Joint celebration forges connection between Jewish, Muslim ‘sisters’

Joint celebration forges connection between Jewish, Muslim ‘sisters’

From left: Kelcey Sharkas, Pat Cluss, Suha Alkhan, Malke Frank and Lana Shami.
From left: Kelcey Sharkas, Pat Cluss, Suha Alkhan, Malke Frank and Lana Shami.

The feminists who are members of Pittsburgh’s Jewish Women’s Center are in many ways different from the women of the Islamic Center of Pittsburgh, who tend toward the traditional. But by joining together for food, conversation, and ritual, they are beginning to see what they have in common, according to Pat Cluss, a longtime member of the JWC.

“We’re a Jewish feminist group,” explained Cluss. “We started in the early ’90s as a Rosh Chodesh group. The women of the Islamic Center are more conservative than we would consider ourselves.”
Still, the two groups of women have found points of connection, and after having gathered together for a meaningful women’s Passover seder last spring, and a shared potluck dinner, they decided to reconvene for a joint celebration of Tu B’Shevat last Sunday.

“It is an opportunity to meet each other and to find out what are similarities are, and what matters to them and to us,” Cluss said.

The JWC has been hosting a Tu B’Shevat seder for many years, according to Cluss, but this was the first time it invited members of the Islamic Center to attend.

The realization of commonalities comes through getting to know each other, Cluss stressed, and the similarities are often surprising, including language as well as ritual.

For example, in connecting with members of the Islamic Center, Cluss has discovered that the Hebrew word tzedakah is similar to an Arabic word that is used to describe the concept of charity. Likewise, the Jewish customs of taking care of a body prior to burial are similar to those of the Muslim faith.

Kelcey Sharkas, director of programming and outreach coordinator of the Islamic Center, said she found the Tu B’Shevat seder “fascinating.”

“I loved it,” Sharkas said, adding that the poems, songs and Hebrew blessings recited at the seder made it a “wonderful ceremony.”

She also appreciated the opportunity to “mingle,” she said.

“It’s nice to come together on a human level and try to humanize each other.”

About a dozen women from the Islamic Center attended the seder, joining about 25 women from the JWC.

“I found the seder very spiritual,” Sharkas said. “The Jewish Women’s Center focuses on women a lot, instead of on mankind. They changed the wording [of some of the blessings] to celebrating ‘sisters.’”

The women tasted foods traditionally associated with Tu B’Shevat such as dates, olives, figs and pomegranate seeds; the women of the JWC accommodated the Muslim women by substituting grape juice for wine, as Muslims refrain from alcohol, said Sharkas.

“Our Tu B’Shevat haggadah focuses on the environment and women’s roles and the idea that spring is coming to Israel,” Cluss said. Women from the Islamic Center pointed out that spring was not just coming to Israel, but to the Middle East.

“That was a point of connection as well,” Cluss said.

The JWC also told the story of Tamar at the seder, which further resonated with the women of the Islamic Center, Cluss said.

“They are very familiar with the story of Tamar,” she said. “Many of their stories are very close to our stories, and we are just starting to find that out.”

There is no celebration similar to Tu B’Shevat, celebrating the commencement of spring, in Islam, Sharkas observed.

“We only celebrate two holidays,” she said. “We follow the lunar calendar, and our holidays happen at different times each year. We have no equivalent celebration.”

Cluss is looking forward to the next joint event, a potluck dinner in February at which each group will respond to five questions posed by the other group.

“It’s ‘Five things I’ve always wanted to know about you,’” Cluss said.

While discovering similarities is impactful, according to Cluss, learning about differences is also meaningful. She recounted, as an example, meeting Sharkas at Panera one day while Sharkas was dressed in a full hijab in which only her eyes were visible.

“That was the first time I sat in a public place with someone wearing a hijab,” Cluss recalled. “It was eye-opening. People were staring at us the whole time. It gave me a sense of what Muslim women experience every day.”

For more information on the February interfaith potluck dinner and discussion, call 412-422-8044 or email

Toby Tabachnick can be reached at 

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