BY CHRIS STURGIS

SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

SOUTH BRUNSWICK — Dalya Youssef wants her son, Yousuf Abdelfatah, to feel more confident about practicing the Islamic faith than she did when she attended public schools.

The Franklin Township mother, who is also a lawyer, remembered feeling timid about doing her midday prayer ritual in school when she was growing up in Monroe Township.

She said she didn’t begin the Muslim practice of covering her hair with a headscarf known as a hajib until her freshman year in college. The practice of covering oneself usually begins at puberty.

“I delayed it because I didn’t have enough confidence,” she said.

Therefore, she and her husband sent their son to Noor-Ul-Iman School on the South Brunswick campus of the Islamic Society of Central New Jersey, which has a full-time parochial school covering pre-kindergarten through 12th grade. Enrollment at the Route 1 school was 480 last year and is expected to top 500 in September.

Now Youssef’s son prays alongside his classmates, not in isolation, as she did.

“Plus, I think he gets an excellent education,” she said.

Earlier this month, the society broke ground on $5 million of infrastructure improvements to be followed by the building of a new, two-story 70,000-square-foot school, which will have the library, auditorium and gymnasium the school now lacks.

More critical, though, is that the license from South Brunswick to use modular buildings for the school expires in December, said Islamic Society president Aly Aziz.

“We have to show the township we are working on permanent facilities,” he said.

The infrastructure, consisting of water lines, electrical cables, a detention basin, new street entrances, a 600-car parking lot, and a concrete platform for the school building, is literally laying the groundwork for a much broader expansion plan that will take years to construct, he said.

South Brunswick has approved a master plan for a new mosque and an income-generating office building on the 16-acre campus. Four Rutgers University graduates seeking a sense of belonging founded the society 40 years ago.

“I’m pretty excited about it,” Youssef said. “I would love to see my son have a real high school with all the facilities.”

Another mother, Heba Macksoud, said she sent her twin daughters, Jenna and Jada, age 7, to the society’s preschool, but has since put them in public school. They come to the Islamic society for weekend religious education classes, she said.

Macksoud, a former vice president of marketing at MTV, said she loved the school’s attentive atmosphere, but hated paying tuition for substandard facilities.

“It’s a huge investment,” she said. “I’d rather save the money for college.”

Macksoud, a native New Yorker who first came to the Islamic Center at age 8, said the new school shows the Islamic community can sustain a parochial school system like other religions.

“We will soon have something that my kids can be proud of that is beautiful and institutional, rather than something slapped together from trailers,” she said.

School principal Janet Nazif said the new school will be more spacious and comfortable for students and staff. The essence of the program won’t change because it is the dedication of the teachers and the parents who support their efforts.

She started as a teacher with the school founded 16 years ago. There were only 27 students in pre-kindergarten, kindergarten and first grade. The school expanded by a couple of grades per year, until six years ago when the first class of high school seniors graduated.

“When it started, there were a lot of naysayers, who said we wouldn’t be able to help these children succeed, but they have been proven wrong,” she said.

All of the high school graduates have been accepted to college, including some Ivy League institutions, she said.

There are 220 Islamic schools in the U.S., including 17 in New Jersey, according to the Islamic Schools League of America based in Falls Church, Va.

The schools are growing the fastest in areas with large Muslim populations, including New York State, Michigan and Washington, D.C., according to the organization, which formed 11 years ago to help new schools benefit from the experience of established institutions.

Yet, as the Muslim community gains prominence in American society, members say they are unfairly associated with Middle Eastern terrorism.

Macksoud said terrorism comes from uneducated, unemployed youth who can be convinced the U.S. is the source of their misery.

By contrast, the Islamic Society of Central New Jersey comprises well-educated professionals with successful careers, she said, noting her pride that the society donated statutes to adorn the entrance to the South Brunswick Public Library.

“It shows that we love our community and want to get involved every which way,” she said.

The society includes immigrants from 20 nations around the globe and first-generation Americans like herself.

Aziz said the diverse 2,000-member society counters prejudice by issuing statements condemning terrorist acts.

He said Islam is at its essence a peaceful religion. Muslims greet each other with the words, “Assalamo Alikom” meaning “Peace be upon you.”

The response is to say it in reverse, “Alikom Assalamo.”

“We do not consider (terrorists) Muslims because Islam is a religion of peace,” Aziz said.

This article originally appeared in the Times of Trenton (NJ) on June 28, 2009 and was posted on the affiliated website, NJ.com.

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