In the aftermath of Sept. 11, Sande Hart grew increasingly disgusted by disparaging remarks some of her friends -- both Jewish and not -- made about Muslims. The Koran, they said, preached killing Jews and other infidels; Islam was a hate-filled religion, with few redeeming qualities.
Hart, a Rancho Santa Margarita resident with two young children, said she knew in her heart that the anti-Islamic remarks were small-minded and a reflection of the overwhelming fear engendered by the terrorist attacks. But with no Muslim friends and a limited knowledge of the religion, she felt unequipped to do battle with the hate-mongers.
So Hart, a longstanding supporter of multiculturalism, decided to educate herself. She and her friend, Theresa Barnett, vowed to form an interfaith group that would bring Jews, Muslims and Christians together. In June 2002, the two Orange County residents founded Sarah, a women's group that meets monthly to dispel stereotypes, build cultural bridges and increase understanding.
In less than a year, Sarah's size has more than doubled to 42 members, made up of 18 Jews, eight Muslims, 15 Christians and one Baha'i. Because of that growth, members' homes can barely accommodate meetings. Some future gatherings will be held in community centers.
"What we're saying is it's time to express love and appreciation," Hart, 42, said. "We're becoming each other's friends, and our kids now play together. We're trying to create a culture of peace, one where people are no longer pointing guns at each other."
The organization -- named after Abraham's wife -- is more than just an armchair salon for highly educated, liberal women. Sarah has sponsored several events to raise money for a variety of causes, including world hunger.
The group recently put on a seminar on domestic violence. To promote unity, members have given away handmade "peace tapestries" to like-minded organizations.
Sarah's popularity reflects a major political and social shift underway in Orange County, said Bill Shane, executive director of the local branch of the National Conference for Community and Justice -- formerly the National Conference of Christian and Jews -- which is dedicated to fighting bias, bigotry and racism. Once a bastion of white Protestant conservatism (and former national headquarters of the Ku Klux Klan) the county now has 24 synagogues, 12 mosques, a Jain Temple and a new Buddhist Temple in Irvine.
As religious diversity has flourished, so have links among the various faiths. Shane estimated the county now has 25 interfaith groups, up from 20 in 2002.
"There's no question that Orange County today is very different than Orange County of just a generation ago," he said.
Rabbi Allen Krause of Temple Beth El in Aliso Viejo applauded the changes. Krause, whose synagogue dispatched more than two dozen volunteers after Sept. 11 to serve as security guards at local Muslim parochial schools, said Sarah and other interfaith organizations "are making the world a little nicer."
Not all groups promoting cultural understanding have fared as well. The Cousins Club of Orange County, a 15-year-old Jewish-Palestinian organization that advocates peace in the Middle East based on Israeli withdrawal to its pre-1967 borders, has seen interest wane as the cycle of violence has spiraled in the Holy Land.
Many Palestinian members have ceased attending meetings, because they feel "desperate and depressed" about the situation overseas, said Robby Gordon, Cousins Club co-chairman. Similarly, Jewish participation has dropped off due to a sense of impotence.
"I hope we get a new wind of members," Gordon said. "But I can't predict the future."
Thanks to the enthusiasm of members like Nadia Miri-Ali, Sarah membership, by contrast, has soared. A 36-year-old Muslim mother of two, Miri-Ali said the warmth of fellow group members has helped renew her faith in the United States, a bond that was temporarily shaken by the upsurge of anti-Muslim prejudice post Sept. 11.
The Trabuco Canyon resident said she particularly enjoys the wide-ranging discussions at Sarah meetings.
Among other subjects, the women have talked about prominent female religious figures, the tenets of their respective faiths and how their grandmothers used to stuff them with food when they visited.
Miri-Ali said she was fascinated to learn of the many cultural similarities between Muslims and Jews, including respect for the elderly, strong family values, love of food and dietary laws forbidding the consumption of pork.
Sarah member Karen Mueller, an Episcopalian, said she liked the group's focus on women's spirituality.
"I think 'woman energy' can make a big contribution to healing and reconciliation in the world," she said.