Carrie Seidman Sarasota Herald-Tribune
A single instance of discrimination can catalyze a lifetime crusade. For Arlene Pearlman, it occurred in a post-WW II seventh grade math class in New Jersey when her teacher asked students who were German or Jewish to identify themselves, then told those who did: “You’ll have to work twice as hard because I don’t like Germans and I don’t like Jews.”That moment would become a goad to Pearlman right up until her death last December.As a newlywed in 1953, it led her to prevent a bus driver from getting behind the wheel until he allowed two Black children traveling unaccompanied to sit with her rather than at the back of the bus.It would propel her to take on her homeowners’ association in The Meadows when it called for the entire neighborhood to be decorated uniformly with creches for the winter holidays.And in 2008, in the wake of anti-Muslim sentiment after 9/11, it propelled her to establish the Women’s Interfaith Network, a group of women from different religious backgrounds committed to eradicating stereotypes and prejudices and building a more peaceful world.“That experience took root in a way that Arlene decided she would always be spending her energy to promote fairness, justice and compassion,” recalled Judi Creneti, at WIN’s recent annual “fall gathering” held via Zoom. “She cared deeply about people and their dignity, and she felt everyone was entitled to a seat at the table.”Pearlman – remembered with admiration, affection and humor as both “an Energizer bunny” and “a benevolent dictator” – birthed the organization through the sheer force of her will. Women standing next to her in a grocery store line became WIN recruits, as did anyone she felt would broaden a coalition of Christians, Jews, Muslims, Quakers, Baha’i followers, atheists and “submarine” Jews and Catholics (“The ones that only come up for the holidays”).Yet when Pearlman died December 28 at 86, the future of WIN was never in doubt – even after the pandemic put an end to its in-person book club discussions, “Common Table” meals and educational events. The group has reorganized under a more democratic structure, with a “leadership circle” of eight veteran members sharing the duties Pearlman once took on single-handedly.“We need WIN now as much as when it was founded,” said Jeanette Sherrill, a member since 2010. “For me personally, any hope of world peace starts from the bottom up, not the top down. It starts from making connections with people who might never have any occasion to cross paths.”WIN’s activities are diverse, its topics of discussion multifaceted. There have been Passover Seders, tea at a synagogue, a break-the-fast after Ramadan and Irish dancing on St. Patrick’s Day. There have been food and clothing drives, guest speakers and spiritual retreats.Mostly, there have been endless conversations about faith and belief: Do you pray? What do you believe happens after death? Have you ever encountered prejudice? What are your beliefs about homosexuality and same-sex marriage? What is God to you?The only topic that is off limits is politics.“That’s become more difficult at a time when how you comb your hair has become political,” admits Alice D’Souza. “But we are not a political action group. We all have our political views, but we leave them at the door as much as possible. What goes on here stays here, and you leave your prejudices behind.”
That has made WIN a “safe space” for its approximately 150 members, who live from Bradenton to Venice and are mostly in the 50-to-90 age range. (Only about 50 are currently active.)
Even Hope Black, once trepidatious about admitting her lack of faith, found her first WIN meeting “like slipping into a cocoon that just felt comfortable. You felt you had arrived at home. One of our members is a retired rabbi and I thought, ‘Should I say something or not?’ Black recalled. “ Then I thought, ‘Oh, what the heck,’ and said, ‘Right now, I don’t believe in anything; there’s nothing there.’ "The reaction was just wonderful. They said, ‘But you’re here, you’re open to learning. That’s the important thing.’”
Amani Makarita, a Muslim who moved to Sarasota in 2007 knowing no one, remembers sitting at her first Common Table dinner and feeling an acceptance she’d rarely encountered in post 9/11 America.“I saw there were so many people eager to learn about each other, that wanted to bring down barriers and were willing to put themselves out there,” she said. “I didn’t really expect that given everything going on around the world. I felt the welcoming hands of homes and hearts.
For Gail Coppock, a member since 2011, WIN has been a place where “I feel free to talk about spiritual things when there was no family or friend group anywhere I could delve into them without making people offended or uncomfortable. That’s been a real boon to me in exploring my own path.”
With no end to the pandemic in sight, WIN plans to continue its events and discussions online for the foreseeable future – a movie club is also in the offing – and is welcoming new members of any age or belief system through its website at womensinterfaithnetwork.org.
Despite her history as an ordained Christian minister, Sherrill found something in WIN that had been missing from her spiritual journey. “I found the boundaries of my own faith to be too restrictive,” she said. “I needed to break through those walls to find the oneness of humanity. The more time we spend with each other, the more we seem to be able to connect to that universal divine.”