Tensions boil as Israel-Hamas war rages. How do Jewish, Muslim Americans find common ground?

When violent attacks by Hamas militants on Israelis sparked a bloody reprisal, Cipora Eisenberg-Simms checked in with her sisters to see how they were processing the shocking, traumatic events.

The sisters Eisenberg-Simms talks to are Jewish and Muslim, women bound not by blood but by the bonds of friendship and fellowship, forged over years of conversations about everything from their shared experiences as mothers, daughters and wives to their differences over religion, politics and culture.

Eisenberg-Simms belongs to Sisterhood of Salaam Shalom, a Pennsylvania-based nonprofit that brings together Jewish and Muslim women to talk, learn about each other, support each other and work together for peace.

The Long Island resident calls being part of the Sisterhood "the most transformative experience of my adult life," something that hasn't just brought her dear friends − it's also brought her a better understanding of her Jewish faith.

"You're having to explain your own faith, and that makes you reengage with and reexamine it," she said.

The violence in the Mideast has been escalating since the Oct. 7 assault. A humanitarian crisis is raging in Gaza. Israelis fear hostages held in Hamas-occupied areas may be at risk as their country prepares for a ground invasion.

And the world is on edge, worried the war could spread to a wider regional conflict. In the U.S., tensions are high, and supporters of Israelis and Palestinians haven taken to the streets in protest.

The sisters have been checking in with one another "on a personal level," she said, asking questions like, "How are you? How is your family?"

"We know a lot about each others' lives, so we like to know what's going on with people in them, too. Just as friends do, they check in to see how I am and how my family is."

Women with the Nassau County chapter of the Sisterhood of Salaam Shalom meet for fellowship, conversation and to learn from one another. Their discussions continue even as conflict escalates in Israel and the Palestinian territories.

'How central is Israel or Palestine to your identity?'

Eisenberg-Simms has family in Israel, including family members who are being called to serve in the Israeli Defense Force.

She understands how difficult it is for her Muslim friends that her family members' service " is in direct conflict with the people they're thinking about as fellow Muslims.

Her friend Shireen Quizar agreed that conversations have been painful lately, but still valuable. The two women, who have been involved with the Sisterhood for years, bonded over their shared experiences as mothers, and simply because "we love each other's company," Quizar said.

A school psychologist, she recalled a conversation with a Jewish sister from Kansas who reached out to her, not just to offer support, but also to learn from Quizar, a native of Pakistan who lives on Long Island. The woman asked about news reports showing demonstrations throughout Muslim countries, and wondered whether they were showing support for Hamas.

"I said, no, there are many Palestinian people who are horrified (by Hamas' attacks)," Quizar said. "Palestinians have been fighting for years for their freedom, and (protesters) want people to see their humanity, their suffering."

The woman from Kansas thought media reports characterized the protests as pro-Hamas and anti-Israel.

"I said they're not against Israel's people or right to exist, it's about letting their own people live."

In informal gatherings at members' homes, on Zoom calls and at larger, Sisterhood-wide conferences, members ask questions of themselves and others that dig deep, Eisenberg-Simms said: "How central is Israel or Palestine to your identity as a Muslim or a Jewish person? What about being a Palestinian or a Muslim or a Jewish person causes you pain, suffering, fear, shame, frustration or other emotions?"

There are pre-determined guidelines for discussion, and an emphasis on mutual respect and listening, while allowing for disagreement.

"You speak a lot about emotions and connections. It's not a debate; it's more about how it affects you personally. You can relate to each other, and not have an endless discussion about who's right or wrong, because that just isn't productive."

Dialogue with Jewish friends doesn't minimize or negate how Quizar feels about the Palestinian people, her horror at Hamas' violence and at Israel's response to the attacks. And the mother of three is not shy about sharing those feelings.

Still, she appreciates that the sisters respect her boundaries: "I have had to tell them at times that I cannot engage because I cannot handle my pain. They've allowed me to make space for that, and I am very grateful."

The Sisterhood of Salaam Shalom is a Pennsylvania-based nonprofit that brings together Jewish and Muslim women to talk, learn about each other, support each other and work together for peace.

Traveling, learning through Israel and Palestinian territories

Aziz Abu Sarah is a journalist and peace activist who knows firsthand the pain this decades-long conflict has wrought. The Jerusalem native lost his brother, who died after serving time in an Israeli prison when Abu Sarah was 10.

"I grew up angry, empty, full of rage at this conflict," he recalled. "I wanted vengeance."

It took time, but he realized that though he lived in the same city as Jewish people, he'd never spoken to any of them. He learned about the Holocaust, something he'd never done before; the knowledge changed his entire viewpoint.

"I knew nothing of the pain of my neighbors," said Abu Sarah, who splits his time between the U.S. and Jerusalem, where his parents remain. "It's terrifying to learn the pain of the people who were my enemies. It's terrifying to humanize the people who are enemies."

He shared his pain and loss with Jewish friends and found "those lessons are rooted not in our politics or history, it's about our personal stories. It's hard to argue with someone's personal experience, with their lives and what they've seen."

Abu Sarah and his business partner and friend Scott Cooper, who is Jewish, co-founded Mejdi Tours, which offers "dual narrative tours" to Israel and the Palestinian territories, among other destinations. They also facilitate online webinars and discussions meant to bring people from different backgrounds together.

He's built a career facilitating conversations between people who have different experiences and points of view. He's built friendships on those conversations, friendships that have both tested and strengthened him.

Both he and Cooper encountered skeptics, Muslims who asked Abu Sarah how he could trust a Jewish person and Jewish people who asked his partner how he could trust a Muslim. "But even in these moments that are very dark, I don't think of him as Jewish and he doesn't think of me as Palestinian."

"I have people on both sides who are directly impacted, and I am almost terrified checking my messages. I just can't take it, the amount of people I know who know someone killed by Hamas, or who are losing family (in Gaza)."

He listens, cries with them, does his best to comfort them, even as he worries for his elderly parents, and his many friends and family in the conflict zones.

"It's draining, but I think what gives me strength is carrying (the pain) for other people," Abu Sarah said. "Being able to help, even a little bit, being a bridge. As hard as it is, it gives me a reason to live."

He wants people to know "it's not always like this."

"If you watch TV, you would think no Arab and no Jew get along, but that's not true. Don't fall for the stereotype," he said. "There is so much ignorance about The Other, but we if we don't communicate, you separate and then you become afraid, and then you hate."

Contact Phaedra Trethan by email at ptrethan@usatoday.com or on X (formerly Twitter) @wordsbyphaedra.

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