When Sheryl Olitzky and Atiya Aftab started Sisterhood of Salaam Shalom, it was before Donald Trump’s travel ban targeted predominantly Muslim countries. It was before hundreds of white supremacists carrying Tiki torches chanted “Jews will not replace us” during a rally in Charlottesville, Va.
It was before more than 100 tombstones were vandalized at a Jewish cemetery in St. Louis, and before reports of mosques being vandalized and thugs grabbing hijabs off of women’s heads had become commonplace.
The cross-cultural bridge-building group was spurred in 2011 by Olitzky’s visit to Auschwitz and her wanting to make sure that the Holocaust “would never happen to a Muslim.” The group’s members had no idea how prescient their project would turn out to be.
“We started this before I could even fathom the hate that’s surrounding us today,” said Olitzky, who is the executive director of the growing nonprofit.
While SOSS has grown steadily since it began six years ago, in the year since Donald Trump took office membership has soared, and what started as a local meet-up of a dozen or so women, has now emerged as a surprising point of resistance with a more activist bent.
The focus of the organization is still based around monthly meetings of 10 to 20 in which the women, half of them Jewish, half of them Muslim, learn about each other’s religions and do volunteer work together. But as hate crimes have spiked dramatically in the year since Trump took office, the organization is becoming increasingly focused on addressing the hate. Local chapters are reaching out to individuals and congregations when hate crimes take place, and the national organization is offering to send speakers to schools where incidents have occurred. In February, more than 100 chapters held simultaneous unity vigils — including one for all the New York City-area chapters at the Jewish Theological Seminary — to protest Trump’s travel ban. At the New York City vigil, Muslim and Jewish women walked to the front of the room in pairs and read passages and prayers in Arabic and Hebrew.
“When there was a mosque that was desecrated, we wrote a letter together. In our own county in Westchester, there were swastikas painted in a park … and we wrote to the county [executive] together to express our unified disturbance,” said Annette Rotter, who co-founded the first Westchester group 13 months ago.
The seeds for the increased activism may have been planted during the presidential campaign.
Referencing then-GOP nominee Trump’s reaction to Gold Star father Khizr Khan’s speech at the Democratic National Convention — in which he seemed to insult him and his wife — Rotter said she was talking to fellow chapter members Akifa and Maria Abdullah about the incident. “I was telling them how disturbing it is and how sad I’m feeling — and vice versa when they hear about something that is happening at a synagogue. It just feels like it is both personal and political, because you know they’re out there and they know I’m out there championing the other,” Rotter said.
Between Jan. 1 and Sept. 30 of 2017, there were 1,299 anti-Semitic incidents reported across the United States, a 67 percent increase over the same period in 2016. The latest count of anti-Muslim incidents, released by the FBI last week, shows that there were 307 hate crimes against Muslims in 2016, 127 of which were physical attacks, a 19 percent increase over the previous year. (Jews in 2016 were victims of 684 hate crimes.)
Since Trump was elected, the number of SOSS chapters has more than tripled, from 45 in November 2016 to 150 today; another 40 are in the early stages of starting up. There are chapters in 26 states, with nearly 1,000 women on a waitlist.
Caren Singer co-founded an SOSS Manhattan chapter a year ago after listening to Trump’s campaign rhetoric. Before founding the group, Singer said, she would “look at everyone who is Muslim and say, ‘Oh my God, is he a terrorist?’ It was them and we were us.”
But the more she heard from Trump, the more she began to question her views. “I guess Trump made me think … because he just hated everybody and that was something that I didn’t want to be,” she said.
Singer was not alone.
“After our conference last year, which was in December, we had thousands of people reaching out to us,” said Aftab, “and we just simply didn’t have the human resources to manage it. We felt like we just had this exponential growth.”
In response, the organization is expanding both its staff and its programming.
“We realized if we’re growing so fast, we’d better control the growth,” Olitzky said.
In addition to hiring new staff, Olitzky and Afar are expanding training materials for chapter leaders. While there are plenty of women eager to join, they are generally more hesitant to become group co-leaders. Olitzky and Aftab hope the additional training materials will encourage more women to step up. Plans include an online “help desk” once a month, a series of training videos on YouTube and regional training sessions.
There are also programs that serve nonmembers as well as members. There’s an annual conference to train women on ways to combat bigotry. This year’s conference, which took place Nov. 5 at Drew University in Madison, N.J., attracted 600 participants. There’s also an annual nine-day mission. There is even a documentary being made about the group by Transform Films, Inc.; it is expected to be released next year.
Another area of expansion will be the rollout of a teen division next fall. Currently there are five pilot teen chapters. “There is a huge desire among teenage girls [to join SOSS],” Olitzky said. “I get emails everyday.”
The first teen group started in Westchester, growing out of Rotter’s group, which included two sets of teenage twins. “The girls said: ‘No way are you doing this without us,’” Olitzky said.
The teens took on social activism projects on their own, speaking at two elementary schools: one Jewish, one Muslim, Rotter said. “They go in as a team together. They’re showing their friendship but also exposing Muslim kids to Jewish teens and also Jewish kids to Muslim teens.”
The lessons were so well received, Rotter added, that they’re “hoping to continue to do it” and have been sharing it with other chapters.
In the New York metropolitan area there are 15 chapters with 242 members: three in Manhattan, one each in Queens, Brooklyn and Northern Bronx/Southern Westchester, five in Westchester and four on Long Island. There are 300 area women on the waitlist.
Rokeya Akhter, who co-founded the Queens chapter 13 months ago, has been wanting “to do something” about the hate and bigotry since 9/11, when a co-worker pointed his finger at her and blamed “her people” for the attacks.
She said she believes that the relationships created by SOSS will go a long way to combat such hate. “When I was in the conference, it felt like we all came from one motherhood, like we are all sisters. … I feel like I am doing something for the women. We are empowering ourselves.”
Olitzky thinks that the maternal instinct to protect one’s young is one of the reasons the membership has grown so passionate and so rapidly.
“In every single chapter, everyone has got a story. Their kids being petrified, their kids are not sleeping at night. The impact that Charlottesville has had on Jewish kids is mindboggling. And Muslim kids, they’re a product of it [anti-Muslim bigotry] every day.” One member told of a 9-year-old girl getting kicked out of her Girl Scout troop because she is Muslim. Another told of her teenage son being called a “terrorist” by another teen at a summer leadership program.
The 7-year-old grandchild of one member wanted to hide her family’s religion after her day school had been evacuated several times due to bomb threats.
“She said: ‘Abba, can we take the mezuzah off our front door? At school if they try to kill me because I’m Jewish I’ve got enough time to evacuate. But if they go down our street and see our mezuzah we won’t have a warning and they’ll come blow us up,” said the member, who asked that we not use her name to protect her granddaughter’s privacy.
Olitzky said, “I’ve got seven little grandchildren. Over my dead body are these kids going to grow up being afraid to be Jewish. To my last breath I will make sure that this world is being made safer for them. That’s what the women of the Sisterhood are saying. They are saying: ‘We are not taking this stuff.’”
She added: “People have been scared. … This stuff [bigotry] has been there, it is not new. It was dormant. The change in the administration has made it OK for this to now be mainstream, and if we don’t take charge, who is going to? … I don’t see the government saying this is unacceptable. So if it’s not happening we’ve got a choice: sit back and pray to God or step up to the plate. And you see thousands and thousands of Muslim and Jewish women stepping up to the plate.”