Collective voices

Collective voices

Julie Newman (back row, left) and Malke Frank (back row, center) join with women from the Islamic Center of Pittsburgh and others to share stories and forge connections.	Photo by Toby Tabachnick
Julie Newman (back row, left) and Malke Frank (back row, center) join with women from the Islamic Center of Pittsburgh and others to share stories and forge connections. Photo by Toby Tabachnick

One woman shared a Cuban family recipe for fish baked in a banana leaf, while another told of her struggles with her parents in her journey to become a Muslim. Another revealed her feelings of being an outsider as a Jew visiting Malaysia.

The stories shared last Sunday among those of disparate backgrounds at an interfaith women’s event held at Rodef Shalom Congregation were widely diverse. Yet, the range of experiences expressed that afternoon created an awareness among the women telling those stories that they actually had a lot in common.

The program, called “Collective Voices, Sharing Stories,” was presented as a joint project of the Islamic Center of Pittsburgh, the Jewish Women’s Center of Pittsburgh and Rodef Shalom Sisterhood. Although the ICP and JWC have held previous joint programs, including a Passover seder and a Tu B’Shevat seder, this was the first time the women gathered specifically for the purpose of sharing their stories.

“We thought stories would be a good way to learn about each other,” said Malke Frank, who helped organize the event.

While Frank expected about a dozen participants when she first envisioned the program, more than 30 women came to join in the storytelling.

“It shows a real need and desire to come together,” Frank said.

The women were seated in groups of six or eight and were encouraged to each tell a personal story related to a choice of topics, including favorite childhood memories, favorite place to travel and pushing the boundaries of one’s comfort zone.

One of the topics — “If you could send a message to the entire world, what would you say in 30 seconds?” — led Imani Gameel, a member of the ICP, to share with her group: “Accept everyone’s differences. We all have different ways to worship and go about our everyday. But we all have similarities, which allow us to come together.”

Gameel told a parable about hearing a child’s cry in a dark room. Once the lights are out, you cannot discern whether the cry is from a Jewish child or from a Muslim child, she said. It sounds the same.

“We need to start to turn out the lights more,” Gameel said. “We all have the same needs and the same basic functions in life.”

Following the small group story sharing, Alia Khan from the ICM addressed the entire assembly about the harassment that Muslim friends of hers recently have faced. One friend who was stopped at a traffic light was cursed at by the man in the next car, who rolled down his window and told her to go back “to her own country.” Another friend had someone kick her shopping cart at Wal-Mart.

“It’s important that we are awake as to what’s happening,” Khan said, advising those who witness such harassment to physically stand by the victim.

The two-hour program was intimate — really just a chance to quietly get to know a bit about women of another faith — yet, in its simplicity, it may have forged some connections that will make a difference in community cohesiveness.

“Never underestimate the power of the small,” said Julie Webb, former outreach coordinator for the ICP. “We wanted to be able to touch each other’s hearts with our everyday experiences.”

At the conclusion of the program, the women joined together, circling singer and guitarist Julie Newman, who led them in a rendition of the “Traveler’s Prayer” by the late Debbie Friedman.

Frank is interested in forming an interfaith sisterhood group here, Sisterhood of Salaam Shalom, a national initiative that works to build bridges, fight hate and reverse negative stereotypes, which has already formed several chapters across the country.

Toby Tabachnick can be reached at

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