Philadelphia synagogue is landlord to Muslim school

philadelphia (ap) | 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 looks like a typical house of Jewish worship.

Except for the Muslim school downstairs.

A new congregation has taken root there, with young members who 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 classrooms adjacent to the synagogue’s main sanctuary, the school’s roughly 65 students study Allah and Arabic — along with 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 last spring, during her school’s first year of operation. She 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.”

The partnership between the school and synagogue, perhaps a model of religious 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 had rented its classrooms for 30 years pulled its students out.

Rabbi Robert Rubin, the congregation’s spiritual leader, 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, and not to 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.