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A group of Jewish and Muslim women use diversity to find similarities

Saima Ahmad, left, and Bonnie Mandel chat over coffee in Spokane on Monday, Mar. 12, 2018. The two are leaders in a group called Sisterhood of Salaam Shalom, which brings Muslim and Jewish women together to talk about ideas and share food and fellowship. (Jesse Tinsley/THE SPOKESMAN-REVI / SR)
Saima Ahmad, left, and Bonnie Mandel chat over coffee in Spokane on Monday, Mar. 12, 2018. The two are leaders in a group called Sisterhood of Salaam Shalom, which brings Muslim and Jewish women together to talk about ideas and share food and fellowship. (Jesse Tinsley/THE SPOKESMAN-REVI / SR)

A small group of women in Spokane are doing what they can to make their corner of the world more understanding, inclusive and welcoming even as divisive rhetoric heats up across the country.

Last summer a group of nine Jewish women and nine Muslim women came together to create a local chapter of the Sisterhood of Salaam Shalom, a national organization dedicated to bringing together women belonging to the two faiths.

Bonnie Mandel, the Jewish co-leader of the group, said she wanted to start the group because she came from a large, diverse city. “I really missed that,” she said. “I decided it was time for me to make a little splash in my corner of the world.”

Mandel is a member of Congregation Emanu-El, a Jewish Reform synagogue in Spokane. She found immediate interest in the Jewish community.

“I didn’t know anyone who was Muslim,” she said.

Mandel approached Saima Ahmad, a local physician she knew professionally, even though she wasn’t sure Ahmad was Muslim. Ahmad was so enthusiastic about the idea that she became the Muslim co-leader of the group. Both women made an effort to recruit members who represented a wide variety of faith practices. The 18 members range from young mothers to grandmothers.

“I had a lot of Jewish friends,” Ahmad said. “The idea really intrigued me. I’m glad I did get involved because it’s been a fascinating journey.”

Each month the group meets to discuss a specific topic. They meet in each others’ homes, and food is always served. Given the different dietary restrictions for each faith, the food is vegetarian. “There has been some spectacular food,” Mandel said.

The gatherings began as formal meetings, but things have slowly changed. “We have found more similarities than differences,” Ahmad said. “We as people are more similar than different.

“I think I have grown spiritually because of the experience. In the process I’ve made some great friends. It’s been fun.”

Mandel agrees. “I have really enjoyed being a part of a group of intelligent, inquisitive and caring women,” she said. “That’s been a really positive, positive experience. I, too, have grown spiritually and pondered a lot of deep spiritual questions of my own.”

Along the way both women have learned more about the other’s faith, but also more about their own.

“It just opens up your mind, not about the other faith, but your own faith,” said Ahmad.

Mandel said she has learned a lot about the different types of Judaism along the way.

“I have definitely learned so much about Islam that I never knew,” she said.

The group will grow no larger than it is now. That’s intentional, in part because the group meets in homes. “If it’s too big, you can’t really have a conversation,” Ahmad said.

Mandel said: “It’s all about sharing and communicating with each other.”

Several Jewish women have expressed an interest in starting another Spokane chapter of the group and she’s helping them get organized, Mandel said, but they need Muslim women willing to join. Anyone who is interesting in participating can visit https://sosspeace.org and fill out the form indicating that they are interested in joining.

There is no similar organization for Jewish and Muslim men, Mandel said. “I think the hope has been the women will inspire the men,” she said. “I think it would be great.”


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