America’s Pluralism Experiment Can Succeed
A diverse sisterhood of strangers showed me how
Two years ago, I joined a Sisterhood of Salaam Shalom local chapter in Manhattan. The Sisterhood brings together equal numbers of Jewish and Muslim women in intimate chapters of between 10–20 members, all across America. The goal is to build personal bonds, improve knowledge and literacy about the two religions, dispel misconceptions, fight hate, and model how to live together with respect, dignity and love. In short, participation in the Sisterhood transforms strangers into friends, and friends into sisters.
I have been working on strategies to fight xenophobia and various “isms” for two decades at a high “strategic” level, typically removed from personal involvement in community-based work. In 2019, distressed by our country’s deep and worsening divisions, the rise in anti-Semitism and Islamophobia, and the resurgence of extremist movements and identity-based violence more broadly, I wanted to bridge the gap between my personal life and my professional work in philanthropy and social justice. I had heard about the Sisterhood from a friend and found its premise intriguing. So I put my name on a waiting list. Weeks later, I was invited to join a chapter.
I attended my first meeting with some trepidation, having never “put myself out there” in this particular way. I was nervous about how to navigate this encounter with so many strangers and wondered if I would be patient enough to see this experiment through. Patience paid off. With each passing meeting, the awkwardness receded, replaced by genuine fondness, curiosity and warmth and the wondrousness of co-creating a welcoming and inclusive space.
What surprised me most was that a desire to bridge religious difference is what brought us into contact in the first instance, but religion ended up being one of so many lines of difference we were actually crossing individually and collectively.
The Jews and Muslims among us vary in our degree of religious observance and traditions. We are racially diverse. We come from different countries as well — our group includes women from Turkey, Mali and Senegal, as well as women born in America. Some of them are recent immigrants who fled persecution while others immigrated for work and have been in America for decades.
Our ages span nearly 50 years — from late 20s to early 70s. I can’t think of another setting I’ve been in — other than perhaps family reunions — where we gather across multiple generations in this deliberate way. And precisely because we inhabit various life stages, we experience a wide range of life events as well. Some of us are mourning lost spouses and parents, others have just welcomed new babies into the world, and still others have yet to find a life partner. Some of us struggle with raising teenagers and young adults during COVID, and fear the lasting impacts of a year of isolation and disconnection. Some of us are nearing the end of decades-long careers, while others are just starting on that path. Some of us are politically engaged and running for elected office, while others among us are finding our voices for the first time. Socio-economically and professionally, we occupy different spots on the spectrum.
But amidst all this difference, there are some areas of convergence in our group. We are all women who work, or who have worked. We are doers and thinkers. We are curious and open to new experiences. And, although our political views range somewhat, I would characterize us all as moderate to progressive politically. Partisanship is one very salient source of difference we are not crossing but I have no doubt that as sisters we could navigate that one too.
We have celebrated Passover and Eid together, toured the Islamic wing at the Metropolitan Museum, the Turkish Cultural Center and the Africa Center, and enjoyed a Friday evening Shabbat service. We’ve cooked for one another and shared recipes from our distinct cultures and homelands. During COVID, we’ve zoomed, met in Central Park with masks, and zoomed some more. Fortunately, we had a year of in-person bonding under our belts before COVID hit, so we were able to be there for one another when COVID upended our lives.
Somehow, this motley assortment of strangers who met for the first time two years ago ended up being a source of love and support for me, even at a distance. The space we create when we meet is one of radical acceptance. Reflecting on this, I realized that the how of coming together was the magic ingredient that made this transformation possible. The founders of the Sisterhood had embedded the fundamental principles of successful social contact into the DNA of their work: meeting on equal footing (equal numbers of Jews and Muslims, jointly co-leading each chapter and the organization as a whole), sustained contact, and shared goals.
I didn’t expect to divulge my deepest hopes and fears this freely with people I just met, and yet be reluctant to do so with people I know much better and who may be more “like me” in many dimensions. I think it’s precisely because of the foundation of empathy and acceptance that undergirds our interactions. And that was no accident. We gathered purposefully in ways designed to foster trust and mutuality that make transformation possible. We built a stronger, more respectful and more loving community across the very lines of difference that traditionally caused conflict, distrust and hate.
As I ponder the daunting structural interventions and reforms needed to usher in the more inclusive America I want to see where all people feel they belong, I find that my experience with my sisters is precisely what has given me the conviction that it’s possible, that it can be fostered, and that it’s worth fighting for.
At a time when America’s viability as a multiracial democracy is still very much in question, this sisterhood has provided one of the strongest proof points that we can co-create something truly special if we see one another in all of our humanity, and fully embrace both what makes us different and fundamentally alike.
FURTHER READING AND RESOURCES
Below are some resources and research syntheses explaining how to bridge across differences effectively (drawing from social contact theory), how to listen deeply and without judgment, and how to nurture a successful community, like a Sisterhood of Salaam Shalom chapter, over time.
Greater Good Science Center Bridge Building Initiative
Journal of Social Issues Special issue on intergroup contact
Millions of Conversations Listening Guide
Othering and Belonging Institute The Problem of Othering
Sisterhood of Salaam Shalom Member Guide
Trailer to new documentary film, Stranger Sister, about the Sisterhood of Salaam Shalom.
This article is reprinted with permission of the Center for Inclusion and Belonging at the American Immigration Council, where it was published on April 25, 2021.