It turns out there’s more common ground than you’d think between Jewish and Islamic customs.
For one, tzedakah, the Jewish concept of charitable giving, has a counterpart, sadaqah, in Islamic tradition. For another, there is crossover between kosher and halal: Both ban pork and require special slaughterhouse protocols.
And then there’s that interfaith universal: the five-second rule.
Fatmata Sillah, 42, a nursing assistant from Collingdale, called it —then scooped up a slippery strip of lasagna that had escaped to the linoleum floor, rinsed it, and returned her attention to a pot of boiling pasta.
Cooking and community go hand in hand for this Philadelphia-area chapter of Sisterhood of Salaam Shalom — a movement to bring together groups of Muslim and Jewish women around the country.
“The idea is that you can’t hate what you love,” said Meredith Barber, a Penn Valley psychologist who is the Jewish cochairwoman of the chapter. “The idea is about Jewish women and Muslim women getting to know one another and becoming friends and changing the world that way, through relationships.”
The chapter is nearly two years old, but since the election there has been an explosion of interest. Barber and her collaborators are trying to channel that into the creation of new chapters across the region.
Each chapter operates a little differently. Barber's includes 14 members, who participate in monthly meetings, plus quarterly marathon cooking sessions that produce dozens of kosher and halal meals to serve at soup kitchens and to stock the freezer at the Philadelphia Interfaith Hospitality Network.
“After we were meeting for a year or so, the women said, ‘We’d like to do something together,’ ” Barber said. “We had a discussion about what we wanted to do, and we wanted to feed homeless people and we wanted to cook together.”
So, on a recent Sunday afternoon, five of them gathered in Barber's kitchen to make six large pans of kosher vegetarian lasagna.
Teresa Hadjali, 52, of Upper Darby, was chopping a heaping pile of onions. A principal at an Islamic school, she said the sisterhood is a place where she finds acceptance and solidarity. “It is, first of all, a very healing and encouraging support group.”
Sally Selim, 43, of Malvern, the chapter’s Muslim cochairwoman, said that, in most settings, “we tend to focus more on what is different instead of what we have in common.” Here, the opposite is true.
She began to explain — then someone’s mobile phone began to chime an alarm, a digital call to prayer. She and the other Muslim women in the group excused themselves, asked Barber to point them eastward, and retreated into another room to pray.
When Selim returned, she began mixing vegetables and ricotta in a large bowl and pondering how the current political climate has transformed the meaning of the Sisterhood to her. She recalled the relief of attending her first meeting following the presidential election in November.
“I felt I could talk openly. All the fears and anxiety and anger and disappointment, I felt I could finally get that out in the open,” she said.
Kathy Roberts, 52, of Gulph Mills, agreed: “When you get down about politics, you get together with these women and you feel like there is still humanity left.”
Still, some topics are verboten – or, to borrow an Islamic term, haram.
Sheryl Olitzky and Atiya Aftab, the two New Jersey women who founded the Sisterhood of Salaam Shalom in 2010, developed guidelines. Among them, said Barber, “we’re not allowed to talk about the Middle East unless we’ve been together for something like two years, and even then only with a trained facilitator.”
Her group has steered clear of the subject. She feels there’s plenty of less-treacherous ground to cover first. And, she’s currently focused on helping form new chapters. About 120 women in and around Philadelphia have expressed interest – but only about 25 of those are Muslim. So, many more Muslim women are needed to launch new groups.
For now, said Rachel Falkove, of the Philadelphia Interfaith Hospitality Network, the meals – dropped off in stacks of plastic containers with custom-printed labels – are making a small but vital difference.
“We get a lot of people walking in who are hungry,” she said. “We have families who run out of food stamps and need something to feed their kids. We get working poor coming in who don’t have food stamps, but they’re just not making it. And not everyone has cooking ability in their homes: They may not have utilities. They may not have a working stove. They may not have a refrigerator.”
Sillah said she hopes these small gestures can result in a cumulative impact.
“I think at this time we needed something like this,” she said. “Women are the ones that make things happen. We might not be at the forefront, but we make things happen.”