FAYETTEVILLE -- Jeremy Hess stood at the front of the sanctuary at Temple Shalom on Sunday, tasked with giving a five-minute talk that summarized the Jewish history of Northwest Arkansas.
"It's been said that the history of the Jewish people can be described in 10 words: They tried to kill us, God saved us, let's eat," Hess said, evoking laughter from the audience. "It's a little more complicated than that."
He included the arrival of the earliest Jewish settlers in the mid-19th century, his own arrival in 1970 and the donation the community received later that same decade that allowed them to make the down payment on the Sam Barg Hillel House, their first official Hillel house and meeting place, on Storer Avenue in Fayetteville.
Temple Shalom represents more than Judaism in the area, Hess said, a statement reflected in the audience. Jews, Muslims, Christians, representatives of Buddhism and other faith traditions -- around 90 people in all -- were gathered to celebrate the 10th anniversary of the temple's dedication. Held shortly after the one-year mark of the mass shooting at Pittsburgh's Tree of Life synagogue, the gathering celebrated community and the life of the congregation.
"That's how we arrived here, but this is not just a home for the Jews of Northwest Arkansas," Hess said of the temple. "There's a special energy to this place ... and it's because of you. Not because of us, but because of you.
"You fill this hall with all of the various traditions, all of the love that you bring, all the spirituality ... and [that] nurtures a certain, very unique energy," Hess added. "Once you tap into that energy, it's very hard to go back ... and here we are 10 years later, and we still have that same energy and it is still because of you, the community."
A spirit of interfaith cooperation is in Temple Shalom's heritage. Eleven years after Hess' arrival in Arkansas, Jewish community members founded the congregation -- naming it "Shalom," the Hebrew word for peace -- in 1981.
The temple -- the only Jewish house of worship in the city -- is open to all Jewish practices, and around 70 families from Fayetteville and the surrounding area are members. Rabbi Jacob Adler, the congregation's first resident rabbi, said because the Jewish community in Northwest Arkansas is small and the congregation is mixed, "members must be flexible. Everyone has different [faith] needs."
Unitarian Universalist Fellowship of Fayetteville hosted the congregation for services from the 1980s until 2009.
"They were unbelievably kind and generous spiritual partners," Hess said of the Unitarians.
Temple Shalom also leased space from a building on Storer Avenue.
The University of Arkansas, Fayetteville is also in the congregation's roots. Several of Temple Shalom's founders were connected in some way to the university. Several past presidents have taught there, and currently more than a dozen faculty members and their families belong to the temple, said Stanley Rest, the temple's current president. Adler, the temple's first resident rabbi since his ordination in 2006, teaches philosophy; fellow longtime member Dr. Daniel Levine is a classics professor.
"Even though the temple has grown and diversified, there's still that element," Rest said of the university. "That's a piece of us, [that's] who we are."
Temple Shalom has its own religious school, with classes taught by volunteers, and has a room dedicated to the university's Hillel for college students. With its own entrance and facilities, the Hillel portion doubles as the location for Torah study on Saturday mornings.
A Pew Research religious landscape study places the number of Jews in the United States as 1.9% of the population. In Arkansas, that number is fewer than 1%, and Dr. Bill Feldman, a math professor at UA said the number of Jews in the area when he arrived in 1971 was "very, very small" -- around a dozen people. In 2004 the temple welcomed the formation of Congregation Etz Chaim in Benton County, Levine said, as the second house of worship in Northwest Arkansas. Students at Temple Shalom's religious school hail from the temple and from Congregation Etz Chaim.
Feldman was president at the time the congregation was looking for a place to build a home of their own. It had received an endowment from a congregation member, Miriam Alford, and eventually a parcel of land around an acre in size was found on Fayetteville's Sang Avenue.
Fadil Bayyari, a Muslim, also arrived in the city in the 1970s. Born 35 miles northwest of Jerusalem, he moved to the Fayetteville area during the same decade, built a thriving contracting business and became one of the area's civic leaders. City facilities including a park and an elementary school bear his name.
After learning that the Jewish community was looking to build a temple, Bayyari spoke with congregation members he met through a fellow Rotary Club member, Ralph Nesson, a Temple Shalom member, and proposed building it for them at cost.
"And so the story began," Bayyari said Sunday. "There was not an issue that came before us that we could not solve."
Temple Shalom held a groundbreaking ceremony in 2007 attended by multiple area faith leaders, many of whom were also in attendance at Sunday's celebration. Bret Park and his wife, Stacey, worked with the congregation and Bayyari on design and budgets, and the temple was dedicated two years later. Bret Park said working with the congregation on the temple was "like designing something for a family you've known for practically a lifetime."
The Rev. Georgia Senor, associate pastor of First Presbyterian Church in Bentonville, said it was an honor to be invited to celebrate with the congregation 10 years later. Senor gave a blessing at the 2007 groundbreaking and gave a blessing at Sunday's celebration along with other area faith leaders. Adler, a friend of hers for the past 30 years, also tutored her in Hebrew when she was attending seminary school, Senor said.
"I'm really active in our interfaith community, and I really believe that we're all in this together," Senor said. "We share the same planet, the same community, living with respect for each other ... peace is of the highest order -- it's part of my philosophy."
The Rev. Clint Schnekloth, pastor of Good Shepherd Lutheran Church in Fayetteville, moved to Fayetteville from Wisconsin in 2011, where he said he had good relationships with a number of synagogues and Jewish faith leaders in the Madison area. He hasn't known a time when the temple wasn't on Sang Avenue and said it was natural to connect with Temple Shalom.
The communities have worked together through the years on different projects -- one such undertaking is an interfaith camp coordinated with the temple, other Christian churches and the Islamic Center of Northwest Arkansas -- and Schnekloth said the past decade has seen the growth of interfaith relations in the area.
As the Islamic Center and the [temple] have grown and we've built these relationships, I just think that there's just much more of an interfaith conversation and presence in Fayetteville than 10 years ago," Schnekloth said. "That's one of the benefits of getting to this point."
"[I'm] so grateful I was able to join them in building this wonderful temple of peace," Bayyari said after the celebration Sunday. "It's a community effort, a lot of cooperative effort, in this landmark of peace. If we're able to make it here, we can make it anywhere."
Adler expressed gratitude for the area Unitarian Universalists before the celebration and recalled bringing in the Ark the congregation used during services and dismantling it afterward for future use.
"They helped us in every way, and it was a great relationship, but it was time to move out on our own ... people can see it, [say], 'There's the temple,' and it has that effect, and people feel like 'This is our house.'
"It's kind of like if you were setting up for dinner in somebody else's home. You bring in your stuff, you bring in maybe even your furniture, then you take it away when you're done, and you feel like you're a bit of a wanderer," Adler said. "Jewish people have been wanderers for centuries, and so now it's like we've come home."
More information about the temple is available at templeshalomnwa.org.
Past president of Fayetteville’s Temple Shalom, Dr. Mike Lieber, stands in the temple’s larger gathering room, past a tree of life depicted with wood and metal leaves, inscribed with donors’ names.
Rabbi Jacob Adler (left), leader of Temple Shalom in Fayetteville, gives a blessing with bread in one hand, while holding hands with Jeremy Hess, a longtime member of the Jewish community, to form a chain of congregation and community members during the celebration of the temple building’s 10th year.
Former president of Fayetteville’s Temple Shalom, Dr. Mike Lieber (left) and Judith Levine pause in front of a slideshow of photos from the congregation’s past and present in the temple’s larger gathering room Sunday.
Religion on 11/09/2019
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