Muslim Contractor Builds Jewish Temple

MashaAllah! This is more proof that Muslims are not the way Islam haters say we are.

Boston Jew and West Bank Muslim Build a Temple, and Bridges, in Arkansas

Muslim Builds Jewish Temple
Published: October 6, 2007


Just before the school year started in August 1971, Bill Feldman steered his Volvo amid the pickup trucks and horse trailers of small-town Arkansas, bound for his first job as a math professor. He was coming to the Bible Belt as a Jew reared in a Boston suburb, a scholar educated in Canada and Europe. To ease the culture shock, an uncle had given him three jars of kosher pickles for the trip.

The same month, 19-year-old Fadil Bayyari boarded the first plane of his life, carrying falafel from his mother for the journey from Tulkarem in the West Bank to Roosevelt University in Chicago. He handed a taxi driver at O’Hare the college’s address and was relieved of a month’s spending money when the cabby took the naïve newcomer downtown more or less by way of Indiana.

All these decades later, destiny or providence or something has delivered Mr. Feldman and Mr. Bayyari to the same acre of land at the bottom of one of Fayetteville’s many hills. There Mr. Bayyari, now a general contractor, will build the first permanent temple for the Reform Jewish congregation in Fayetteville, of which Mr. Feldman is president. And Mr. Bayyari, a Palestinian-American Muslim, is doing the job at no charge. Without his sacrifice, the congregation probably could not afford the project at all.

“To me, it’s a place of worship,” said Mr. Bayyari, 55. “In my mind and in my religion, I believe in Judaism as part of Islam. We believe in Abraham. We believe in Moses. In the Koran, there’s lots of talk about Isaac and Joseph. I am always fascinated by this, and I always feel I have a relationship with this faith. And knowing what’s happened in the Middle East, what better way to build bridges?”

For Mr. Feldman, the bond with Mr. Bayyari felt especially resonant during Rosh Hashana. One of the Torah readings told of God’s protection of Hagar and Ishmael in the desert, after Sarah had banished them as rivals for Abraham’s love. Muslims, of course, trace their lineage back through Ishmael.

“The humanity of it is thrilling,” Mr. Feldman, 62, said of Mr. Bayyari’s gesture. “We’re thinking not only of our temple but of continuing the relationships with Muslims. We hope to accomplish an understanding. We hope to ultimately bring peace.”

By coincidence, the congregation was named Temple Shalom — “peace” in Hebrew and linguistically close to “salaam” in Arabic — from the time of its founding in 1981. Now the Web site for its permanent building is, and the congregation has committed to raising a million dollars to endow programs with an emphasis on interfaith efforts. Mr. Bayyari’s decision to forgo payment will save Temple Shalom at least $250,000.

The contractor’s charity reflects factors beyond a shared religious heritage. It also attests to the odyssey of two men and the transformation of this corner of the Ozarks. Mr. Feldman had never expected to stay in Fayetteville, and Mr. Bayyari had never expected to be here at all. And Fayetteville itself has grown and diversified in ways unimaginable when Mr. Feldman came here 36 years ago.

To his own surprise, Mr. Feldman has spent his entire career in the math department at the University of Arkansas, becoming tenured and serving a decade as chairman. He married a local woman, who converted to Judaism, and after a relatively unobservant youth became a member, an officer and even a Hebrew-school teacher in Temple Shalom.

As for Mr. Bayyari, he did not last long at Roosevelt, instead learning the fast-food industry at McDonald’s Hamburger University, running franchises in Los Angeles and Hawaii, then picking up construction skills during four years with a conglomerate in Bahrain. He and his wife decided to move back to the United States to raise a family, and she had fond memories of Arkansas from childhood vacations.

The Boston Jew and the West Bank Muslim experienced similar isolation at the start. A circuit-riding rabbi came through Fayetteville just one Shabbat a month. The nearest synagogue was 60 miles away in Fort Smith, and the closest kosher meat was two and a half hours west in Tulsa. Mr. Bayyari worshiped in rented rooms with a small group of Muslim students from abroad and had to drive 12 hours to Chicago for a halal butcher.

Isolation, though, was not tantamount to prejudice. With his thriving construction business, Mr. Bayyari wound up serving on a regional planning board, joining the Rotary Club and even having an elementary school in nearby Springdale named for him. While he heard one accusatory comment after the Oklahoma City bombing, in the wake of Sept. 11, 2001, he said, he received many calls from friends making sure he had not been insulted or attacked.

Partly because it is a university town, partly because it sits 15 miles from Wal-Mart’s world headquarters, Fayetteville itself has grown into a surprisingly cosmopolitan place. Yes, the football fans still scream “Pig, sooooey!” and, yes, the annual motorcycle rally is called “Bikes, Blues and BBQ.” But Thai and Mexican restaurants flourish, educational levels stand high in national rankings and magazines like Forbes rate Fayetteville a highly desirable place to live.

With the growth in its membership from about 15 families in 1981 to nearly 60 early this decade, Temple Shalom resolved two years ago to buy or build its own sanctuary, rather than to keep renting space. The congregation’s effort to buy a locally famous home ran into opposition from neighbors, who said they objected to having more traffic in a residential area.

While the city zoning commission was wrestling with the case, Mr. Bayyari heard about it from one of his Rotary Club buddies, Ralph Nesson, a member of Temple Shalom. In solidarity, Mr. Bayyari attended several zoning meetings to support the temple’s plan.

By last fall, Mr. Feldman and other leaders had decided to withdraw the application rather than prolong the controversy. Attention then turned to a plot of land on Sang Road and a prospective capital campaign of $2.2 million. The congregation had a bequest of $500,000 from a member, Miriam Alford, and has been able to raise about $450,000 more, leaving a gap of $1.3 million for construction and programming.

So Mr. Bayyari’s offer to work without a fee proved essential. The site is already being leveled and a formal groundbreaking is set for Oct. 14.

Jeremy Hess, the head of Temple Shalom’s building committee, numbers himself among the dazzled.

“In the middle of the Bible Belt, why should Jews and Muslims, two small communities, be working together on this building?” he said. “We really want a sacred space for everyone. Why God chose us, who knows?”

Source: NY Times

7 Replies to “Muslim Contractor Builds Jewish Temple”

  1. We need more of these types of things to happen to bring unity of the hearts between people of different faiths. People of all faiths need to join hands to work in good causes and to stop corruption throughout the world. I am hopeful that people of all faiths can live in harmony. It is the unfaithful, immoral, careless, wreckless, type people who are making the world a ugly place to live.

  2. salaam. truely a beautiful story. what bothers me is that i probably wouldn’t have seen it anywhere but here on Big Bro. MR’s site, or public access t.v.

  3. Subhan’Allah!

    That was truly a touching and beutiful story.

    Jazakallah Khairun MR for posting it up here.

  4. Salaam

    I didnt read the article, but I think for a Muslim to build a place of worship for a different religion is wrong because that is like saying it is okay for you to worship in a different way than Allah has mandated. And from what I have learned, that is negating your own testimony of faith (the shahada). Wa Allahu ‘Alam

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