BEST OF 2012: Omaha interfaith project tries new approach to religious cooperation

Construction on the new tri-faith campus located in West Omaha began in spring, starting with the new synagogue for Temple Israel. (Photo by Hilary Stohs-Krause, NET News)
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December 25, 2012 - 8:30am

Drive through West Omaha these days, and you’ll pass development after development of shopping districts, bistros and office parks. But there’s one construction site that isn’t like anything else in Nebraska: a synagogue, mosque and church are working to create what could become a new model for religious cooperation.

On a former golf course just south of Pacific and 132nd streets in west Omaha, cranes and excavators noisily reinvent the landscape. You have to use your imagination to see past the dusty tire tracks and skeletal framework: the small pool of water idling at the bottom of the hill? That will one day be a lake. Those two giant dirt mounds on the west side of the creek will become an Episcopal church and a mosque.As for the steel beams and gray cement foundation currently under construction? That’s the beginnings of a Jewish temple.

It’s all part of a new 24-acre interfaith campus, one of the first of its kind in the country, if not the world. It’s being organized by Temple Israel, a Reform Jewish congregation; the Episcopal Diocese of Nebraska; and the American Institute of Islamic Studies and Culture (AIISC).


Images courtesy of the Tri-Faith Initiative.

The American Institute of Islamic Studies and Culture

The Episcopal church

Temple Israel

The groups joined together to form the non-profit Tri-Faith Initiative, said Bob Freeman, chair of the Initiative’s board, which plans to build an interfaith study center in the middle of the campus.

I met with Freeman and fellow organizers Syed Mohiuddin (president of AIISC), Aryeh Azriel (rabbi of Temple Israel) and Tim Anderson (with the Episcopal Diocese) in the library of the current Temple Israel synagogue.

“The temple, the institute and the diocese bought their land, and five minutes later, Tri-Faith bought its land here in the middle, with the intent of ultimately developing a tri-faith center,” Freeman said.

“Sounds like poetry when you speak about it, doesn’t it?” Azriel said. “It sounds like Song of Solomon.”

Freeman chuckled. “It sounds like really well-orchestrated, you know, perfectly planned …”

“Right. It only took us five years to get to that point,” Anderson said with a laugh.

The four men have an easy  rapport, but say it wasn’t always that way.

“One of the things that we realized after, I think, only three or four meetings, is that we would have to stop saying, ‘I am sorry,’ to each other, for not knowing as much about the other’s faith as we would like to,” Anderson said. “That’s why we were doing this, so we wouldn’t have to say, ‘I’m sorry.’”

Interfaith action sometimes feels like “one step forward, two steps back,” said Reverend C. Welton Gaddy, president of the national Interfaith Alliance, but he added it’s particularly important in the U.S.

“The United States is now considered the most religiously pluralistic nation in the entire world,” he said. “In other words, we have more religions in the United States than any other country.”

And that kind of diversity can result in tension, or even violence – think of the bombing of the Sikh temple in Wisconsin this summer.

“It’s not easy to relate to people of other faiths unless you know them, unless you understand what they’re doing,” Gaddy said. “Where you find the strongest amount of Islamophobia, you also find people who have never met a Muslim.”

Photo by Hilary Stohs-Krause,
NET News

Construction on the new synagogue for Temple Israel began in spring; the building will be completed by early fall 2013, officials said.

Photo by Hilary Stohs-Krause,
NET News

"Hell's Creek" runs through the center of the tri-faith campus land.

The tri-faith campus in Omaha ultimately resulted from more than enough space, but it originated from a lack of it. Temple Israel’s current synagogue was built in the ’50s for a congregation of about 350. By 2005, they counted more than 700 families. Members offered land where the synagogue could move, but it was more than they needed.

They reached out to various organizations, from churches to libraries to theater companies. In the end, the Episcopal Diocese and Islamic Institute were natural partners: like Temple Israel, both had growing congregations who needed new space, and both had demographics expanding in West Omaha.

The Diocese is gathering a new congregation to match the new location, but the Islamic Institute and Temple Israel had to convince existing congregations the arrangement was in their best interest.

When I asked Rabbi Azriel if there had been any resistance from synagogue members, he answered with a hypothetical question:

“You know how many years it took Moses to get (the Israelites) out of the desert?”

(The answer is 40 years.)

 “Yeah, there was resistance,” he said wryly. “There’s still some kind of resistance. So what?”

He chuckled. “When I came to this congregation, I told everyone that I’m going to comfort those that are disturbed and disturb those that are comfortable.”

While interfaith interactions take place nationwide in various forms, Gaddy with the Interfaith Alliance said the intentionality of the Omaha campus is “something new.” He said many people have asked him whether it signals a wave of the future, but it’s too early to tell. After all, despite the religions’ common roots, proximity alone doesn’t necessarily breed partnership.

“I know there are a lot of intersections in the South where there is a Baptist Church, a Presbyterian Church and a Methodist Church on three corners of an intersection and they don’t even get along,” Gaddy said with a laugh.

But Anderson with the Episcopal Diocese said they’re not like other interfaith councils or organizations.

“Many of those, when that conference or that dialogue is over, those folks go back to their hotel, pack their bag, get on a plane and fly home,” he said. “That’s what’s intentional about us. When we’re done with our conversations, we are still home ... And my neighbor to the right is Jewish, and my neighbor to the left is Muslim, and as a Christian, my faith says, ‘How do I love my neighbor as myself?’ So that’s our task.”

And it’s a task that’s a work-in-progress. The new synagogue is the only building that’s actually started construction - slated for completion early fall of 2013. The Islamic Institute and Episcopal Diocese hope to have the donations in hand to begin construction in 2013 or 2014, and the Tri-Faith Initiative will likely start fundraising next year for the site’s Interfaith Center.

As potential trailblazers, do they feel any pressure?

“We do realize that this is a responsibility which we carry,” said Mohiuddinof AIISC. “And we cannot fail. I think that sense is there. But this will be a great example of these three great religions to be able to show the world what peace looks like.

“This is what peace looks like.”

Remember that stream I mentioned at the beginning of the story that runs through the center of the campus? Years ago, it was christened Hell’s Creek. But the site schematics call for a bridge to cross the creek, connecting the two halves of the property, and they’ve already named it: they’re going to call it Heaven.

Editor's note: This Signature Story is part of our "Best of 2012" series of reports, airing Dec. 24 to Dec. 28, 2012 on NET Radio, looking back at some of the most memorable Signature Stories from NET News throughout the year. It originally aired Sept. 6.



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