Sheryl Olitzky and Atiya Aftab are working to change the world one interfaith relationship at a time.
As a Muslim woman and a Jewish woman, they seem like an unlikely pair from the outside. They live according to two religions that have historically found themselves at war, but their friendship is proof that their communities can still come together. We partnered with National Geographic’s The Story of Us With Morgan Freeman (Wednesdays 9/8c), a new six-part series about the common humanity in us all, to share how Olitzky and Aftab put aside their differences to create a better future for everyone.
Olitzky was first inspired to start her interfaith organization during a trip to Poland in 2010. She had planned to visit Auschwitz to bring attention to the power of anti-Jewish sentiment and hate, but once she was there she realized that the struggles of Jewish people were shared by so many other religions, including Muslims.
“It was at that point when I said I cannot change the past, but I can change the future,” Olitzky told Huffpost. “When I came home I realized that there was a moderately sized Muslim and Jewish community in my backyard. There was nothing overtly negative between both communities, but there was nothing. I decided to change that.”
Olitzky reached out to the religious director at a local mosque in South Brunswick, New Jersey, who told her to contact Aftab. Aftab was an attorney and activist, who was also a chairwoman at the mosque.
“Sheryl was super persistent in trying to meet me,” recalled Aftab. “When we ended up meeting, we really hit it off. We agreed there was something we should do because we have to work together as minority groups. We have to speak up for each other.”
Olitzky and Aftab made a plan to bring together a group of Muslim and Jewish women. Their goal was to foster more intimate relationships with the hope that it would build a better understanding between them. After a month of recruiting, they invited five Jewish and five Muslim women to meet at Aftab’s home. Some were apprehensive to join, but they took the risk.
“We ended up sending emails to each other to say how electric the room was [during that first meeting],” said Aftab. “It was just so impactful to all of us to get to know each other ― [we talked] a little bit about family, a little bit about career. It eased into the challenges of being a Jewish woman and the challenges of being a Muslim woman.”
The women in the group quickly realized that they had a lot in common, particularly their difficulties navigating a life of faith in a majority Christian country. Olitzky and Aftab decided to keep the conversation going and started planning meetings each month. Eventually, other women were contacting them wanting to join the group, too. As the interest continued to grow, they started to encourage other women to start their own chapters.
“It started growing organically and then Sheryl had this idea to have a national organization to foster the creation of these groups of Muslim and Jewish women around the country,” explained Aftab. In 2014, they officially became a non-profit called the Sisterhood of Salaam Shalom.
Despite the organization’s successful expansion, the founders have been criticized for bringing the two faiths together. Olitzky admits that she has lost friendships over what they are doing.
The ongoing clash between Muslims and Jews in Israel-Palestine has been a major point of contention for those who disapprove. Most don’t understand why these religions would work together. While Aftab and Olitzky do have differing opinions on the conflict, they aren’t letting that keep them apart.
“Three summers ago when there was the bombing going on in Gaza, it was the month of Ramadan and one of our women hosted an iftar [a meal] to break the fast together,” Aftab shared. “One of the Jewish women knocked on the door and a Muslim answered and said ‘I really want to hate you right now because of what’s going on, but I can’t hate you because you’re my friend.’”
Aftab said that mentality is at the heart of the Sisterhood of Salaam Shalom. Over the years they have not only worked to bring these women face to face, but create meaningful relationships between them. The premise came from the “contact hypothesis,” a theory that found the best way to get rid of prejudice between groups is to have interpersonal interaction. Along with the chapter meetings, the Sisterhood also hosts an annual convention and group trip. Through these relationship building events the women become like sisters.
“These are women that you wouldn’t expect to have these intimate relationships,” Olitzky explained. “These are women that are calling each other in the middle of the night because there was a death in the family or they need advice on their job. I am talking about major roles they are playing, as if they are truly part of a family.”
Olitzky and Aftab are the perfect example of this bond. When Olitzky’s husband became critically ill three years ago, it was Aftab’s husband who spent five hours saving him. “The only person I wanted by my side was Atiya,” said Olitzky.
Since founding the organization three years ago, the Sisterhood of Salaam Shalom has expanded to 100 chapters around the country. They currently have several thousand women still waiting to join, and are in the process of starting 40 new chapters.
As reported hate crimes have risen in the current political climate, the founders feel that these two groups coming together has taken on even more significance.
“Women are realizing that all we have to do is get rid of the ignorance and get to know each other,” said Olitzky. “Not only are you standing up when you hear hate against each other, you are standing up when you hear hate against each other’s communities. Through those relationships, you are influencing others and the greater community of folks who are of another faith group other than Islam and Judaism.”
The Sisterhood continues to get hate mail because of what they are doing, but the pair said that they won’t let that stop them.
“Ultimately, we are one humanity, but it’s not about the ‘Kumbaya’ of saying we are one humanity,” said Aftab. “When you get to know someone on a personal level you have a face behind that concept. Maybe they feel hostile, maybe they feel uncomfortable, but they are taking that chance to know somebody who they think is very different.”
People around the world like Olitzky and Aftab are accepting each other’s differing beliefs in the hope of making a better future for everyone. The Story of Us With Morgan Freeman, a six-part series by National Geographic, will put the spotlight on transcendent journeys like these and the unexpected people who come together to drive humanity forward around the world.
The Story of Us With Morgan Freeman Wednesdays @ 9/8c on National Geographic.
Go to natgeotv.com/StoryofUs for more information.