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Women's Group Builds Bridges Among Different Faiths


A group of California women are building bridges among people of different faiths, forming bonds of friendship despite their disagreements. Mike O'Sullivan reports the group, called Sarah, is bringing together Muslims, Jews, Christians and others in a dialogue.

The women live in the quiet neighborhoods of suburban Orange County, California, and include homemakers, a retired deputy district attorney, and a software consultant.

Sande Hart says the terrorist attacks of September, 11, 2001, indirectly spurred the group's formation. Extremists who claimed to act in the name of Islam carried out the attacks, which were immediately condemned by prominent US Muslims. Sande, who is Jewish, wanted to learn more about Islam.

"Prior to 9/11, I didn't know anything about the Islamic community. I didn't know a lot about my own Jewish faith, let alone the Islamic faith," she noted. "And then I was fortunate enough to be invited into some interfaith dialogues by my rabbi."

Those dialogues, hosted by the Orange County Human Relations Commission, explored the attitudes of residents toward people of different religions.

Sande formed a friendship with a Muslim participant, a Lebanese-American woman named Ghada Wadi. After the final dialogue, the two women and others formed a group to continue the discussions. They called it Sarah, after the wife of Abraham, a patriarch revered by Jews, Christians and Muslims.

A dozen or more women take part in monthly meetings, where they share meals and hold discussions.

"One meeting was about what our cultural observances are on birth," she added. "And then the next month, it was on coming-of-age - bar mitzvahs, bat mitzvahs, christenings and such, marriage and divorce and death."

They learn about sacred rituals and visit the sites where people of different faiths worship. With other community members, they also create tapestries, art works devoted to peace.

Ghada Wadi says the members of Sarah have become close friends, avoiding topics that may divide them.

"We have come to a point in Sarah, we've built a friendship between Jews and Muslims and Christians alike, because we do not talk politics," she explained. "We have differences in terms of politics, but we came to an agreement that in the end, we are human beings. And we looked at each other as friends, as Sande was saying, and we built this trust."

Clarita Karlin came to the group through an interfaith charity project involving Jews, Muslims and Christians. Together, they built a home for a needy family in Mexico. It was her first experience getting to know Muslims.

That project would lead her to Sarah. Like Sande, Clarita is Jewish, and says she holds strong opinions, and has an attachment to Israel.

"I'm married to an Israeli," she said. "I lived thought the years of the Holocaust, when part of my mother's family were German. Part stayed in Germany. They're all dead. The part that came were the ones that had remained Jewish and filled me with the fear that if it happened in Germany, it could happen anywhere."

As the recent war raged in Northern Israel and Lebanon, the group postponed its meetings out of respect for the feelings of its members.

Ghada Wadi experiences those feelings when she talks about her homeland. The Lebanese native lived through a civil war that began in 1975, and the 1982 invasion by Israel. She says she felt an emotional barrier toward Jews, which came down as she got to know the women of Sarah. But she says the recent fighting again raised the barrier.

"And it came up very strong and very quickly, because this brought up a lot of memories of the war and a lot of memories of what happened during the invasion of Israel into Lebanon in 1982," she explained.

Ghada still has brothers in Lebanon and says the destruction was painful for her.

Sande Hart says the women of Sarah are struggling to understand those of different faiths, a process made difficult by war and political tension. The women's life experience is also different. Sande grew up in a comfortable suburb. Ghada lived through a war.

Clarita Karlin says that growing up as a Jewish child in the 1930s and '40s, her life experience is also very different. She has witnessed anti-Semitism in the United States, and seen the horrors of the Holocaust experienced by her family in Europe. Today, she has relatives in Israel.

"My husband's family are still all in Israel," she explained. "And I have a nephew in the Israeli army now. And so this war affected me very much, impacted me very much, in the way that it did Ghada. My barriers came up, and my memories came up."

But the women say they are committed to maintaining their friendship, and will continue their cultural and religious explorations as they work to understand their differences.

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