By James Freedman
With the University of Arkansas and Wal-Mart attracting an increased population including huge numbers of minority religious groups to the area, it is not surprising that Fayetteville is becoming increasingly diverse as time goes on. 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 Jewish synagogue in the history of the city, and the fact that the pro bono builder is a Muslim.
Fadil Bayyari, a Muslim and general contractor in Springdale, has already built two churches and the first mosque in Fayetteville. Now he’s donating his time to help Temple Shalom complete their first building, waiving the contractor fees customarily associated with most building projects.
“I was born and raised in the West Bank, which is an area occupied by Israel,” Bayyari said. “I’ve been in the U.S. for 36 years and Northwest Arkansas for 27… I respect other people’s ways of life, other people’s 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 people’s cultures and religion. And in my heart I decided I’m going to help them.”
Up until now, Temple Shalom rented space for their meetings. However, Jacob Adler felt that wasn’t good enough, citing a myriad of 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.
“What happens is a lot of people come here and they get a job offer and they ask about the Jewish community, and if they know we have a building it makes them feel more confident to come to the area and join us,” he said. “If you were a practicing Christian and you came to a place where there was no church you’d probably feel a little uncomfortable. Having a building makes you feel more confident in the future of the community.”
Although the fundraising isn’t complete, they’re hoping to begin construction “late this summer,” 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 President Bill Feldman is also “thrilled” at Bayyari’s assistance.
“We’re particularly thrilled because Fadil Bayyari, who is a Palestinian, has offered his services to help us build the temple. We’re really thrilled with that and we think that’s very, very nice of him,” he said.
Temple Shalom already strives to integrate with other faiths in the area, for instance, by trading childcare duties.
“We share childcare with one of the local churches so on Easter we provide childcare for them and on our High Holidays they provide childcare 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.”
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.”
Because many of the Temple’s leadership, including Feldman and Adler, are affiliated with the University, when the time comes for interfaith activities, Temple Shalom will have a variety of religious organizations to interact with, including the diverse group of members of the University’s Council of Religious Organizations, headed by Hershel Hartford.
“I would say that the University does [increase diversity] although it’s not in an overt way, because the University brings in students from not only around the United States but around the world and that increased population brings in a wider, more diverse group of people,” said Hartford, who’s full-time job is chaplain at St. Martin’s Episcopal.
The Council, according to Hartford, fosters interfaith dialogue.
“The Council of Religious Organizations is an organization that represents a number of the campus ministry organizations at the University of Arkansas and works towards offering more opportunities for all of the various faiths on campus to come together… not only with each other but with the administration and students of the University to talk about the variety of issues that are going on in the world today,” he said.
In conjunction with the influx of diversity, Hartford also cites an increasing interest in exploring faith.
“I’ve only been the chaplain at this school University center for three years but in the last three years I think there’s a greater interest in people’s faith development, whatever path they take, and I would say, yes, there is an increase… in the number of students interested in exploring the various faith paths that are out there,” he said.
Occasionally views of religious diversity can be extremely limited, according to Hartford.
“I think that sometimes folks look at religious diversity as being either just denominations of Christianity or different forms of Judaism but I think that what we see a lot in the Fayetteville area is that there’s a wide diversity among the Christian community, but there’s also a wide diversity of world religions around here,” he said. “The Council of Religious Organizations offers its membership to any organization on campus.”
There are currently more than 20 members of the group, including many Christian denominations, the Hillel Jewish Association and the Unitarian Universalist Fellowship.
“I would say that diversity… increasing is a good thing, because I believe that our world is a place that is in need of dialogue with one another,” Hartford said. “The only way we do that is… being face to face, being able to sit down and talk, being able to explore and look at those differences, so I think that’s a very good thing.”
Another possible reason for the increased diversity is that Fayetteville is “welcoming,” Hartford said.
“I think one of the factors is that I find Fayetteville to be a very open community, a very welcoming community,” he said. “I think that folks are welcomed openly and it’s not about what you believe, or where you come from that makes a difference in this community. What makes a difference in this community is that you are coming here and wanting to be involved in the community. There are so many opportunities in Fayetteville for not just students but folks moving in here, moving into the community to take jobs and that sort of thing [and] I think that it’s a very welcoming area.”
Adler agrees that anti-Jewish sentiment is not a serious problem in Fayetteville.
“People are often fairly unfamiliar with Judaism and don’t know much about it, but I definitely feel accepted,” he said.
While Wal-Mart initially helped increase Temple Shalom’s membership, many of the Wal-Mart employees who were once members have now joined a new Temple in Bentonville, which is more conveniently located. Still, Temple Shalom’s growth has remained steady and they feel that now is a perfect time to build their own synagogue.
“[Wal-Mart] contributed to our growth, but then it drained off a number of our younger and probably more affluent members,” said Mike Lieber, former president of Temple Shalom and current advisor to the University’s Hillel Jewish Association.
This includes not just Wal-Mart employees, but also executives from companies like Procter & Gamble who do business with Wal-Mart, according to Lieber.
“Wal-Mart attracted people who had expertise in various areas as Wal-Mart grew,” he said. “It grew enormously, and it attracted people from all over the country who were interested in marketing and retail business and so on, so it attracted a lot of people. And then as Wal-Mart grew, Wal-Mart also has a rule that they prefer companies that they deal with have a local representative, so all these companies like Procter & Gamble and S. C. Johnson all have to have local representatives, so those companies started shipping some of their executives to Bentonville to service Wal-Mart, and a not insignificant fraction of them were Jewish, so that led to the growth of our community,” he said.
“So we had all kinds of people who were affiliated with Wal-Mart, but they felt it inconvenient to come down particularly for our Friday night services because a lot of them have families… and it was too much of an effort so they decided to split.”
Building contractor Bayyari agrees that religious diversity in the region is on the rise.
“I really think the religious diversity here in Northwest Arkansas is on the increase for one reason above all — there’s more outsiders coming to this area, and every time you bring more outsiders they bring in their own language, their own culture, their faith, and we’re seeing people of all… walks of life and backgrounds move to this area, and the quality of life certainly is getting better,” Bayyari said.
Even though there is a great deal of support for building the temple, as evidenced by many contributions, a large bequest from a dedicated Temple member and Bayyari’s generous offer, there have been some stumbling blocks along the way.
For instance, the Temple originally wanted to purchase the Butterfly House, designed by notable architect E. Fay Jones, to use as a synagogue, but that plan was shot down after neighbors complained to the City Council. However, the reason behind the opposition probably didn’t have anything to do with religion.
“We were trying to buy what’s known as the Butterfly House,” Adler said. “It’s a beautiful house and it’s been on the market for a long time and we were hoping we could buy it and turn it into a synagogue, and some of the neighbors really didn’t want a non-residential house in their neighborhood, so they went to the City Council and protested. So we ended up withdrawing the application, but it was pretty clear that we would have lost the vote. I think they wanted nothing but residences. It’s unfortunate, because this house is a big house and a beautiful house but not so convenient to be used as a residence. It seems to call out for something else.”
Bayyari heard about the rezoning problems and offered his assistance.
“I have some friends in the Rotary Club,” Bayyari said. “I was following up… on their difficulty in getting rezoning in the city for a building and to try and convert it to a temple and I kind of felt it wasn’t right for their rezoning to be turned down… I told [them] if they need my help I’d be more than glad to help them with it. I told them I’d be glad to build the building for them at cost.”
The change of plans may work to the congregation’s benefit, regardless.
“I think things will work out to our benefit because here we can plan the space exactly to work with our needs,” Adler said.
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 than they do, on average, throughout the rest of the United States, such developments lead one to question whether this will always be the case, and whether, perhaps, Fayetteville will serve as an example to other communities on how to foster interfaith relationships.
“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 goodwill and respect for each other’s way of life.
“This is the Bible Belt. To see this kind of cooperation taking place between Muslims and Jews — and Christians and Muslims, for that matter — I think it speaks for itself about the maturity of our community in that respect.”
By James Freedman