January 26, 2005, Wednesday, BC cycle
Muslims, Jews work together to build Habitat house in Tyler

BYLINE: By BOBBY ROSS JR., AP Religion Writer

SECTION: State and Regional

LENGTH: 739 words

DATELINE: TYLER, Texas

Anwar Khalifa and Neal Katz laugh and joke as close friends do.

The Muslim developer and the Jewish rabbi share meals at each other’s homes, reflect on the similarities in Arabic and Hebrew, and respectfully agree to disagree on politics.

“I consider Neal a friend, not the rabbi or a Jew,” Khalifa said. “If I need something, I can call him up and say, ‘Hey, Neal, help me.’ ”

The unlikely friendship has produced an unusual partnership in this East Texas town: The Muslim and Jewish communities are working together to build a house with Habitat for Humanity, a nonprofit, Christian organization.

After the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, many Muslim and Jewish affiliates had days when they teamed up on Habitat projects. But this is the first house entirely sponsored and built by the two groups, said Heather Hughey, director of development for the Habitat for Humanity of Smith County.

Tamiko Seward, the single mother who will live in the 1,100-square-foot house with her 3-year-old son, Jacob, is neither Muslim nor Jewish.

She’s Baptist.

“Everyone gets along so well, you don’t know who is from what religion,” said Seward, a 26-year-old secretary.

For Khalifa and Katz, that’s the point.

Khalifa, 43, said he was taught as a boy in Egypt to hate Jews. But, he said with a smile, his 13-year-old daughter, Sara, won’t grow up that way.

Katz, 31, said he had no particular views on Muslims while growing up in Virginia.

“But it’s very easy in the Jewish community to become distrustful of Muslims,” Katz said. “It takes a big leap of faith and a lot of effort to see the humanity.”

The friends dubbed the Tyler project the Abraham House after the forefather of Muslims, Jews and Christians. They hope the effort will help improve relations and understanding far beyond this city of 86,000 about 95 miles east of Dallas.

“Anwar and I have always been interested in focusing on what brings us together,” Katz said. “We’re not going to sit here and talk about Israel and Palestine and so forth.”

The friendship started soon after Katz moved to Tyler in 2003 to serve as rabbi of Congregation Beth El, a Reform congregation with about 80 Jewish families.

Katz had called Khalifa, president of Pyramid Homes, about buying a house. The rabbi told Khalifa, who directs the East Texas Islamic Society, that he wanted to get to know him regardless of whether he did business with him.

As it turned out, Katz did not buy a house from Khalifa, but the two began meeting for lunch. “And we just hit it off,” Khalifa said.

They have become such close friends that when a Christian customer recently invited Khalifa to church, he accepted but asked, “Is it OK for me to bring the rabbi?”

“It was great,” Katz chuckled, remembering the man’s stunned reaction.

At one of the friends’ regular lunches, Khalifa proposed the joint Habitat project. Katz liked the idea, and plans for the Muslim and Jewish communities to split the $45,000 cost proceeded quickly from there.

“There was some apprehension in my community, but I think they basically relied on my judgment,” Katz said, “and I think his community relied on his judgment that this was something that we could go ahead and do.”

Since last fall, a few dozen Muslims and Jews have spent most Sundays at the project site, framing, hammering and helping however they can. They hope to finish the house by March.

On a recent Sunday afternoon, the Rev. Jane Lovett-Porr, a retired United Methodist minister, showed her support by bringing lunch, making sure that her potato soup with vegetables conformed to both Muslim and Jewish dietary guidelines.

“So many people isolate themselves from other faiths and people that are ‘quote’ different than they are,” Lovett-Porr said. “But underneath it all, we’re just all alike if we decide to give each other a chance to find that out.”

Mohammad Farooq, a 29-year-old mechanical engineer originally from Pakistan, said the project offers him a double reward: the joy of helping someone get a home and the satisfaction of making new Jewish friends.

“The more you know about them, the more you understand them,” Farooq said. “I think the ignorance about each other is what breeds fear or animosity.”

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