On a recent weekday evening in Santa Monica, seven Muslim and five Jewish women gathered around a dining room table laden with homemade foods prepared in accordance with the dietary laws of both faiths.
One by one, the women lighted candles, each saying a few words to mark the eighth anniversary of the West Los Angeles Cousins Club, a grassroots discussion group that explores spirituality and mutual understanding.
“Before we started the Cousins Club, I never even knew a Muslim person,” said Shayna Lester, who hosted the anniversary meeting. “I am so blessed that I have made such dear friends. It feels like sisters coming into my home.”
Lester is a spiritual counselor, interfaith minister and volunteer Jewish chaplain at the California Institution for Women in Corona. After the Sept. 11 attacks, she and Jean Katz, a poet and education consultant, along with the late Savina Teubal, started the Jewish-Muslim women’s group, inspired by a similar one in Orange County.
Initially, it was difficult to find Muslim women to participate, but not anymore. “For the first time we have more Muslim than Jewish women,” said Katz.
There are currently 15 active members who meet each month, alternating between Jewish and Muslim homes. At the January meeting, those attending ranged in age from Rabiya Yasmeen’s 7-month-old daughter, Aminah, to 81-year-old Qahira Santana.
“I pray to Allah, to God Almighty, to bless us all,” said Muzaffar “Bibi” Haleem, a Pakistan-born member of Culver City’s King Fahd Mosque and one of the more traditional of the Muslim women at the gathering.
Then Rachel Espana Landsman, the only Orthodox Jew in the group, recited the shehecheyanu, the Jewish prayer of thanks, for “bringing us to this moment,” she said.
Last August, several of Landsman’s Muslim friends attended her wedding, which was in the Hassidic tradition. “I’d never been to a Jewish ceremony before,” said Karima Kylberg, who was born and raised in Indonesia. “I was fascinated by the chanting, because I come from a branch of Islam that does chanting.”
Likewise, Jewish women have attended Muslim holiday gatherings with their Westside “cousins.” Most say they have been intrigued to find how much the two religions have in common.
Women from both faiths say they have faced negative comments from some in their own families or communities who wish to protect them from what they believe are the biases of the other.
“In the beginning, it was really difficult for me because of the reaction of my friends and colleagues,” said Landsman. “One said, ‘You know, eventually they will want to bomb you,’” she recalled, adding that such comments come from a place of fear.
A guiding principle for the group is to discuss religion and spirituality, rather than delve into sensitive political issues such as the Arab-Israeli conflict. In the group’s eight-year history, there has been only one Arab member, a Syrian woman who attended for about a year. There was also briefly an Iranian American attendee, but most of the Muslim participants have roots in Southeast Asia or are converts to Islam.
Sometimes, it is impossible for the women to keep their reactions to news events out of the intimate circle of friends, such as when Israel carried out punishing attacks on Gaza two years ago that angered many members.
And in March 2008, after a Palestinian gunman killed eight students at a Jerusalem seminary, a Muslim convert came to the Cousins Club crying and saying, “This is not my Islam,” Landsman remembered. “We had a heartfelt conversation,” she said.
As they sat together in Lester’s living room at the recent meeting, several women described how they had grown spiritually through their involvement in the group. Learning about the other faith’s traditions has helped them define their own beliefs and positions, they said.
“Sometimes I feel I have more in common with my Muslim cousins than I do with my secular Jewish sisters,” Landsman said. “Just as there are thousands of ways to be a Jew, there are thousands of ways to be Muslim.”
That awareness has also made the women more willing to challenge anti-Semitic or anti-Muslim generalizations within their own communities.
“I have learned so much from the Muslim women in this group, I now feel confident to speak out. I feel I have the authority,” said Ruth Broyde Sharone, an interfaith activist and filmmaker known for a documentary, “God and Allah Need to Talk,” that she made after the 2001 attacks.
Vivian Gold, another Jewish member, noted how difficult it was for her whenever friends sent what she called hate e-mails including Muslim stereotypes to her and others. Several Muslim women nodded in agreement, having experienced the same thing from the other side.
As they got ready to part, Katz expressed her desire to take their interfaith experience to the larger community. “When we began, we simply wanted to get to know each other. I have a hope that we can now spread this beyond ourselves,” Katz said.
“Insha’Allah,” answered Haleem, using an Arabic phrase that means “God willing.”
Haleem is founder of the website Islamicity.com and co-wrote the book “The Sun Is Rising in the West: New Muslims Tell About Their Journey to Islam.”
But Landsman says it is not Haleem’s credentials but her nurturing ways that matter most to her. “Except that she is Muslim, I think of her as a total Jewish mother,” Landsman said, laughing.
The women closed their meeting by holding hands, reciting both the Jewish and Muslim prayers of healing in honor of a member who was ill and missed the gathering. They hugged and kissed one another, then headed out to their separate lives until they meet again next month.