We meet every month or two. We sit around a long table, sometimes in a dark-paneled room in the church downtown where my temple is located, sometimes in a brightly lit conference room in a neighborhood cultural center. We are middle-aged, Reform Jews. We are young, ritually observant, Turkish Muslims. We kvell over babies and share baked treats. Our conversations focus on favorite passages from our respective books of scripture, the role music plays in our worship services, the “bad women” in our faith traditions, and so on. We volunteer a few times a year at a food bank or soup kitchen. We call ourselves “Sisters in Spirit.”
Our topic this past Sunday was Jewish and Muslim doctrine concerning the environment. Several Sisters had prepared to lead the discussion. The ten of us never got anywhere near Muslim and Jewish perspectives on animal rights or ecological justice.
In the wake of the Daesh attacks in Paris, at services and over email, we Jewish Sisters had been worrying about our Muslim Sisters. At services and over email, we wondered if it would OK to open the meeting by asking “Are you OK?” We didn’t want to put anyone on the spot. We needn’t have worried. One after another, our Muslim Sisters told stories of verbal abuse and feelings ranging from isolation to fear.
One Sister — dark, sweeping eyebrows punctuating a face encircled by a satiny, fuchsia head scarf — described sitting outside in the sun, eating lunch at a Whole Foods market Monday after the Paris attacks. A man approached her. He called her an “Arab,” then berated her loudly for covering her head and allying herself with terrorists. His words, though offensive, didn’t really bother her, she said, since the man seemed “kinda crazy.” It broke her heart, meanwhile, that her fellow sun seekers heard the words but said and did nothing. She worried that she’ll be attacked if she drives badly or jaywalks. She’d heard stories from other women in headscarves being shoved towards oncoming T trains.
Another Sister — sparkly eyes behind rimless glasses, creamy scarf surrounding a delicate face — fed a toddler perched on her lap. On Tuesday after the Paris attacks, she went to the weekly parent support group she’s been attending for more than two years. She is the only Muslim in the group. She spoke at the beginning of the meeting, apologizing on behalf of all Muslims everywhere for the actions of a handful of terrorists, explaining that violence in the name of God has no part of the religion she practices. She wanted someone to tell her that her apology was unnecessary. She hoped someone might say that they all already knew this about her. But no one said a word. Worse, no one met her gaze.
A third in the group spoke. New to Boston and to our group, my Sister — a tall woman whose patterned scarf was pinned expertly to frame her even-featured face — talked about enrolling her daughter in first grade. The classroom teacher in her daughter’s public school is Jewish. She felt the teacher had been reluctant to engage with her, perhaps because of her head scarf. She worried about what this might mean for her daughter’s experiences in the class. At back to school night, the teacher explained to parents that there would be no birthday celebrations to protect students with food allergies. The teacher said, as a funny aside, that, of course, she really does miss cupcakes. So, my Sister baked. She packed one cupcake in a Ziplock bag and wrote a note. She had heard the teacher missing cupcakes, so she wanted to give her one. No nuts. The teacher, she said, seemed more comfortable thereafter, looking her in the eye, not “in the head scarf.
None of these women is from Syria. None is a refugee. All are struggling to find ways to connect with Americans who seem primed to view them as scary, other.
As our conversation continued, we wondered how to identify strategies to diffuse tension and increase acceptance. How to find opportunities to forge common bonds? How to lay the groundwork for hard conversations? How to help one another ask what seem at first to be hard questions but are hard only because they have not yet been asked? Nothing we came up with was as effective, we decided, as the cupcake, which helped a teacher view a woman in a head scarf as a mother, a parent, and a person.