The friends who traveled together to a conference here last week on Muslim- Jewish relations made an unlikely threesome.
Karen Danielson, a 30-year-old Orthodox Muslim, was covered head to toe in traditional garb: a silky black hijab pulled tightly around her head so only her face was exposed, and a gray jilbab, a shapeless, long-sleeved gown flowing to the tops of her feet.
Sister Mary Ellen Coombe, a 47-year-old nun, was fair, tall and slim in her simple street clothes.
And 64-year-old Esta Star, her white hair stylishly cut, was dressed in the elegantly causal clothes of comfortably monied suburbia.
The three stayed together throughout the three-day conference, titled “Women, Families and Children in Islamic and Judaic Traditions.”
Despite the disparity in their religions, ethnicities and economic status, they are truly friends. They have gotten to know each other through what may be the country’s best example of interreligious dialogue.
They traveled together from Chicago, where they are the facilitators of a women-only Muslim-Catholic-Jewish trialogue.
Coombe and Star have known each other for several years through a Catholic- Jewish dialogue in which they are both involved – the nun through her order, the Sisters of Sion, which focuses on building Catholic-Jewish relations, and Star through her work as a lay leader of the American Jewish Committee’s Chicago chapter.
Danielson, who is a convert from Christianity to Islam and is married to a Palestinian Muslim, is the newcomer to the interfaith conversation. She got to the group through participation in the Council of Islamic Organizations of Greater Chicago.
She and four other Muslim women meet with five Catholics and five Jews monthly at an airport hotel which is equidistant from their homes on different sides of the city.
Their work and family lives are deeply different. Yet they have found a great deal to share as women, and as women of faith. Though the group has met only twice, some deep bonds have formed between the women, according to the three facilitators.
“Slowly but surely you build trust,” said Star. “It’s a relationship that deepens as you go.”
The bond between the women was fostered by their response to the recent controversy over a greeting card put out by Recycled Greetings, a Chicago-based company.
The get-well card, which featured a stereotypical sloe-eyed, veiled woman on the cover, included the line, “I hear you feel like Shi’ite. Don’t Mecca big deal out of it.”
The card caused a furor among American Muslims, who felt hurt that their holy city was used in such a derogatory way, said Danielson.
She heard about the letter-writing campaigns and boycotts being organized against the card company in her community.
What she did not realize was that her new trialogue partners wanted to be allies.
Independently of one another, Sister Mary Ellen had picked up a notice at her diocese office encouraging Catholics to work with Muslims on the issue, and Star had clipped a newspaper article about it, to bring to the next trialogue meeting.
Together, the women wrote a letter of protest to Recycled Greetings.
As a result of their and others’ efforts, the company discontinued the card.
“I couldn’t believe that anyone non-Muslim would care about this,” said Danielson. “The reality can be what others don’t expect.”
The Catholic and Jewish womens’ interest helped establish a bond of trust for the Muslim women, and helped the entire group coalesce.
The Muslim women, particularly the women who were immigrants or first- generation Americans, were at first wary about participating in dialogue, said Danielson.
“Muslims feel very vulnerable in this country,” she said. “But American converts and the second generation, we understand the culture.”
And although one Muslim participant dropped out of the trialogue, Star is heartened by the response from the Islamic community.
“They were eager for the invitation,” she said. “The time is just right. Six months ago it may not have happened.”
The three said that women-only dialogues are more successful, and that they have become closer than is possible in a mixed-gender group.
They cited a Muslim-Jewish dialogue in Chicago which is having trouble getting off the ground because the participants, mostly men, represent organizations and are concerned about the positions they take.
“Women come together under the structure of their religious, while men can get caught up in the structures of their religious tradition, in the politics and the power,” said Sister Mary Ellen.
“Women just get on with the work while men worry about positions and postures,” she added.
The friendships which have grown out of the trialogue are having some unexpected results.
Star is bringing a case of kosher marshmallows to the next meeting to give to the Muslims, who prefer kosher products due to their own dietary restrictions.
“We can’t get kosher marshmallows on the South Side,” said Danielson, referring to the section of Chicago that is home to many Muslims.
“And I can’t tell you how the converts are just dying for them,” she added, laughing.