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Muslim school in synagogue: Simply a business deal, landlord and tenant say

Saturday, January 03, 2004

By Eric Tucker, The Associated Press

PHILADELPHIA -- Congregation Beth T'Fillah of Overbrook Park is a smallish synagogue, surrounded by houses on a nondescript street in a middle class neighborhood. With a gift shop and an auditorium, a study for the rabbi and a sanctuary for the members, it certainly resembles an everyday house of Jewish worship.

Except, of course, for the Muslim school downstairs.

A new congregation has taken root there, with young members who worship a different God, pray in a different language and study a different sacred text.

The synagogue this year is leasing out its classroom space to NSA Educational Learning Center, a small school for pre-kindergartners through eighth graders in its second year of operation. In classrooms adjacent to the synagogue's main sanctuary, the school's roughly 65 students study Allah and Arabic -- and secular subjects like science, math and history.

Nikkita Shoatz-Ahmad, the school's chief executive officer and principal, said she learned of the available space through a newspaper advertisement in the spring -- but didn't know at first that it was located in a synagogue. Seizing the chance to move her nascent school out of the small storefront it occupied, she visited the property and handed the synagogue a proposal.

"Even though we used that space to our best advantage and it worked well, for the goals and the dreams that we had of expanding, we needed a space like this," Shoatz-Ahmad said. "It was no fear to me that when I pulled up it was a synagogue. It was no fear to me at all. That was not even part of my thinking."

The partnership between the school and synagogue, perhaps a model of inter-religion tolerance, actually originated as something less idyllic: a pure business deal.

The school was looking to expand its enrollment and services; the synagogue was searching for a new tenant after a public school that rented its classrooms for 30 years pulled its students out.

Since the school operates independent of the synagogue, there has been little interaction between the two, said Rabbi Robert Rubin, the congregation's spiritual leader. But he didn't rule out the chance to intermingle more in the future. Last week, for instance, he gave NSA students a presentation on Hannukah, the Jewish holiday.

He said Beth T'Fillah does not get involved in the school's curriculum and respects NSA's rights as a private religious institution.

"It's their school and as long as they do the tenant thing and we do the landlord thing, then hopefully it will work out," Rubin said.

As part of that landlord-tenant deal, the school has agreed not to hold classes on Saturday, the Jewish sabbath, and does not use the synagogue's kitchen.

But NSA students and staff still freely practice their faith. Shoatz-Ahmad said the school follows basic Islamic tenets, including modesty in dress and frequent prayer. Students wear head covering and other traditional Muslim garb, Arabic letters can be seen on chalkboards, and time is set aside daily for prayer.

"The children know that they have to pray -- not if you want to, or if you feel like it -- you have to pray," Shoatz-Ahmad said.

On a recent Friday, students gathered after lunch on a large mat in the school's main activity room, where they were led in afternoon prayers.

"We talk to the kids about it all the time," said Koreama Smith, 24, a kindergarten teacher. "We always say that NSA is making history."

A byproduct of the partnership is the chance to dispel myths about both religions. In a sermon this year, Rubin urged his congregation to avoid stereotyping. He said he has cautioned worshippers from reaching generalizations that militant Muslims are the norm.

"Some people, I think unfairly, assume [that with] Muslims, you've got to be worried," Rubin said.

Shoatz-Ahmad echoed those sentiments.

"If you're only dealing with hearsay and what you see on the news and things like that, it is a scary thing to try and venture into a different person's house," she said. "Sometimes it's a little uncomfortable feeling until you actually get into it and you realize, 'Oh these people aren't so bad,' and 'They're just regular people like we are.' "

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