By ANDREA JACOBS. Intermountain Jewish News. December 8th, 2017
On the surface, Bobbi Furer and Gulsum Ciftci Katmer are worlds apart. Furer, 87, is Jewish. Katmer,31, is Muslim. But they are joined at the hip by their shared gender, humanity and hope.
Shalom-Salaam, a cadre of Jewish, Muslim and Christian women pursuing interfaith dialogue, first met in July of this year. Membership has since increased on all fronts. Furer and Katmer, who came to the IJN to discuss the group’s evolution, are antithetical in every way, from their religion to their height
(Katmer towers over her diminutive colleague).
Yet they complete each other’s sentences, philosophize, joke and exchange familiar winks. Despite their differences, the women genuinely admire each other.
Furer, a native Denverite, hails from Hungarian immigrants. Her family owned Freed’s Gift Shop in
downtown Denver. A mother and grandmother, she attends Judaism Your Way, Temple Sinai and B’nai Havurah. “I’m the wandering Jew,” she laughs.
Katmer was born and raised in Turkey. She relocated to California to study biology, stayed five years,
married a man from Turkey and moved here in 2013. Now she’s the executive director of the Multicultural Mosaic Foundation, a nonprofit interfaith organization founded by Muslim Turks.
The genesis of Shalom-Salaam stemmed from Furer’s coincidental run-in with a Muslim woman waiting for an East Denver bus.
“It happened in 2010, when I was walking my little poodle Sammy (Shmuli) near a bus stop,” she says. “I saw an Arab woman standing there with her three children.
Two were hugging her skirt, but the boy was waiting for the bus to arrive. “When they saw us, they backed up, looking like they were afraid. I said, ‘Don’t worry, we won’t come near you. I know you can’t touch dogs.’
“She asked, ‘How do you know I can’t touch dogs?’
“I answered, ‘Because I’m Jewish.’”
The Arab woman stretched out her arms to this petite stranger.
“She ran down the hill, took my hands and said, ‘Oh, you’re my sister!’ with tears in her eyes.
“I said yes, I’m your sister.” The Arab woman uttered shalom. Furer answered, salaam.
“I thought, wow, a couple of thousand years of hatred banished in one little encounter,” Furer says.
She wrote about the experience on Nextdoor, a neighborhood app, and received seven positive responses, primarily from Muslim men.
“When can we meet?” they posted.
Then Furer was invited to a program on Islamic culture and faith hosted by a Muslim group. “I left
thinking, wouldn’t it be nice if we could get Muslim and Jewish women together,” she says.
Furer contacted the Multicultural Mosaic Foundation and spoke to Katmer.
It was the beginning of a beautiful friendship and a female-driven interfaith journey.
Furer publicized the first meeting of Shalom-Salaam on Nextdoor. She assumed that
only Jewish and Muslim women would show up at the July 27 gathering at the Mosaic Foundation.
But several gentile women also attended. “Now the group is for any woman regardless of faith, color or ethnicity,” she says. “We’re here to unite, not to divide.”
Initial questions at the inaugural meeting concerned “what we all believed,” Katmer says. “That was
the warm-up. Then we sat face-to-face at round tables and spoke about our values.
“It was really great to learn and hear about other faith backgrounds,” she says. “At the end, everyone had a big smile and wanted to know when the next meeting was scheduled. We knew it was working.”
While Jews and Muslims maintain strict food restrictions (kashrut and halal), it took a while to get it
right. “These dietary laws are a source of commonality between us,” she says.
Although listening, learning and respecting each other is the priority of Shalom-Salaam, do con-
tentious political issues ever surface?
“You know, as a person who believes that interfaith dialogue is a real need in this century, I don’t
have to accept everything,” Katmer says. “But I have to respect the differences, whether they are
religious or political.”
Shalom-Salaam participants have forged numerous since the group launched.
“My idea of getting together is building a huge family with each other,” Katmer says. “We should be
good friends who are able to say, ‘Let’s go out for coffee’ after meetings.
“And I do have friends like this, especially Bobbi. I go to her home and she comes to mine.”
Asked whether women are uniquely qualified to promote peace between disparate cultures, both ladies nod
affirmatively. “I think this is part of our nature,” Katmer says. “G-d gave us a softer heart. We should promote peace, because most of the time — and I don’t want to generalize — guys are direct and women are more emotional.”
As mothers and grandmothers, they are intimately aware of the importance of forging peace for the sake of future generations. “Why not make the world better for them?” Katmer says. “I’m always hopeful about the future. And lots of women I know — like Bobbi — are trying to do good things.” Furer’s girlhood memories of the Ku Klux Klan in Denver set the conversational stage about 21st-century Islamic stereotypes and the hesitancy to speak out against hatred.
“When I was 10, I saw Mayor Stapleton, who was the head of the Klan in Denver, walking up 17th Street
downtown as the KKK screamed anti-Semitic rhetoric against the
Jews,” she says. “My family, as Jewish business owners, was terrified.” Furer’s grandmother repeatedly imparted proper behavior to avoid being singled out as Jewish to her granddaughter.
In the retelling, Furer emulates her grandmother’s accent and gestures. “‘Bobbi,’ she warned,‘when you go out, don’t talk with the hands. People will know you’re Jewish.’ Or ‘Bobbi, when you get in an elevator, don’t talk or they’re gonna think you’re Jewish.’”
Furer was scared whenever she rode in an elevator — and stayed resolutely mute.
“But one time I looked around and no one was talking, ”she laughs,“and I thought everyone was Jewish!
Oh, I was so happy!” Asked why her family adopted this public code of silence, Furer shrugs.
“We wanted to be liked; we didn’t want to say anything wrong,” she says. Katmer compares her friend’s
defensive etiquette with some Muslims’ reticence in decrying the current anti-Muslim, anti-immigration furor. “Just as Bobbi explains how she felt seeing the Klan, I think Muslims feel today,” she says.“Not many Muslims speak out either. “It’s the same thing: ‘Don’t talk.’ “That’s why we believe inter-
faith dialogue is so important,” Katmer says. “If we don’t give others the opportunity to get to know us, there’s a risk that our children will hate unless they learn to love people of other faiths.”
Competitive victimhood, a tendency to see one’s group as having suffered more than another, has gained credence in psychological circles. But it’s not an issue for these women.
Bobbi Furer lost relatives during the Holocaust. A few survived Auschwitz; most never returned.
“I just read a book detailing the ghosts of Theresienstadt,” she says. “The author said, ‘There were no
humans.’ That phrase kept coming up. “The Jewish elders obeyed the
Nazis and thereby saved their families — until the Nazis decided otherwise. “I’ve been thinking. If I had the chance to survive with my family, what would I do?” Atypical quiet permeates the room. “The real question is, what does it mean to be human?” she reflects. “I have always felt really bad about the Holocaust,” Katmer says, directing her words to Furer. “Now my friends are in jail in Turkey. “A friend told me before I came to Denver that people are jailed with out any evidence. Women are tortured, raped and often become pregnant. What do they do?
“Of course, it’s not as horrible as what the Jews went through,” she adds apologetically. “But it is horrible.”
Furer stops her.
“Don’t ever say it’s not as horrible,” she says. “Every situation like this is horrible.”
Katmer’s parents reside in Turkey because they support the regime in power.
“I feel terrible about my parents’ choices,” she admits. “I’m glad they are safe — but this, too, can feel bad. The innocents struggle.” Seven years ago, Furer’s idea for an interfaith dialogue for women grew out of an incident with Shmuli the poodle and a Muslim woman’s fear of dogs.
Katmer has since enlightened her regarding the canine prohibition in Islam.
“In Islam we cleanse ourselves five times a day before we pray, ”Katmer says.“The Hanbali sect believes that touching a dog is an unclean act. I follow the Sunni Hanafi sect, which believes it’s OK to touch dogs. “I love cats and dogs,” she laughs. “I touch them, I hug them. It’s fine. This is why we teach each other our respective faith traditions. Misunderstandings exist on both sides.” Furer and Katmer, who converse openly and in barely discernible decibels about everything under the sun, are asked about their goals for Shalom-Salaam.
“I think it’s about creating a better future globally, not just in Denver,” Katmer says. “It begins with your family, your neighbors and friends, and these circles get bigger and bigger.”
“It’s especially important for the children,” Furer says. “I love when they come to our meetings. “They are the future.” Furer worries that, given her age, no one will continue spreading the interfaith message once she departs this world. Katmer puts a comforting hand on her friend’s shoulder.
“Even when you’re gone, Bobbi, there will good people who stick with this,” she reassures.“You begin with the differences. In the end you see the commonality. “It’s like you say.We’re all humanbeings.”
Information: Bobbi Furer, 303-388-8611 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
Andrea Jacobs may be reached at email@example.com.