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A Symbol of Religious Unity Rises in the Shadow of Wal-Mart

Under ordinary circumstances, Jews and Muslims sitting down to eat a ceremonial meal together would make for a notable achievement. But when an interfaith group sat down for dinner in Fayetteville, Ark., last Saturday — the Jews, to break the Yom Kippur fast; the Muslims, to mark the end of the 10th day of Ramadan — the meal in question was just a foretaste of greater collaborations to come.

Next month, when this university town’s small but vibrant Jewish community breaks ground on its first-ever synagogue, it will be thanks in no small measure to contractor Fadil Bayyari, a Palestinian-born Muslim who has offered to oversee the building’s construction for free. When complete, the edifice will shelter a Hillel house, the town’s 26-year-old Jewish congregation, Temple Shalom, and an interfaith learning center. Planners are calling the project “A Temple of Peace.”

“We are all children of God,” said Bayyari, a native of the West Bank city of Tulkarem who, in addition to having built two local churches, also erected the region’s first mosque. “Maybe it’s time to build up some good will and respect.”

Temple Shalom, which is made up of about 50 to 60 families, is unusual among the Jewish communities of the South. While most of the region’s smaller congregations emerged from the 20th century diminished, or in many cases disappeared altogether, Fayetteville’s Jewish community — thanks to the local campus of the University of Arkansas and the exponential growth of mega-retailer Wal-Mart, which is headquartered in nearby Bentonville — has flourished.

Though the town was home to some prominent Jews in earlier days — a trio of Prussian-born merchant brothers who arrived in 1865; the university’s first Jewish faculty member, Julius Waterman, who was named founding dean of the law school in 1924 — it was not until the 1960s or 1970s that a Jewish community began to take root.

“When I arrived here,” said Jeremy Hess, a New York native who moved to Fayetteville in 1970 to study creative writing, “you could count the number of Jews on one hand.” Hess, who today works in construction, is head of the new synagogue’s building committee.

According to Temple Shalom president Bill Feldman, Fayetteville’s Jews have come from three sources: educators connected with the university, back-to-the-land hippies, and white-collar workers connected to Wal-Mart and its affiliates. “The congregation began in earnest around 1980, and our first president worked for Wal-Mart,” said Feldman, a professor of mathematics.

The temple, which for the last nine years has rented a onetime fraternity house, has never had a full-time rabbi. In its early years, it relied on periodic visits from rabbinical students from Hebrew Union College in Cincinnati and retired rabbis and cantors from Tulsa and Kansas City. Last year, however, one of the congregation’s longtime members, Jacob Adler, a professor of philosophy, was ordained by the Reconstructionist Rabbinical College in Wyncote, Pa. Though still a full professor — “When someone offers you a job teaching philosophy,” he said, “you first say ‘yes’ and then say ‘where?’” — Adler now also serves as the community’s part-time spiritual leader.

The community would likely never have considered building itself a home had it not been for an unexpected bequest from congregant Miriam Alford, a convert to Judaism who passed away two years ago and left the congregation $475,000. Initially, the community set its sights on a historic home designed by a Frank Lloyd Wright protégé. But after an outcry from neighbors who didn’t want a house of worship in their backyard, the temple backed off.

And in the end, the rebuff served as a blessing in disguise, for it attracted Bayyari’s attention.

“It was disheartening to see the temple turned down. I felt it wasn’t right,” said Bayyari, who has lived in the area for 27 years and speaks with a slight southern drawl. At a meeting of the local Rotary Club, Bayyari approached congregation member Ralph Nesson and offered to help. Nesson brokered a meeting between Bayyari and Hess — at a branch of the Olive Garden restaurant chain, symbolically enough — and an understanding was reached.

The synagogue still needs to raise $2.2 million, both for the building itself — Bayyari won’t be covering the cost of the materials — and its endowment. As of now, they are about $800,000 shy of that goal.

The synagogue has cast a wide net in its search for benefactors, and, even though it is not universally loved by Temple Shalom congregants, Wal-Mart is being considered.

“There are a number of people in the congregation who won’t shop there,” said Feldman. But if the retailer is willing to open its purse strings, he added with a laugh, “our principles may be compromised a little bit.”

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