The women range from their mid-20s to retirees. They run businesses or work at nonprofits, are authors or educators or stay-at-home moms. They are Jews, Christians and Muslims.
They share a love of books, and a desire to build bridges across cultures and make new friends.
The Daughters of Abraham Women’s Interfaith Book Group has been going strong in Pittsburgh for about five years. It is part of a larger initiative begun soon after 9/11 in Cambridge, Mass., by the late Edie Howe, who was inspired to bring together women of the three Abrahamic faiths to form bonds of sisterhood.
There are now more than 30 Daughters of Abraham book groups throughout the United States, including in Maryland, Washington, D.C., California, Ohio and Colorado.
Pittsburgh’s group typically attracts between eight and 16 participants at its meetings, which take place every six weeks, usually at someone’s home. The books discussed can be fiction or non-fiction, and either focus on one of the three Abrahamic faiths or are interfaith in nature, said Michele Bossers, who regularly attends Pittsburgh’s Daughters of Abraham meetings.
Some of the recent titles chosen by the group include “The Seven Storey Mountain,” the autobiography of Thomas Merton, a Trappist monk; and Reza Aslan’s “No god but God,” which explains the essence of Islam. Jewish-themed selections have included “Short Stories by Jesus: The Enigmatic Parables of a Controversial Rabbi,” by Amy-Jill Levine, a reinterpretation of Jesus’ narratives put in the context of their original Jewish audience.
Cindy Goodman-Leib, chair of the Jewish Federation of Greater Pittsburgh’s Community Relations Council, has been with the group since its inception, and appreciates the “opportunity to connect with people outside of a political context.”
“I’m a supporter of books being both a window and a mirror to the world,” explained Goodman-Leib, a member of Congregation Beth Shalom and executive director of Pittsburgh’s Jewish Assistance Fund. “Books are a way of seeing out into the world and provide opportunities for reflection.”
Sydelle Pearl, a member of Congregation Dor Hadash, appreciates getting to know women from diverse backgrounds. She joined the group shortly after it was formed.
“The group provides a unique opportunity for me to meet people who are different than myself,” she said.
The impact of the group extends beyond diversity for some members, like Aliya Khan, who attends the Muslim Community Center of Greater Pittsburgh. For Khan, the project’s focus on faith brought her to the group and keeps her coming back.
“I love religion and reading about faith,” she said. “There is a real comfort in finding diverse pockets of people that share an interest in reading about religion.”
Participating in the group has helped expand Bossers’ horizons, said the member of the East Liberty Presbyterian Church.
“I grew up in a predominately monolithic, conservative community,” Bossers said, noting that often people have a “limited understanding of people outside our own faith.”
While the women gather ostensibly to discuss books, the dialogue prompted by the literature typically travels well beyond the page. “The book is merely a vehicle,” noted Pearl, stressing the amplified importance of the group in the wake of current American political rhetoric.
“I am more aware now of the preciousness of what we have, what we’ve developed, just by virtue of being,” Pearl said.
After the election last November, “some people had really strong reactions,” added Goodman-Leib. “And some people had no idea why people had strong reactions, and didn’t understand the upheaval and threat to security. But we in the group hear the voices; we hear what it means.”
The connections the women have made with one another have also opened doors to additional opportunities for exploration of the different faiths, according to Bossers. Through her book group friends, she often will hear of events taking place at the Islamic Center or other venues that she would not have known about otherwise.
And when she does attend those events, she is more likely to know a familiar face and feel welcome.
“I know I’m not intruding,” Bossers said, adding that the group members are becoming more “intentional” about extending invitations to each other to events hosted within their own faith communities.
For Khan, being part of the group is also important because it helps dispel misconceptions and generalizations about Muslims.
“People who know Muslims view them differently than how the media portrays them, looking for sensational news” and focusing on acts of violence, she said. “People don’t realize there is a whole community of art, drama, food. There is a whole culture. It’s amazing to me that people don’t realize that and they let one act of violence define that for one fifth of the world’s population. When people know a Muslim, the depth of humanity comes into the picture.”
The Daughters of Abraham “can be a model to change the world,” added Pearl. “If we’re to have peace, this is how we’ll get there — by building bridges. Just like acts of violence beget violence, acts of kindness beget kindness.”
Toby Tabachnick can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.