Passing over toward each other in Deep South

Muslim Palestinian helps Jews find a home

Passover Tuesday, 03 April 2007



If I am not for myself, who will be for me? 

And if I am only for myself, what am I?

And if not now, when?

        - Rabbi Hillel   (30 BCE - 9AD)

There can be hope only for a society which

acts as one big family, not as many separate ones.

        - Anwar Sadat  (1918 - 1981)

     Now -- this Passover, 2007 -- humankind is given a needed, new story.
     It is about neighbors -- a Muslim Palestinian and a tiny Jewish community in Fayetteville, Arkansas.

    The Jewish congregation, small in number, have subsisted on borrowing others' sanctuaries for their rituals.
     Then a deceased member endowed a sum -- a seed -- that awaked dreams for their own, possible sanctuary.
     But financial and other roadblocks have appeared on the path to their longed-for home.
     Enter Palestinian Fadil Bayyan ( ), a local general contractor.
     The Muslim American grew up in Tulkarem, a West Bank town now experiencing great pain of an unkind, excessive military occupation.
     He has plenty of reasons to resent, disregard and separate himself from Jews.
     Yet his hero is the late Anwar Sadat, a man who risked much to pass over political and cultural boundaries and taboos to engage the "other."
     And Bayyan was crystal-clear on the telephone today: "We need to build more bridges, not destroy them."

     The Palestinian means what he says.
     Fadil Bayyan suggested that Temple Shalom build a synagogue and that he serve as general contractor.
     Without taking a profit.
     Bayyari's charitable efforts are already community history.
     He's helped build a mosque and a church. His name is on a public school.
His generosity is based in his rejection of prejudice and deep interest in all faiths and peoples, including the Jewish experience.
     "I knew from the Koran that Jews and Muslims are children of the same God," he said.

     "When you sit down with a man and look him in the eyes, it's hard to hate him," Bayyari said.
     "That's what we're doing here in Arkansas.
     "Maybe they can do the same in Israel and Palestine. We need less hatred in the world."
     And Fadil is a a strong Palestinian.
     On the phone today: ""My dream is to go back home and help the Palestinians and Israelis live together there."
     SEE more about A Temple of Peace --
     READ the whole story below.

     This Spring and all year, let's each add an increment, to pass over together:
        from confrontation to cooperation
        from resistance to responsiveness
        from disengagement to engagement
        from blame to responsibility
        from old-thinking to creativity
        to make heart connections
        to let fear atrophy
        to build together
        the great world
        we can.


Published in The Chicago Tribune -- Tuesday, 03 April 2007,1,3314757.story?coll=chi-religion-topheadlines&ctrack=2&cset=true

Building a model for peace
West Bank native leads temple project
By Ron Grossman

     FAYETTEVILLE, Ark. -- This year as every year, the tiny Jewish community here will utter the age-old symbolic invitation for a needy stranger to share its dinner tables during Passover, which began at sundown Monday.
     "For you know the heart of a stranger," as the Book of Exodus observes, "seeing you were strangers in the land of Egypt."
     But this time, the 50 Jewish families will intone the formula with a special poignancy: For now, it is they who have been in need and an outsider who came to their aid.
     "Fadil is helping us open the door to a synagogue," said Jeremy Hess.
     Fadil Bayyari is a Palestinian-American building contractor who is donating his services so Hess and other members of Temple Shalom can fulfill their dream of having a sanctuary. After an earlier plan to convert a residential home fell through -- a victim of not-in-my-back-yard syndrome -- plans are being put in final form to construct a new building on another site.
     Despite Bayyari's background, it's hard for the congregation to think of him as an outsider. He's not the type to be a stranger.
     "Hi, there, how you been, how's the missus?" Bayyari said, greeting a parade of well-wishers at a local restaurant while recounting how it came to pass that a Palestinian-American is a generous benefactor of a Jewish house of worship.
     To others, it might seem an unusual gesture, given the two peoples' long and often bloody conflicts. But to Bayyari, it's a corollary of the dream that drew him to America.
     "This is a land of milk and honey," said Bayyari, 54. "There shouldn't be prejudice or hatred here."
     Hess sees the story in theological terms: "God, for some reason, picked us out of the pack -- a handful of Jews and Muslims out in the heartland -- and said: 'You're going to play this hand.'"
     The congregation, formed in the 1980s, includes a few Jewish professors at the University of Arkansas as well as Jewish professionals and businesspeople drawn by companies such as Tyson's food products and Wal-Mart, whose corporate headquarters is nearby.
     A member of the philosophy department, Jacob Adler, served as the congregation's unofficial spiritual head, then doubled back to theological seminary in Philadelphia and became a rabbi.
     But Temple Shalom's 50 families didn't have a roof of their own. Services were held in a Unitarian church, and members met for Talmud study at the university's Hillel Center, where parents took turns teaching religion classes. The center is a squat wooden structure with a down-at-the-heels look. Over the doorway, faded Hebrew letters barely announce the congregation's presence.
     Then the congregation learned a deceased member had handsomely remembered Temple Shalom in her will. Members went looking last year for a more suitable home and thought they had found one in an architectural gem and real-estate white elephant, sitting on a hilly site above the town.
     Known as Butterfly House for its distinctive shape and designed by locally renowned architect Fay Jones, it is too large for a single-family home by contemporary standards. But that same scale made it suitable for remodeling into a sanctuary, while its soaring roof lines gave it the look of a sacred space. And having been long on the market, the price was right.
     The local planning commission approved the conversion of the property, but neighbors kicked up a fuss and complained to the City Council. The Mt. Sequoyah neighborhood is home to movers and shakers who contended the synagogue would be inappropriate in a residential community.
     "It's been referred to as a gated community without a gate," Adler said.
     At that point, the city fathers urged -- some say "leaned on" -- the congregation not to force a vote on the issue. By a narrow margin, Temple Shalom's members decided it would be wiser not to go where they weren't wanted and dropped their bid on Butterfly House.
     Some smelled a hint of anti-Semitism. The Becket Fund for Religious Liberty, a Washington-based organization, wrote to the City Council and mayor saying: "to deny this congregation's application to be the first Jewish synagogue in Fayetteville ... when Christian churches are located in other residential zones within the city would legitimately give rise to serious concerns" under federal anti-discrimination law.
     For Bayyari, it didn't matter what motivated the opposition. In his eyes, it was simply wrong.
     "To me, it's God's house," Bayyari said. "You don't resist having a house of worship in your neighborhood."
     Troubled by the affair, Bayyari sought out a fellow member of the Rotary Club, Ralph Nesson, who he knew was a member of Temple Shalom.
     "I could see Fadil was troubled," Nesson said. "He asked if there was anything he could do to help."
     Some people were wary of the offer, but Bayyari's charitable efforts are widely known here. He's helped build a mosque and a church. His name is on a public school. Bayyari suggested that Temple Shalom build a synagogue and said he would serve as general contractor without taking a profit.
     The congregation agreed, and the new synagogue is estimated to cost about $1.2 million. General contractors here generally bill between 10 and 15 percent of building costs for their services, a fee Bayyari is waiving.
     Bayyari explains his generosity on two grounds: He hates prejudice, and he's fascinated by the Jewish experience.
     "I knew from the Koran that Jews and Muslims are children of the same God," he said. "When I got to Fayetteville and had the time to do some reading, I went over to Barnes and Noble and bought me a Torah, a Jewish Bible."
     Bayyari came of age in the West Bank in the 1970s and said he had three choices: Work for the Israelis, which meant the indignity of crossing army checkpoints daily; join the underground resistance; or seek better fortunes abroad. He opted for the last, and his father bought him a ticket to Chicago.
     Bayyari intended to study at Roosevelt University, but that plan foundered on his need to earn a living. So he went to work for a restaurant at 79th Street and Kedzie Avenue. Subsequently he got a job at McDonald's and moved from franchise to franchise around the country.
     After a stint managing the corporate empire of an Arab business mogul in Bahrain, he came back to the States, found his way to Fayetteville and bought a waffle-house restaurant. A local business man who took his morning coffee there admired Bayyari's work ethic and brought him into the construction business.
     "Mr. Willard Walker was a great man and a big charitable giver," Bayyari said. "He told me: 'Find somebody you like, and help him.' I've tried to honor that advice."
     Though loyal to his Palestinian roots, he's no fan of his people's political leadership. His hero is the late Egyptian president Anwar Sadat, who flew to Jerusalem in 1977 to extend a hand of peace to the Israelis. Now, he hopes and prays Saudi King Abdullah might make a similarly dramatic gesture.
     "When you sit down with a man and look him in the eyes, it's hard to hate him," Bayyari said. "That's what we're doing here in Arkansas. Maybe they can do the same in Israel and Palestine. We need less hatred in the world."
     He and his Jewish friends hope news of their experiment in mutual understanding might, in a small way, inspire similar efforts in the Holy Land.
     "When you drop a pebble in the water," said Nesson, "you never know where the wave is going to ripple out to."


Published in The Jewish Daily FORWARD -- Wednesday, 26 September 2007

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