By Deb Silverthorn
Tania Joya, an activist and former wife of an ISIS leader, will be the featured speaker of the 2019 Intra-Faith Sisterhood Brunch, the theme of which is “Escape and Triumph,” at 12:30 p.m. Sunday, Jan. 13, at Temple Shalom.
The Temple Shalom Sisterhood is host of the 16th annual brunch, which is open to everyone ages 15 and older.
“Tania will speak about her transition from a marriage to a ranking ISIS member, to one countering the forces of violent extremism, and I believe the audience will be fascinated by her,” said Jerri Grunewald, who is co-chairing the event with Beth Lasher.
Connected by coincidence at an event, Joya immediately struck Grunewald as captivating. “Tania’s evolution as a woman, as a human being and her strength in becoming an independent thinker and role model is a story to be heard.”
The annual Sisterhood Intra-Faith Luncheon is hosted each year by a different Metroplex-area congregation, bringing together sisterhood members from all branches of Judaism. The hosting chapter creates the program and menu, and coordinates the afternoon. Previous guests have been Holocaust survivors, chefs, artists, experts on environmental issues and the history of Jews in Texas.
“Sisterhood is about social justice, about caretaking, about women who are professionals, at-home, who are mothers and those who are not, but it is about leadership and care. The spirit of Tania’s work mirrors a lot of what we are about,” said Grunewald, a former Temple Shalom Sisterhood president, vice president, treasurer and Woman of Valor recipient.
Joya, who grew up northwest of London, is a former extremist who now works in deradicalization. Her ex-husband, Plano native John Georgelas, known since conversion to Islam as Yahya al-Bahrumi, was radicalized as a teenager and, to all knowledge, remains active as the highest-ranking American member of ISIS.
The couple, who met online at age 19, returned to the United States for a time, then moved to Egypt after the Arab uprising in 2011. Her former husband believed that the surroundings were ripe for his sons to grow themselves to become Jihadists, she said. But even then, Joya had doubts.
After the family moved to Syria in 2013, with Joya pregnant with their fourth child, she found the courage to leave, and, with her ex-husband’s help, returned to Plano. Once the family was gone, he became involved with ISIS. She, on the other hand, renounced Islam, remarried and is living a mission of helping others.
Joya is now featured in a Clarion Project documentary called “Jihad Generation.” She is a member of Parents For Peace, an alliance of families affected by extremism that focuses on prevention and de-radicalization from extremism. She recently participated in a TEDx interview and is writing a memoir.
“My goal is to protect other young people from the indoctrination and grooming process that I was vulnerable to,” Joya said. “Prevention programs are the key to protecting all American youth from radicalization.”
Joya wants to help rehabilitate extremist radicals, to teach them skills and to give them a sense of community and the opportunity to reintegrate into society and be good citizens. “Jihadists need to be heard because if we don’t know their arguments, and how poor their arguments are, we’re not going to be able to discuss and refute them,” she said.
Co-chair Lasher, a former Temple Shalom Sisterhood vice president, said Joya’s story fits well with Sisterhood’s mission.
“Sisterhood had gone through a metamorphosis, beautifully meeting the diversity of our population, of women of all ages and stages,” she said. “In this season of #metoo and women’s strength, Tania’s story is so current and appropriate. While we of the congregations throughout Dallas might practice our Judaism differently, the tenets and how we live our lives is more alike than not.”
“Tania — a woman like many of us with a story like none of us — is dynamic, and her vision is one to respect and support,” Lasher said. “As a Sisterhood, and as a community, we’re proud to present her and what she has to give.”
For more information, visit bit.ly/2LnSYma. The brunch costs $20 per person, and registration is required by Jan. 3. To RSVP for more information, contact Toba Reifer at 972-898-4828 or email firstname.lastname@example.org.