A Discussion Group of the National Storytelling Network

Story Circles
Children at the Well

Jewish-Muslim Women's Baking Circle

A few years ago, Jewish storyteller Audrey Galex, of Atlanta, was looking for a Muslim partner for a storytelling project, so she called Soumaya Khalifa, founder and Executive Director of the Islamic Speakers Bureau in Atlanta. Their plans to meet at that time fell through.

Then, a year or so later, Audrey read a newspaper article about a Muslim-Christian women’s group that Soumaya had helped organize in her Fayetteville, Georgia community.

Audrey called Soumaya again, this time, to suggest starting a Muslim-Jewish group together. Since that phone call, the Jewish-Muslim Women’s Baking Circle has met once every couple of months since October 2003. The women have learned to make baklawa, rugelach and grape leaves. In the fall of 2004, the group is scheduled to gather at Audrey’s home to bake her late grandmother Sugie’s “signature” poppy seed cookie recipe.

Photo by Audrey Galex. Soumaya Khalifa and Jennifer Weissman make baklawa and build a friendship during the Muslim-Jewish Women’s Baking Circle’s first gathering in October 2003.

Of course, baking together is only one part of the goal. “To get to know each other, break down stereotypes and grow that circle of people in a grassroots effort,” explained Soumaya of the group’s aims. Like Audrey, Soumaya seeks to create cross-cultural awareness and tolerance. Conducting diversity-training classes is part of Soumaya’s human resources job at Georgia Pacific. As executive director of the Islamic Speakers Bureau-Atlanta, she oversees and does outreach to schools, religious institutions, companies and groups to educate about Islam and Muslims.

“Women bake, women talk, women connect. The premise behind a local Jewish-Muslim baking group is that it makes no difference what modifier precedes the word women — the connection will still happen. By putting that conviction into action, the group hopes that peace — as well as their bread — will rise,” wrote the Atlanta Jewish Times in an article about the baking group.

To get the group started, Audrey and Soumaya invited their friends to meet at Soumaya’s house on a Sunday afternoon. For most of the five Jewish and eight Muslim women who attended, it was their first meeting with women of the other faith. The gathering began with a potluck of light appetizers and non-alcoholic beverages. Then, to break the ice, Soumaya led the group in a get-acquainted game in which each woman chose a partner from the other community, interviewed her and then introduced her to the group. During this time, the women discovered that their occupations ranged from physician and math teacher to stay-at-home mother to Centers for Disease Control employee. After the peer interview introduction game, one of the Muslim women demonstrated how to make baklawa, the entire group joining in to fill the filo dough with nuts and honey and roll the dough into small “cigars” for baking. While the baklawa baked, the women were again asked to form pairs for an ice-breaker. This time, they were given a limited time to find similarities. The couple with the most won a prize.

Some of the similarities shared by the women included the importance of family, religious traditions such as giving to the poor and observing dietary laws, belief in the oneness of God and personal accountability. The role of Moses was also a “hot topic” and a “teachable moment” about how Jews and Muslims view this Prophet of both faith communities. Aicha Stoman, originally from Morocco, was a part of Khalifa’s Muslim-Christian group. She initially felt some anxiety joining with Jewish women, fearing that they might be reserved and apprehensive about her. “They felt comfortable; they felt really at home with us,” Aicha admitted. “The Jewish women were very sociable, very personable and outgoing.”

Aicha also acknowledged the power of groups, such as the baking circle: “Interfaith contact is really needed to remove the walls that develop in the hearts of people, through the media and stereotypes. Stereotypes become words and images and leave humanity out of it. When people get to know each other, there is a lot more understanding and problem-solving.”

“I went with no expectations, really,” said Terry Egdal, one of the Jewish participants. “It was a very fun event — we laughed a lot, but more than that, it was a kind of life-changing event for me. I feel definitely that our relationships will continue. The long-term benefits are so far-reaching and important. I hope we could spread this positive energy to other communities.”

The fun, as well as the relationships forged, have extended far beyond the kitchen: Terry, her husband and daughter have also joined Audrey in attending a break-the-fast event at the Islamic Center in Fayetteville, Georgia, as guests of Soumaya, during Ramadan. The group has also been featured in articles in the Atlanta Jewish Times, The Atlanta Journal-Constitution and the newsletter of Congregation Bet Haverim, spiritual home to most of the Jewish participants. The group was also the feature of a news segment on Atlanta Interfaith Broadcasters.

Reflecting on the first baking circle, Audrey explained: “It was so normal; it was what any group of women would do at any coffee klatch. It was almost extraordinary in its ordinariness.” Corey-Jan Albert, an Atlanta playwright, composer and mother, intends to join the group after receiving an email about the August 2004 gathering. She reflected on the power of the baking circle in an email:

“This has incredible power. Everyone I mention it to is so inspired by the idea. My friend, Maryam and I have had so many intense conversations spurred by the existence of this group. It doesn't feel radical. And indeed, how could anything so productive and inclusive feel radical? But it's the idea that it's the kind of thing that can't be thwarted on a grand scale -- but that if we start small first with our own mindsets, then with family, then community, etc., the results can be enormous. The power of the idea that open, warm communication about who we are, what we believe, why we believe it, what we know, what we don't know, etc., makes any "fear of otherness" silly and strengthens the bonds that connect us all -- it's amazing.”

Advice for those who wish to start an interfaith baking group: