewish women.”   “We build bridges and fight hate, negative stereotyping and prejudice.”

Sheryl and I believe that grass roots efforts between women of different faiths- sharing coffee and tea in each other’s homes and discussing common values, hopes and dreams- can light a small candle of hope in a troubled world. Most importantly it helps us to listen and have greater respect for other viewpoints, especially when we discuss more complex topics including the conflicts in the Middle East, the Syrian refugee crisis and other current events.

After having coffee with Sheryl last fall and sharing the dream, I called some friends from my temple and found that they were more than ready to meet their Muslim sisters– they have so many questions and so few opportunities to get answers and build relationships in a friendly, welcoming forum- like we have here today.  As a pediatrician in Falls Church, I feel so privileged to get to know mothers from all over the world, from varied backgrounds and religions. All have similar concerns- my baby doesn’t sleep, my baby sleeps too much, why isn’t he eating his vegetables, how can I get her to listen– and on and on. Most importantly how can I keep my child healthy and happy?

Through my work I have been blessed to meet some extraordinary Muslim ladies, including my partner leader in our Sisterhood chapter- Leina Wahba- another Northern Virginia pediatrician. I knew when I said yes to Sheryl, I could count on my friend Leina to invite more of her Muslim friends into our group.

Our sisterhood of 20 or so Muslim and Jewish ladies started meeting about every 6 weeks beginning in November. On December 24th we baked cookies together in my house to bring to the nurses, house keeping and security staff at INOVA Fairfax Hospital on Christmas Day.  Our ladies talk about our diverse backgrounds, our beliefs, how we practice our religious traditions, how we can support each other when there is hateful speech against Muslims or Jews, what our traditions teach us about caring for others. We will donate to Flint, Michigan to bring clean water to families, and we plan to fund raise for Syrian refugees. This month we all were so excited to hear about the birth of a baby girl to one of our sisters- such a blessing!

We continue to get to know each other better. During our last meeting we broke up into small groups so everyone could talk more intimately about what we find most beautiful about our religions and what we struggle with. We learned how our religions nourish us, but also some of our concerns about how we handle diversity of interpretation within our own faiths. Our hope is that our discussions trickle down to our families, our children, our neighbors-and will resonate in our actions- how we treat and listen to each other, how we support and care for each other, how we stand up for each other as Jews and Muslims together.

Two thousand years ago Rabbi Hillel summarized our whole Torah in this quote,  “What is hateful to you do not do to another.” If we follow this basic value, we will live true to the lady of the lamp in the New York Harbor who stands for justice and equality for all.  Right now, today – Is her golden door truly open? Are we doing enough to welcome newcomers from all backgrounds to our shores, and are we making sure they feel included within our neighborhoods?  Are we doing enough to help all children feel loved and part of our village? All of us at some point have experienced being the stranger, the new one, the one that is different.  I believe each of us through our words and deeds, through a smile or a hug, through inclusion, through education, through dialogue- each of us can and must be the instrument to create Shalom, Salaam, peace in our homes, in our communities, in the world.

Deliverd 3/12/2016
Susan Kohn, MD
Co-leader of No Virginia Chaper of Sisterhood of Salaam Shalom®


2 thoughts on “Presentation For the Ahmadiyya Muslim Women’s Association Conference”

  1. Professor Vanessa Ochs

    Dear Dr. Cohen, Will you come visit my class at UVA called “Abrahamic Feminisms?” It would be a great honor to meet with you.

  2. It would be an honor to come to my alma mater to talk with your class. I will email you so you can let me know what you would like.

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