“Challenges in thinking and listening to one another’s narratives is the powerful path to peace.”
— Dr. Mehnaz Afridi, director of Holocaust, Genocide & Interfaith Education Center, Manhattan College
“We are going to protect each other and protect each other’s communities. We will not stand for hate of any kind.”
— Sheryl Olitzky, executive director, Sisterhood of Salaam Shalom
I’ve just returned from a life-changing trip with the Sisterhood of Salaam Shalom in which 52 Jewish and Muslim women visited Berlin, Warsaw, Krakow and Auschwitz — the first ever trip of its kind. SOSS states as its mission: “We grow relationships between Muslim and Jewish women to build bridges and fight hate, negative stereotyping and prejudice.” Our shared goal was to come together to bear witness to the greatest atrocity of Western civilization, to learn from the past and from one another so that we can combat hate in our present time.
Our group of women, aged 17 to 77, began our trip in Berlin learning about both Jewish history and the wave of refugees from Muslim majority countries. We visited many sites, including the Holocaust memorials dedicated to the Sinti/Romas and murdered homosexuals, with a lecture by trans scholar Finn Ballard. We did a memorial service at track 17, where the Jews were sent by train in mass deportations.
Profound stories and experiences were common. A German man who struck up conversation in a restaurant with us said: “I assume you are going to Auschwitz. I imagine for many of you, it’s the first time. That’s going to be hard.” He said that as a German citizen, he thought it was brave for us to come together and confront the difficult history of the “axis of evil” that took place in Germany, saying he was so moved that he needed to go cry.
We went to a mosque to do Jummah prayer and then to Shabbat services at the Oranienburger Strasse shul which, in its glory days, seated 3,200. We visited Kiga NGO, which teaches new refugees about anti-Semitism and Islamophobia. Founded by two Turkish immigrants, the organization builds relationships through school-based peer communication. We learned about a Jewish/Arab bilingual puppet theater and about the group Shalom Habibi, whose tagline is, “Make music not war.” We collectively ate lots of hummus.
We visited the Polin Museum on the former site of the Warsaw ghetto. The museum traces Jewish history in Poland from the Middle Ages to the current community. We went to the Nozyk Synagogue, the only surviving synagogue in Warsaw out of five that existed pre-WWII and the most visited synagogue in the world. Here, we met with the rabbi, who told our group, “We are in a time where the main political currency is hatred, and people like to sell us-vs.-them.” We also had the opportunity to hear from the wife of the mufti of Poland and to learn about the Tatar Muslim community.
In Krakow, we visited the JCC where we learned about various groups working to eradicate hate. One young woman was piecing together her identity and discovered she wanted to belong to the Jewish community without even knowing her own history. She learned Hebrew and started dating a man who had discovered he was Jewish at age 6. This is another common occurrence in Poland today — young people discovering their family’s past and coming to terms with a complicated history. The JCC is dedicated to rebuilding Jewish life in a community that was decimated and relies on help from at least 70 non-Jewish volunteers. According to 28th-generation Rabbi Avi Baumel, he gets conversion requests at least twice a week.
“If a community that has gone through what this community has gone through can rebuild,” he said, “it is a testament to the human spirit.”
We visited the museum on the site of Oscar Schindler’s factory, and worked together to weed a Jewish cemetery, removing moss from stones and saying Kaddish for those who have no families left to do so for them. We went to Auschwitz/Birkenau, where we conducted an interfaith service. As a Jew, it is of course beyond words to describe how it feels to walk through Auschwitz, but the added layer of our Muslim sisters’ responses and seeing our pain reflected through them made me realize what this trip was truly about. The sensitivity expressed was a testament to our shared humanity, and hearing the Quran beautifully chanted by an Islamic scholar in a place known for man’s inhumanity to man is an experience I will never forget.
As we walked back toward the bus, arm in arm, hugging and crying — kippot and hijabs merging against the blue sky— it was impossible not to feel something we so rarely feel these days: hope. pjc
Sara Stock Mayo is the director of ruach and music at Temple Ohav Shalom and co-leader of the independent minyan Chavurat Shirah. She is the managing director of Pittsburgh Playback Theatre.