Aniya Akhtar and Simone Rothstein, both juniors at the Ellis School, have known each other since first grade, but it was a marshmallow bonding incident during middle school that really cemented their friendship.
Akhtar, who is Muslim, and Rothstein, who is Jewish, were on a field trip to the McKeever Environmental Learning Center in Sandy Lake, Pa., when, during an evening bonfire, both girls realized they could not participate in the marshmallow roast. The marshmallows contained animal gelatin, rendering them unacceptable according the rules of halal as well as kashrut.
The marshmallow incident got the teens talking about the similarities in their religions, and the more the girls talked, the more they realized they had in common, leading to a deep connection.
Since then, they have been “best friends,” and text and call each other several times a day.
“We wanted space to share that and bring other girls like us together,” said Akhtar, “not only to share similarities but to create change and help out with people in the community.”
This school year, they launched a teen chapter of the Sisterhood of Salaam Shalom, hoping to embrace other Jewish and Muslim teens in similar friendships and shared ideals.
In Pittsburgh, there are three adult chapters of the Sisterhood of Salaam Shalom, a national grassroots organization initiated in 2010 to build understanding and relationships between the two faith groups. Women who take part enjoy social interaction, engaging together in social justice projects and providing support for one another in times of need. Recently, the SOSS has expanded the program to high school girls with the creation of several teen chapters around the country, including the one here led by Akhtar and Rothstein.
“The Pittsburgh girls are great leaders,” said Annette Rotter, board chair of teen engagement at the national level of the Sisterhood of Salaam Shalom and co-leader of the chapter in Westchester, N.Y.
Each chapter is led by a Muslim girl and a Jewish girl, with up to 20 teens in eighth to 12th grade in each group, equally divided among Muslims and Jews, said Rotter. The chapter is encouraged to recruit girls in lower grades as well as upper grades so that the chapter can be sustained once its current leaders graduate and move on to other endeavors.
While there typically are other opportunities for a wider breadth of interfaith engagement available to teens in many cities, the SOSS is specifically for Muslims and Jews, Rotter explained.
“The theme of this particular model is to take these two groups that have been historically pitted against each other, but have lots of similarities,” she said. “We are showcasing the bridge building.”
The chapters meet monthly, generally in members’ homes. Activities are usually social to start, allowing the girls to share meals and get to know each other. They then focus on social action, with each chapter deciding what types of projects to pursue.
“Their mission is working together, fighting against hatred and bigotry, growing out of friendships and the close connections that develop,” Rotter said.
In Pittsburgh, following the massacre at the Tree of Life synagogue building, Akhtar and Rothstein spoke together at the Bend the Arc protest against President Donald Trump’s visit.
“The two of us spoke to show that was what Pittsburgh stood for, bonds between different communities and different people,” Akhtar said.
Launched in September, the group Akhtar and Rothstein formed already has 14 members from a variety of schools, including Ellis, Winchester Thurston, Gateway High School and CAPA.
After spending their first few meetings getting to know each other, they are now focusing on “community outreach,” including to a Syrian Muslim refugee teen girl who was attacked in the restroom at Chartiers Valley High School. A video of the attack was posted on social media and went viral. The girls are hoping to find “a better high school situation for her,” said Rothstein, and “a sisterhood, so she knows she has community here.”
Both articulate and bright, Rothstein and Akhtar are effusive about their fondness and respect for one another, which feeds their passion for their shared goals.
“Aniya is really, really funny, and so smart,” Rothstein said. “She challenges me to think critically, and she is a really loving person. She is always there for me, and we help each other become better people.”
“We balance each other out,” said Akhtar. “Simone is the only person I can tell literally everything to. Sometimes I just call her and leave voicemails telling her I love her. She is a good soul.”
Rotter is convinced Akhtar’s and Rothstein’s energy and sincerity will make their new teen chapter of the SOSS a success.
“When you are around these girls, you can’t believe the intensity of their relationship to one another,” she said. “This is not an intellectual exercise, but a relationship. These girls are capable of making an impact in society.” PJC
Toby Tabachnick can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Aniya Akhtar and Simone Rothstein