It is not often that a university lecture theatre in Pennsylvania is filled with Jewish and Muslim women, all enthusiastically and noisily dancing the Hora, a well-known Jewish dance. But it’s what happened this weekend at the annual Sisterhood of Salaam Shalom Conference, where hundreds gathered to debate issues of shared interest.
The conference attracted nearly 600 women from across the USA, Jewish and Muslim, who packed into a gym at Delaware Valley University with what can only be described as an outpouring of love, warmth and inclusion.
That we are all in this together, was unmissable and tangible.
It is a powerful coincidence that the conference took place exactly one week after a lone gunman went to a synagogue in a Pittsburgh neighbourhood and shot dead 11 people, in what is believed to be the worst anti-Semitic attack in America’s history.
Victims included a brother and a sister, a husband and a wife and a 97-year-old woman who had lived through two World Wars. We do not know their stories, what their proudest achievements were or how many grandchildren they had. But we know there is nothing they could possibly have done to harm a man whom they had never met.
Although I did not know any of the victims the fact that they were targeted on the basis of their faith group – one I share – has affected me in ways I would not have imagined.
It is true that the UK does not have the American gun problem, nor do we arguably have the same level of divisive politics that is currently playing out. But this attack has left a mark. It has brought home once again that there is a minority of people consumed by prejudice. Is the answer to change our routine, avoid places of worship or for that matter, any busy public place? Of course not. After all, that would be very “un-British”.
In the days following this pointless attack, it has been deeply moving to see the outpouring of support, empathy and prayers from around the world.
The attack has created a sense of unity particularly among those who have ever felt targeted because of their faith or the way they look.
This includes the Muslim community, which has raised thousands of dollars in a powerful gesture of support, to cover funeral and medical bills. It can be easy to be distracted by headlines that suggest tension, fear and otherness.
Surely, we must hate each other? We seem so different after all? Not true. It’s important to bring people together and promote ways in which those who may at first appear different – including Jews and Muslims - can understand that their similarities are greater than their differences.
Both communities share a common knowledge of what it is like to be targeted because of their faith, and what it is like to fall foul of stereotypes, especially as women. On the other hand, we also have in common a proud culture of family and community.
At Nisa-Nashim, we bring Jewish and Muslim women together to focus on those aspects we share. Over the past week alone, members all over the UK have attended vigils to honour the victims and their families and contributed to a social media campaign, #NNsupportsPittsburgh.
In London, Manchester, Leeds, Peterborough and Milton Keynes, Brits of all faiths and none have come together to show respect and to send collective condolences. Formed against a backdrop of rising hate crimes and violence, we know that forging friendships among women can create a positive ripple effect in their communities.
The killing of innocent people is an unambiguous example of extremist violence.
But we need to talk about what we can do to promote understanding well before we reach that point.
That includes showing that there is no intrinsic reason to mistrust people who appear different whether that manifests through the colour of their skin, or the building where they pray.
Mistrust and prejudice, after all, often come from the unknown.
The answer is therefore surely not to hide, and imagine monsters under the bed, but rather to share more time together – ask questions, or even better, take on a neighbourhood project together. So many Mosques, Synagogues and Churches are increasingly sharing local activities as a means of building bridges and tackling myths.
It is so easy to learn about each other by say, sharing an Iftar meal at Ramadan, eating donuts together at Chanukah or indeed attending each other’s children’s weddings or bar mitzvahs.
Joint activities, maybe at this month’s national Mitzvah Day of social action, can powerfully bring people closer together. Social media may seem to imply greater intolerance in society but that will only be true if people don’t see for themselves that there is actually always shared ground.
If something remotely human can come out of last week’s tragedy, I hope it is that more people feel inspired to look for all that which they share in common, not what makes them different.
After all, we don’t have to wait for another Pittsburgh to show our solidarity with one another or indeed, to dance the hora together.
Laura Marks is founder of Mitzvah Day, and the co-chair of Nisa-Nisham, an interfaith group working with Jewish and Muslim women