Jewish-Muslim co-existence —in Arkansas

James Freedman writes for the Fayetteville Free Weekly, via Jewish Journal, Sept. 14:

A shul grows in Dixie—Insha’Allah
With Wal-Mart attracting a huge number of minority religious groups to Arkansas, it is not surprising that Fayetteville is becoming increasingly diverse. And while this ongoing change is felt in many ways, the most distinct may be the recent push by Temple Shalom to build the first synagogue in the history of the city, and the fact that the pro bono builder is a Muslim.

Fadil Bayyari, a Palestinian and a general contractor in Springdale, Ark., has already built two churches and the first mosque in Fayetteville. Now he’s donating his time to help Temple Shalom complete its first building, waiving the contractor fees customarily associated with most building projects. He heard about the synagogue plan through his participation with the Rotary Club.

“I was born and raised in the West Bank,” said Bayyari. “I’ve been in the U.S. for 36 years and northwest Arkansas for 27…. I respect other peoples’ ways of life, other peoples’ religion.”

“We’re children of God, every one of us,” he added. “I’ve been brought up that way and … I raise my kids that way — to respect other peoples’ cultures and religion. And in my heart I decided I’m going to help them.”

Up until now, Temple Shalom rented space for its meetings. However, Jacob Adler felt that wasn’t good enough, citing myriad benefits to having a dedicated structure.

“We hope that [a building] will spur further growth,” said Adler, who is a philosophy professor at the University of Arkansas and works part-time as Temple Shalom’s only rabbi.

Although the fundraising isn’t complete, the congregation is hoping to begin construction soon, Adler said, adding that Bayyari’s offer makes things easier.

“It makes a big difference,” he said. “I’m sure we’d build the building eventually anyway. This probably means we can do it a little bit sooner. It’s certainly a big difference, a big contribution, and we’re really grateful to him.”

Temple Shalom already strives to integrate with other faiths in the area, for instance, by trading child-care duties.

“We share child care with one of the local churches, so on Easter we provide child care for them and on our High Holidays they provide child care for us,” Adler said.

“Some events we’re able to do with other religions and some are distinctively Jewish, but in a place where we’re such a small group [we] don’t want to isolate ourselves.”

Temple President Bill Feldman hopes that a dedicated space will allow for even more interaction.

“We’ll have a bigger arena to be able to have activities. Right now, we’re kind of cramped,” he said. “What we’re hoping is that with a bigger facility we’ll be able to … accommodate larger numbers of people for activities that might [include] many faiths. Presently, we have such a small facility we’re only able to host activities for our own group.”

The construction of the first Jewish temple in Fayetteville is certainly a sign of increasing religious diversity, while Bayyari’s involvement indicates the prospering interfaith relationship in the area. And while Jews and some other minorities still make up an even smaller percentage of the people in Arkansas that the national average, throughout the rest of the United States, such developments lead one to question whether this will always be the case.

“I’m hoping that what we’re doing here will be an example for others to follow around the U.S., and maybe this will be taken back to … Palestine and Israel,” Bayyari said. “If we get along with each other here, respect each other, and have wonderful relationships, then maybe they want to do the same. They’ve had wars for centuries. Maybe it’s about time to build up some good will and respect for each other’s way of life.”

See our last post on the struggle within Islam.