Hello Anne, firstly, please can you tell us how the Daughters of Abraham got started?
The Daughters of Abraham was the inspiration of our founder, Edie Howe. She attended an interfaith service on the evening of September 11, 2001 and sat with Jewish, Christian and Muslim women. Looking around at these women she wondered what she could do to respond to the actions of the terrorists. She decided to form a book group of women from the Abrahamic faiths. There are now at least 15 groups meeting, the founding group having met continuously since September, 2002.
Why the name "The Daughters of Abraham"?
Our name emphasizes the common elements that unite us. In all three of our traditions, Abraham is revered as the first monotheist. In a sense, he is the "father" and we can be thought of as his "daughters." Even though we are "daughters" of different "mothers," Sarah and Hagar, Abraham is the father of us all. By naming ourselves Daughters of Abraham, we are recognizing that there is more holding us together than separating us.
There was a year between the idea and the first meeting, which sounds like there was a fair amount of planning before you got started. Could you tell us a little about that?
We gathered interested women to form a planning group, making sure that the group included Christians, Muslims and Jews.
We met for several months as a planning group, talking about our purpose. We decided that we wanted to learn more about the faith, belief and practice of the Abrahamic faiths. We wanted to understand one another better, learn from each other and deepen our respect for one another. For this reason, we decided to choose readings (books, memoirs, poetry, articles) that spoke about faith and religious practice in our three religions.
We planned the structure of our meetings. We decided to meet monthly from September through June. We also chose to read alternately in our traditions: one month a Jewish book, the next month a Christian one, the next month a Muslim one. On occasion, we have chosen to read books that treat all three faiths such as Abraham by Bruce Feiler.
So, after all that preparation how did the first meeting go?
At our first meeting in September, 2002 in Cambridge, Massachusetts, we read the chapters on Judaism, Christianity and Islam in Huston Smith's book The World's Religions. We asked that each woman come to the first meeting prepared to talk about the following questions: How did you respond to the author's treatment of your religion? Is there anything you would add, nuance or delete in Smith's treatment of your faith? In regard to the other two faiths, what did you learn, what surprised you and what questions and comments do you have?
At the first meeting, each woman introduced herself, identified the faith tradition she was part of (and where she worshiped, if she wished), and why she wanted to be part of this Daughters of Abraham group. We then discussed the book. After our discussion we chose the book for the next month. Eventually, we began to choose what to read several months in advance.
How did you find the women who formed the first group?
The women who formed the first group were Christians from Edie's church (First Church in Cambridge, Congregational, UCC), and Jewish and Muslim women who were friends and colleagues.
Do you consider yourself first and foremost a book club or an interfaith dialogue group?
We see ourselves not as a dialogue group but as a book group focused on discussions of books about our own faith traditions. We engage with the books (and poetry) we read to explore the meanings, shape and practice of our own and one another's faith. We are not an academic study group, nor a group of people officially representing any particular tradition or theological position.
According to the CIA Factbook the USA is 51% Protestant, 24% Roman Catholic, 2% Mormon, 2% other Christian, 2% Jewish and less than 1% both Buddhist and Muslim (the remainder being unspecified, unaffiliated or none), with this in mind it must be challenging to keep a balance of Abrahamic faiths represented. How does this work in practice and what about the many denominations within a particular religion, is it feasible to try to balance these in any way?
Any Jewish, Christian or Muslim woman who shares our purpose and mission is welcome to join us. We try to keep a balance among the three faiths, so not everyone who applies to a particular group may be admitted to that group. We sometimes need to form new groups in order to maintain a balance of members. Our groups vary in size from about 10-20. We find that range works well - neither too small nor too unwieldy.
Do women have to be practicing members of their faith to take part?
We ask that the women who join our group be self-identified as "practicing" their faith. The reason for this is that in our conversations about what we have read we often share how we practice our faith. For example, if the conversation is about prayer or sharing wealth with others or religious festivals and celebrations we like to talk from our own experience, if possible.
Please tell us about a typical meeting?
Many groups meet in the same place each month. We try to have that space be non-sectarian, comfortable and easily accessible by public transportation. We meet for a two hour period. The first 30 minutes or so are devoted to social time and community building, gathered around kosher/halal food brought by the members. We then spend about an hour or an hour and a quarter on the discussion of what we have read. One member takes on the role of timekeeper and leader of the discussion. We generally use the last 15 minutes of the meeting for announcements of general interest and decisions about what to read next.
Does the same member always tend to lead the discussions?
This varies by group. Sometimes there are co-leaders from two different religions leading the discussion. Sometimes women offer to co-lead with the regular leader. Each group decides what works best for them.
Even though you've already said that your members aren't officially representing any particular position, is there a tendency for people to want to 'stand up for' their particular religion's positions?
We have agreed to speak respectfully to one another; not to monopolize the conversation; to speak from personal experience, rather than making sweeping statements; and to ask questions of members of other faiths rather than make assumptions about them.
For example, I don't try to represent all of Christianity, just my own practice and understanding of it. I also try to ask the Jewish and Muslim women in the group about their belief and practice rather than assuming that I know already!
We occasionally disagree and try to resolve our difficulties with respect and in the moment. We encourage members to speak up when something has offended or upset them so that we can resolve difficulties in the group. Rarely have we experienced problems across the faith traditions. If there are disagreements, they tend to be among the members of one faith, e.g. Catholics and Protestants, Reform and Conservative Jews. Since we have ground rules to which we adhere, problems and disagreements are only occasional, and usually easily resolved.
What about basic attendance related rules?
We ask that the Daughters come to meetings consistently. Most of the women lead very busy lives and have family and work responsibilities, so not everyone can come to every meeting. However, we do want regular attendance in order to build cohesiveness and trust in the group. Sometimes women are not able to finish the book before the meeting, but everyone tries to complete enough to be able to engage in the conversation.
Some cynics would say that religion is by definition divisive – after being involved with the Daughters of Abraham for half a dozen years, how would you respond to that?
The experience of being part of the Daughters of Abraham has greatly expanded our experience and opened us to new understandings not only of the other two faiths but also of our own. I know that among Christians there is often new learning about how other Christians practice their faith.
We have found and shared many common threads that hold us together. Our new learnings are often about what we share and how similar we are in many ways. Our differences are always apparent to us but through the group meetings most of the women have found many points of agreement and communality.
How do you choose books?
In my group, members suggest books at the meetings. Between meetings, members email suggestions to the "keeper of the list," a member of the group who maintains our book list. Periodically we all review the suggestion lists and arrange books into high, middle and low priority. Then, by consensus, we choose books from the high priority list. If anyone strongly objects to reading a particular book we do not read it in the group. This is particularly true if the objection comes from a member of the faith which is the subject of the book. Other groups may use different methods of selecting books.
Browsing your reading lists I see some 'typical' book club type books such as Gilead by Marilynne Robinson (in the Christian section), Three Cups of Tea by Greg Mortenson (Muslim section) and The Red Tent by Anita Diament (Jewish section) but also a fair number of quite challenging nonfiction reads such as Islam: A Short History by Karen Armstrong. What would you say to a woman who might be interested in joining a group but who is nervous that the reading and discussion maybe a little too 'highbrow'?
Since members select the books within each group we try to find a balance among the types of books we read - fiction and non-fiction, some more challenging than others so that everyone's tastes and needs can be met as much as possible.
I was also interested to see that you had more books in the Jewish and Muslim book lists than there were in the Christian lists even though I assume there must be more Christian orientated books to choose from – is that a conscious decision and how has it come about considering that the groups alternate books about each religion?
We have read an equal amount of Christian, Jewish and Muslim books in our groups. Many groups have read some of the same Christian books. So there is more diversity among the Jewish and Muslim books than among the Christian books because groups have often shared the Christian ones. Interestingly, what we have found is that there are more books about Catholics and monks and nuns than there are about Protestants!
Does the group meet outside of the monthly meetings?
We meet informally at times for social events. We also often invite group members to significant events in our own faith communities – Bar and Bat Mitzvahs, Iftar dinners, Christmas and Epiphany services.
We let each other know about lectures, conferences and films which might be of interest and often members of groups will attend these events together.
We have also had two interfaith Daughters of Abraham trips to Spain (2005 and 2007) to visit sites from our three faiths. In addition, there have been two Daughters of Abraham trips to Jerusalem (2006 and 2009), and we hope to create a Daughters' trip to Turkey.
From one group in 2002, I see 15 groups represented on your website, mostly in Massachusetts but one as far afield as Iowa. Are you actively starting these new groups or are they forming under their own steam with advice from you?
Women from around the country contacted us after Daughters of Abraham was featured on PBS in 2006. We keep a list of women interested in joining or starting a group in their area and give them advice and resources to help them begin a group. We now have flourishing groups in several cities and are encouraged about new groups starting.
What would be the first steps for somebody interested in joining or forming a group in their area? Do they need your permission to call themselves a Daughters of Abraham group?
On our web site we list clearly what needs to be present to call yourself a "Daughters of Abraham" group. If the group fits our description of ourselves and is willing to be in contact with us they can be Daughters of Abraham. We usually suggest to women that they find women of the two other faiths and begin planning together to form a Daughters' group so that the group is interfaith from the beginning.
What about the sons of Abraham? Are there any plans to start any all men or mixed-sex groups?
Men are free to start a Sons of Abraham group and we would be happy to share our experience with them if they would like to contact us.
Where would you like to see The Daughters of Abraham in ten years time?
I would love to see flourishing groups around the country with women from all three faiths learning about one another and deepening our understanding and mutual respect. And enjoying reading books together! It is, after all, a book group!
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