'Taking the side of peace': Suburban Muslim and Jewish women try to find common ground here amid Middle East war

Images of carnage and conflict in the Middle East are plastered on TV screens and newspaper front pages, while protests and counter-protests take place here at home amid the Israel-Gaza conflict.

But at a South Barrington Panera Bread this past week, Muslim and Jewish women came together to read a rabbi's poem.

"Today I am taking sides," they said. "I am taking the side of peace."

These women - a local chapter of the national Sisterhood of Salaam Shalom organization - want the world to know Muslims and Jews can coexist peacefully.

"Even the word for peace is so similar in our religions," said Shazia Khan, co-leader of the Northwest suburban group that aims to build relationships between Muslim and Jewish women. "And that's the point ... that 99% of what we do and say is common, and it's the 1% difference that has divided our societies and our political leaders have politicized and taken to extremes. But we're trying to remind everybody of that 99%."

Tuesday marked the first time group members met since the Oct. 7 Hamas attack and Israeli retaliation.

Linda Rothnagel, who is Jewish and chapter co-leader, texted Khan, who is Muslim.

"I just said, 'I can't sleep, and maybe we could get together,'" said Rothnagel of Barrington.

The meeting started much like the other get-togethers since the local chapter formed in 2016: about a dozen members sitting in a circle, reading out loud prayers and written reflections from Jewish and Muslim authors.

Then the conversation typically delves into religion - how each group celebrates holidays, what it feels like around the Christmas season - but politics is mostly off-limits.

Specifically, the long-running Israeli-Palestinian conflict "was always the elephant in the room," said Khan of South Barrington.

Then came Tuesday night, when members of the group openly shared their personal feelings and experiences about the war.

One woman said 37 people from her husband's family were killed in Gaza.

A woman wearing a Star of David necklace embraced a woman wearing a hijab next to her, amid talk of the mounting death toll.

And there was discussion of incidents of hate and bigotry at home, including the stabbing death of 6-year-old Palestinian American boy Wadea Al-Fayoume in Plainfield Township.

"So many women shared with tears how helpless they felt in the face of atrocities, especially seeing the suffering of children, how it was hard not to be able to share their grief, how it caused them anxiety and sleepless nights to sit in silence witnessing such pain," said Anisha Jogee of Arlington Heights. "I'm so glad I'm here because it's a way to continue to have mutual understanding and build bridges, and just be together in a world that is more so tearing folks apart."

Make no mistake: There are passionate, political views in this group - about what's happened in Israel and Gaza in recent weeks, years and decades, and what should happen next.

The majority of those who attended last week's meeting were Muslim, and are sympathetic to the cause of the Palestinian people.

But other chapters of the national group - 11 in the Chicago area, among 100 in the world - have more Jewish members or equal representation of both religions, group leaders say.

The Northwest suburban chapter plans to have additional meetings in the Barrington area as the Middle East conflict intensifies.

"We agree that we're not going to agree on everything. We agree to disagree," said Cathy Bromberg, a Jewish woman forming a Lake County chapter of the group. "But the love of peace, and building bridges for peace, is more important."

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  Shazia Khan, from left, and Linda Rothnagel are co-leaders of the Northwest suburban chapter of Sisterhood of Salaam Shalom, which brings together Muslim and Jewish women from across the area. Christopher Placek/
  Shazia Khan of South Barrington is co-leader of the Northwest suburban chapter of Sisterhood of Salaam Shalom. She said the long-running Israeli-Palestinian conflict "was always the elephant in the room" during group meetings - until this past week. Brian Hill/, 2019
  Linda Rothnagel of Barrington is co-leader of the Northwest suburban chapter of Sisterhood of Salaam Shalom. She texted other group members in the aftermath of the Oct. 7 Hamas attack on Israel and Israeli retaliation. "I just said, I can't sleep, and maybe we could get together," she said. Brian Hill/, 2019
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