The mission of the Sisterhood of Salaam Shalom is to build trust, respect, and relationships between Muslim and Jewish women and teenage girls. Together we commit to stand up for one another, educate one another about our faith and cultural practices, engage in social action and work to end acts of hate for all human beings.
In 2010, Sheryl Olitzky went on a life-changing trip to Poland. She was there to visit Auschwitz, but what she found stopped her in her tracks: “I saw overt signs of hate toward Jews,” said Olitzky. “I did not see the magnitude of acknowledgement of the Holocaust that I expected, like you see in Germany, and I did not feel welcomed there. When I spoke with several local Poles, it was clear that there was still hate toward Jews and especially toward Muslims, who were considered ‘the other,’ not welcome and a problem for Poland's future.” She knew she wanted to fight the kind of hate she saw in Poland once she returned home to New Jersey. After reaching out to a local imam, Olitzky was put in touch with Atiya Aftab, a law professor at Rutgers University, and the two women founded the Sisterhood of Salaam Shalom in 2011.
The Sisterhood’s mission is to build “strong relationships between Muslim and Jewish women based on developing trust and respect and ending anti-Muslim and anti-Jewish sentiment” through local chapters of eight to twenty women. The national board provides the local chapters with curriculum, policy positions, and general support. Local chapters work on the ground to build and improve relationships between different communities; these geographically-organized groups of women plan regular meetings, activism work, and interfaith engagement. In addition to formal discussions and social justice work, chapter members often celebrate holidays and personal events together, which contributes to shared learning, understanding, and relationship-building. Their membership is intergenerational as well as interfaith: girls as young as 14 years old are able to work in youth chapters and, as Olitzky said, women are “welcome to stick around as long as they like!” Although the Sisterhood remains an independent body, it periodically partners with other interfaith and social justice organizations to work towards its goals.
There were 25 chapters of the Sisterhood in the spring of 2016; that number doubled by the fall of the same year, largely because of the election of Donald Trump as the US president. “We were founded years before Trump took office, so we had a structure in place when the worst happened,” said Olitzky. “We had a commitment in place for Muslim and Jewish women to not only build relationships, but to fight hate. When the ugly face of hate erupted, we had everything set to immediately respond as opposed to trying to pull it all together. There’s no way we could have achieved what we’ve been able to achieve [without this infrastructure].”
Chapters have since sprung up across the United States, Canada, and Germany. The Sisterhood now boasts 180 chapters with approximately 3,500 total members. These chapters regularly work with around 2,000 “involved” women, who are not official chapter members but regularly engage with the organization. The Sisterhood runs wide-reaching social media campaigns where it engages followers in anti-hate efforts. In 2016, the Sisterhood was featured in the New York Times, which put them in the national spotlight and contributed to the organization’s growth. Olitzky and Aftab appeared on Megyn Kelly Today in 2017, and the Sisterhood has since been profiled by the Chicago Tribune, Teen Vogue, and the Huffington Post, among others.
In response to the 2016 election, chapters have empowered “sisters” to rise and respond to hate by “praying with their feet”—going to protests, organizing vigils, and working with other interfaith organizations. Both the national and local chapters engage their communities through social media, annual conferences, and domestic and international trips. For example, in August 2018, Sisterhood chapter members attended a counterprotest to the Unite the Right 2 rally in Washington, D.C. Additionally, following the 2018 mass shooting at the Tree of Life Synagogue in Pittsburgh, PA, many local chapters organized “pray outs,” attended protests, and attended chapter meetings geared toward support and love. Local chapters also organized voter registration drives for the 2018 U.S. midterm elections and the 2020 presidential election. The Sisterhood has also offered international, educational trips to Azerbaijan, Albania, Bosnia, Germany, and Poland, as well as civil rights trips to the American South and the US/Mexico border. These experiences immerse women from chapters across the country in the “on-the-ground” fight against hate.
The COVID-19 pandemic, which struck the United States in March 2020, interrupted the Sisterhood’s regular programming, but they quickly shifted to a digital format. While chapters ceased meeting in person for meetings or to “pray with their feet” at marches and vigils, they continued their work online by hosting monthly trainings on rising and responding to hate and, since the incidents of police brutality in the summer of 2020, have incorporated anti-racist efforts in their programming. “The killing of George Floyd was so full of hate,” said Olitzky. “In response, we as a sisterhood are exploring our anti-Blackness, and thinking about how to make the Sisterhood a place that embraces our Black sisters in the Sisterhood and in our wider communities.”
The Trump presidency also pushed the organization to reconsider one of their initial central tenets: neutrality on Israel/Palestine. “We wanted to wait until there was enough trust and respect built between the sisters, where they could listen with their hearts and not their ears,” said Olitzky. “When we got to that point, we started with the board and used an approach that allowed us to really learn how to share our stories, listen to different stories, and grow from those differences as opposed to being threatened by them. It resulted in us coming out with several position statements on Israel and Palestine. Instead of being an ostrich with our head in the sand, we’re taking it head on.” In February 2020, the Sisterhood released a statement affirming the many different positions held by their members on the issue, and later opposed Israel’s annexation plan of the West Bank, which was announced in June 2020 and was endorsed by the US government.
Although Trump lost the election and left office early in 2021, the Sisterhood will continue to ”wage peace.” The organization’s relationally-driven model of justice work encourages women to reframe “the other” as a friend, and the Sisterhood’s success proves the necessity of forging relationships across differences in skin color, religious tradition, and nationality. “As much as there's divisiveness out there, we know there are those who are saying stop the violence, stop the hatred, the terrorism,” said Olitzky. “Let's find a way to work together.”