Faith, Race, Place” explores how Pittsburgh’s fragmented religious landscape came to be and how historical divides are being confronted in the present day.

Interfaith action in the Pittsburgh area takes many forms. It looks like educational workshops and speaker series; political activism and social justice initiatives; solidarity amid community crises and spiritual growth through shared worship experiences.

For women of the Daughters of Abraham and the Sisterhood of Salaam Shalom, it also looks like friendship — like shared meals, book discussions, deep conversations and baby showers. 

The Daughters of Abraham, a national organization, is a network of interfaith book clubs. The chapters, including the roughly 16-person group in Pittsburgh, bring together women of the three Abrahamic faith traditions: Muslim, Jewish and Christian. 

The Sisterhood of Salaam Shalom, an international organization with two chapters in the Pittsburgh area, is comprised of small Muslim and Jewish discussion groups. It gets its name from the Arabic and Hebrew words for peace or wholeness. 

The Daughters of Abraham is an interfaith book discussion group that brings together women from the three Abrahamic faiths: Islam, Christianity and Judaism. (Photo courtesy of the Daughters of Abraham, Pittsburgh chapter)

Opportunities for ongoing, interfaith relationships in the United States can be hard to come by. According to a 2014 Pew survey, only about 61% of Americans personally know someone who is Jewish; 38% know someone who is Muslim. 

Yet Americans also tend to feel more positively toward faith traditions different from their own when they have that personal connection. The Pew Research Center found that, on a 100-point scale, people felt an average of 10 points more positively toward Jews (56 to 66 points) and 8 points more positively toward Muslims (45 to 53) when they knew even one Jewish or Muslim person, respectively, in their lives.

In an era when about 13% of hate crimes are religiously motivated and people’s general attitudes toward faiths besides their own are lukewarm at best, to build interfaith relationships is, quite literally, to build a more tolerant culture. 

As the women of the Daughters of Abraham and Sisterhood of Salaam Shalom know well, familiarity counteracts contempt. 

Wanted: friends from different faiths

Religious diversity was woven into Aliya Khan’s life from the start. 

Born in Pakistan, the daughter of a United Nations diplomat, she grew up attending an international school in New York City. She had friends who were Zoroastrian, Buddhist, Hindu, Jewish and Christian since she was 5 or 6 years old. She didn’t know it any other way. 

When she moved to Pittsburgh in the 1990s, it was a bit of a culture shock. 

She could find communities of other Muslims — that wasn’t the issue. But she was used to interacting with people from all different faith backgrounds. In Pittsburgh, people seemed to stick to their own kind.

After 9/11, the feeling of isolation turned to fear. She was visiting friends in New York City when the World Trade Center towers were hit.

“Driving back to Pittsburgh, I feared for my life,” she said. “I just didn’t know what would be the fate of Muslims in the country afterwards.” 

The feeling of vulnerability set her on a “spiritual journey.” She was shocked by how little many Americans knew about Islam. She decided she wanted to learn as much as she could about the faith. 

She also decided she wanted to pursue connections with other faith traditions. When in 2013 she learned somebody was starting a local chapter of the Daughters of Abraham, she joined.

The more she became involved in interfaith work, the more Pittsburgh came “alive” for her. 

“To have those relationships with neighbors and with these groups, it kind of opens up the city,” she said. “It’s creating that glue that actually binds the citizens together, the communities together.”

More than Wikipedia

Malke Frank and Julie Webb started their chapter of the international Sisterhood of Salaam Shalom as an antidote to “all the ‘antis’ that were happening in the world,” Frank said.

It was 2017. Frank, who is Jewish, and Webb, who was then working at the Islamic Center of Pittsburgh, had coordinated interfaith events together before. But this moment felt different. Donald Trump had been elected president, and antisemitism and Islamaphobia were both on the rise. 

Frank and Webb sensed that Muslim and Jewish women could be a source of solidarity for one another — if only they interacted more. Frank thought back on her own experience. Before she’d started organizing interfaith events with Webb, she’d never been inside a mosque. She wasn’t even sure she knew any Muslims, not personally at least.

“We are Pittsburghers. This is our community.”

Julie Webb

In the Sisterhood of Salaam Shalom, which Frank first learned about from a newspaper, members could learn about Judaism or Islam by way of learning about each other’s experiences. 

Burial customs, languages, fasting practices, circumcision — no subject is off-limits, Webb said. The members look to make things personal; that’s the whole reason they’re there.

Take the subject of arranged marriages, Webb said. Several people in their group were curious about the custom. Several others had had arranged marriages. So, rather than turning to the internet, they talked to one another. 

The accounts were “very personable, sometimes funny,” Webb said. “It wasn’t Wikipedia.” 

To Webb, it feels significant that they’re relating to one another as women and, more specifically, as women in a local context, within a city they can help shape.

“We are Pittsburghers,” she said. “This is our community.”

Religion and anything but politics

A physician with a degree in public health, Leila Richards had spent years working with refugees in the Middle East. 

When she returned to the United States, first to New York City and then to her native Pittsburgh, the media’s coverage of the Middle East disappointed her.

The “big raft refugee” or the “ruthless terrorist” — that’s what she saw people in the Middle East being reduced to. Meanwhile, she assessed that most Americans had little basis for challenging the stereotypes. They crossed paths with people from other cultures or adherents of other faiths far less often than people in the Middle East.

“If you want to understand people from other political/religious persuasions, you [can]not just meet them on the front lines. You have to see them in the context of their families and their communities and their work environments.” 

Leila Richards

She and a friend from the Jewish Federation of Greater Pittsburgh co-founded Pittsburgh’s chapter of the Daughters of Abraham to help encourage that religious and cultural literacy.

They choose books that spotlight Jewish, Christian and Muslim cultures from all over the world. Often these are memoirs or novels that help bring people’s experiences to life.

The one subject they keep off the table is politics. It’s not for lack of interest; many of the members, including Richards, are also involved in activist groups. Rather, they recognize that the group serves a different and complementary purpose.

“If you want to understand people from other political/religious persuasions, you [can]not just meet them on the front lines,” she said. “You have to see them in the context of their families and their communities and their work environments.” 

Chris Hedlin is PublicSource’s faith and religion reporter. She can be reached at chris@publicsource.org or on Twitter @ChristineHedlin

This story was fact-checked by Sophia Levin.

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Chris Hedlin

Chris Hedlin is a reporter for PublicSource focusing on religion. She comes to PublicSource through the American Council of Learned Societies’ Leading Edge Fellowship program, which pairs scholars of...