About a decade ago, Sheryl Olitzky was in Poland on her way to see the former Auschwitz concentration camp and when she looked around, she noticed something.
“I didn’t see anyone that looked different,” said Olitzky, a Jewish American. “I didn’t see anyone with a headscarf on or a kippa, a yamaka. I didn’t see anyone of color, anyone Asian, anyone openly LGBTQ.”
Olitzky made this observation to her guide for the trip, a local Polish man.
“And he said ‘yes, you’re right my dear, Poland is for the Poles’ and then he said, ‘we don’t have Muslim problem here, because they’re not welcome,’” Olitzky recalled. “That was my ‘aha’ moment when I said I can’t change the past, but I could rewrite it by changing the future.”
It was out of this experience that the Sisterhood of Salaam Shalom was born. She teamed up with a Muslim woman named Atiya Aftab and the two got to work. What first began as a meetup for six Jewish and six Muslim women in their home state of New Jersey has grown into a national organization with 170 chapters across the United States.
This summer, more than 50 members came to Germany and Poland for a 10-day “Building Bridges” trip.
“It’s easy to hate someone you don’t know, when you know them it’s harder, and when you care about them, it’s impossible,” Olitzky said. “These women are going to leave these 10 days really loving each other and caring about each other and not only taking care of each other but each other’s communities.”
Mehnaz Afridi was one of the leaders of the European trip. She’s Muslim and heads the Holocaust, Genocide & Interfaith Education Center at Manhattan College in New York.
“It’s not also just faith based, it’s about human rights,” Afridi said. “Who does this world belong to? How do we share it? And how do we share it better? And that’s what we’re all about.”
The women who took part in the trip live all across the United States, and many traveled in pairs from their home chapters, like Debbie Weinstein and Miniimah Bilal-Shakir.
Weinstein and Bilal-Shakir carpooled to their first chapter remember. Weinstein said she remembers laughing a lot because they kept getting lost. That was just the beginning of their friendship.
When Weinstein’s husband died, Bilal-Shakir was there for her. Bilal-Shakir sent a text every night to check in and make sure Weinstein was doing OK. Since then, they’ve celebrated Thanksgiving together and Bilal-Shakir has come to Weinstein’s Passover Seder.
“She’s my sister,” Bilal-Shakir said about Weinstein. “I got another sister.”
In Berlin, the agenda was packed. On Friday alone, Jumu’ah prayer at the Omar Ibn Al-Khattab Mosque in Kreuzberg was followed that evening by Shabbat dinner at the Neue (New) Synagogue in Mitte.
It was all organized by Sharon Kuckuck. She’s from New York and has lived in Berlin since 2001. She’s now working with local Muslim partners to establishing a Sisterhood of Salaam Shalom chapter in Berlin. It will be the first in Germany.
“There’s a lot of people interested. People are overwhelmed by what’s going on and this very simple act of getting to know each other in small groups in each other’s houses and celebrating together makes us feel less helpless about the time, or less overwhelmed,” Kuckuck said.
Within the last year, Jewish and Muslim communities have been shaken by a number of targeted attacks. The shootings at mosques in New Zealand and at synagogues in San Diego and Pittsburgh have left many feeling more than uneasy.
Olitzky said her synagogue in the United States was a place where she used to feel safe – it was a place of peace. She feels that’s been taken from her.
“I have to enter into doors where there are security guards, and every time I hear a noise I’m always looking over my shoulder, which is the opposite of what it should be,” Olitzky said.
But for some, the trip to Germany and Poland restored a sense of hope: learning about past traumas and unpacking current conflicts, understanding one another’s pain and suffering.
There’s a photo that captures that, and it’s become iconic among the group, Kuckuck said.
It’s two women together at Auschwitz. One is wearing a kippa, the other is wearing a headscarf. They’re walking, with their arms around each other. Shouldering the pain of history while forging a way forward – together.
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