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How acts of hate inspired a Muslim-Jewish sisterhood based on love in Toronto

On Wednesday evening, 45 Muslim and Jewish women will come together to talk politics, religion and simply catch up on what's been happening in each other's lives.

'It has been a wonderful privilege to set this up and to watch as my sisters have connected'

Sabreena Ghaffar-Siddiqui and Cynthia Levine-Rasky are co-leaders of the Toronto chapter of the Sisterhood of Salaam Shalom. (Sabreena Ghaffar-Siddiqui)

More than 40 Muslim and Jewish women will come together to talk politics, religion and simply catch up on what's been happening in each other's lives on Wednesday evening.

It's the fifth official meeting of The Sisterhood of Salaam Shalom in Toronto, an interfaith support group that was brought to the city by two women in January after they say they noticed an increase in hate crimes, xenophobia and racism in Canada.

"I can say there is no doubt that foreign politics and tensions in the Middle East play a big part on Jewish and Muslim people not befriending each other," said Sabreena Ghaffar-Siddiqui, one of the co-leaders of the group on Metro Morning on Wednesday. "This has been a beautiful way of realizing that what unites us is stronger than what divides us."

After noticing an announcement for a U.S. chapter of the Sisterhood of Salaam Shalom on Facebook, Levine-Rasky says her interest was piqued. She reached out to the executive director and inquired about how to bring it to Canada.

"Following the presidential election in the U.S., I was worried for consequences for not only Muslims and Jews but other religious minorities, refugees, immigrant groups, LGBTQ groups and so on..I felt an urgency to do something," said Cynthia Levine-Rasky, the other co-leader of the group and an associate professor in sociology at Queens University.

She reached out to Ghaffar-Siddiqui, who researches race issues, racism and Islamophobia at McMaster University, and expressed her concerns. Months later, the two say they're taken aback by how quickly they've grown and the interest women in Toronto and the surrounding area have shown. 

The Jewish women in the Sisterhood of Salaam Shalom hosted their Muslim friends for Passover Seder earlier this year. (Sisterhood of Salaam Shalom Toronto)

"It has been a wonderful privilege to set this up and to watch as my friends, my sisters, have connected so readily. At first we barely knew each other's names," said Levine-Rasky. "Then there was this readiness to look each other in the eyes and say, 'What do you want to share with me and how can we connect?'"

Every meeting starts with short Jewish and Muslim prayers, says Ghaffar-Siddiqui.

"We actually talk about our experiences, what comes out of it is we tend to see a lot of similarities," she said. "A few months ago the Jewish women held a Passover Seder and there was a dinner and a service and throughout the evening there were so many comments from Muslim women saying I can't believe how similar we are."

The women in the inter-faith group say they've realized they have so much more in common than they thought. (Sisterhood of Salaam Shalom Toronto)

There are around 150 different "sisterhoods" in the U.S. but only one in Toronto.

Both Levine-Rasky, who is Jewish, and Ghaffar-Siddiqui, who is Muslim, refer to each other as sisters and say they're hoping to inspire women in other communities to do the same.


Ramna Shahzad

Producer, CBC Toronto

Ramna Shahzad is a multi-media producer and reporter in the CBC Toronto newsroom. She began working at CBC News in 2015 as a Joan Donaldson Scholar. Born in Karachi, Pakistan, she now calls Toronto home and writes about everything from transit and city hall to baby animal births at the zoo