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 atempleofpeace.com, 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. (MORE)