Jews, Christians and Muslims make holy ground in America’s heartland

The three clergymen leading congregations participating in the Tri-Faith Initiative are (L-R) Temple Israel Rabbi Emeritus Aryeh Azriel, Countryside Community Church Senior Minister Eric Elnes, and American Muslim Institute Imam Mohamad Jamal Daoudi.

OMAHA, Nebraska  — When most people think of Omaha, they imagine sizzling steaks, billionaire Warren Buffet or even former NFL quarterback Peyton Manning calling out before the snap. (Remember “Omaha-Omaha”?).

But if a group of clergymen have their way, Nebraska’s largest city will soon also be known as the home of interfaith dialogue and peacebuilding.

A rabbi, a reverend and an imam (no, it’s not a setup joke) are partners in a decadelong quest to bring together the three Abrahamic faiths — Judaism, Christianity and Islam — to share and worship on the same property.

It’s called Tri-Faith Initiative.

The $65 million project, launched in 2006 and funded through donations, may be the first time in US history that the three faiths intentionally build their houses of worship side by side.

“We didn’t create this (project) to tolerate each other. We didn’t create this just to have a dialogue,” explained Rabbi Aryeh Azriel, the former senior rabbi at Omaha’s Temple Israel, whose vision helped drive the project.

“We have done all this stuff already. It’s about what are we going to do together. What are we going to do for the betterment of humanity?”

The location chosen for the sacred endeavor is the old golf course of Highland Country Club, a “Jewish Club” developed in the 1920s when Jews were excluded from other clubs in in the city and around the country.

Today, a new synagogue and mosque stand tall on the abandoned greens and fairways. And construction crews are readying to build a new church.

Further plans include a Tri-Faith Center, which will be completed in 2019 and serve as a shared community space for interfaith classes and activities.

“The Tri-Faith Center will be a place to act, learn and gather,” says a project brochure. “We will promote policies protecting religions and democracies, and unite our diverse voices to challenge extremism.”

The developers say they’re excited for what the future holds. They’re also proud that a land once formed out of division, has now become a symbol of religious tolerance.

For Jews, a ‘taste of paradise’

Temple Israel’s new synagogue opened in 2013 and cost more than $21 million to complete. The first of the Tri-Faith project, it’s a modern, 58,000-square foot building that features hand-cut stone imported from Jerusalem, a symbol of the Reform congregation’s connection to the Holy Land.

“If you can’t create peace in the Middle East — what about Omaha?” quipped Rabbi Azriel, 67, a polio survivor from Israel.

He likes to share a story from one of his congregants who was initially apprehensive about sharing land with Muslims. The man, who would later become a donor, privately expressed fears about Islamic extremists attacking the synagogue. “What if there’s a live hand grenade rolled in the middle of the aisle during the high holidays,” the man asked.

The rabbi answered there were two options. “One is to run away. But as a polio survivor, I can’t run far away,” he said with a mix of sarcasm. “The other one is for me to fall on it.”

The answer, Azriel said, brought tears to the man’s eyes.

Azriel believes that fear isn’t a strong enough reason to cease the project. In fact, he said the idea was born out of the tragedies of 9/11, when fear was at its highest level and he and some congregants went to defend a local mosque from vandalism.

The gesture, he said, led to new friendships and a dialogue between members of the two faith communities. Years later, when Temple Israel began making plans to relocate its aging synagogue, the rabbi and a handful of others formed Tri-Faith Initiative, and articulated their vision to have three faiths occupy the same 35-acre space.

“It will be a little taste of paradise,” said Azriel.

Muslims find ‘refreshment’ for the soul

The American Muslim Institute is a stunning $7 million mosque that opened in June, just in time for Ramadan, Islam’s holiest month. The 15,000-square foot building has all the comforts of a modern-day mosque, including state-of-the-art feet washing stations, classrooms and recreation areas, counting a basketball court.

The centerpiece is the cavernous prayer room, where about 50 people attended on a recent evening. The tranquil sounds of the Imam’s chants echoed throughout the room, which has separate spaces for men and women.

Yearning for a new opportunity, Imam Mohamad Jamal Daoudi agreed to lead the congregation after a stint with another mosque in Augusta, Georgia.

“Refreshment for my soul. I was very enthusiastic to join the group,” said Daoudi, 52.

A Syrian native, Daoudi has been in the United States for 22 years and says it’s the first time he’s seen such an ambitious idea materialize.

The conflict between Jews and Muslims in the Mideast should not be an impediment in making peace in the Midwest, he said.

There are “so many good things as human beings to enjoy and embrace, rather than just focusing on one issue,” Daoudi said.

He concedes, however, that his enthusiasm for the project is not universal among Omaha’s Muslim community, some of whom feel anxious about the mixing of faiths.

“Right now they are suspicious, they are hesitant, but very soon they will find out that it’s a good idea,” said Daoudi.

He believes some of the apprehension is due to confusion — a perception that people of all faiths will be worshipping in the same sanctuary, shoulder to shoulder.

“Our mission is not about compromising anybody’s faith,” he said. “We are here to learn about each other and to live as neighbors with each other.”

Christians ‘in love with the vision’

Countryside Community Church, part of the United Church of Christ, has a perfectly fine building less than 15 minutes away from the Tri-Faith site. It has served the congregation well for 60 years and could easily have remained for another several decades.

“Almost no congregation in America moves without some outside pressure, like the roof caving in,” said Rev. Eric Elnes, the head pastor.

“We are moving simply because we fell in love with the vision of Tri-Faith.”

Elnes, 53, said the vast majority of his congregation voted for the move, despite the inherent challenges in raising the $26 million required to fund the construction of a new church.

The church is designed to provide congregants with a view of the synagogue and mosque. Measuring 65,000 square feet, it will include a traditional narthex, courtyard and numerous shared spaces intended to maximize interaction.

Construction is expected to be complete in late 2018.

“Tri-Faith would have made sense throughout any of our religious histories, but in this time, it makes more sense than ever,” Elnes said, alluding to recent terrorist attacks in London and elsewhere.

“If you’re risk averse, you are really peace averse at the same time.”

‘A movement that changed the world’

While each of the three congregations will go about their normal worship and activities, campus landscaping will be designed to facilitate interaction. For instance, a bridge running over “hell creek” will connect the entire campus. There’s been chatter about changing the creek’s name, but appropriately the structure will be called “heaven’s bridge.”

The hiring of an executive director will help turn the interfaith vision into practice, the clergymen say.

Omaha, while not as conservative as the rest of deep-red Nebraska, has not been historically progressive or taken bold steps to promote inclusiveness. But the state’s monikers — originally “Nebraska Nice,” but recently changed to “Nebraska. Good Life. Great Opportunity” — capture the state and broader Midwest’s easygoing nature.

That doesn’t mean Tri-Faith Initiative has eluded controversy.

Locally, the most outspoken opponent has been Dr. Mark Christian, executive director of Global Faith Institute. Christian, who converted from Islam to Christianity, believes that the Quran forbids Muslims from becoming friends with Christians and Jews. It’s a controversial and widely admonished assertion that’s commonly propagated by Islamophobes.

Christian has also raised alarm by proclaiming that the Tri-Faith partners could become targets of violence.

“I can see it trigger those militant Muslims,” he told CNN.

The fearful rhetoric recently spilled over into a city councilman’s election race. Candidate Paul Anderson criticized the mosque’s construction. The Omaha World Herald reported that his website said there should be no mosques in the city.

Anderson exited the race in April after being widely rebuked.

Mostly, though, the feedback has been positive, say the clergymen. They’re also hopeful that the initiative will influence other communities to launch similar projects across the United States and beyond.

It’s a sentiment that the Rev. John Dorhauer, general minister and president of the United Church of Christ, shared during this month’s ceremonial ground breaking for the new church.

“Let this be the story we tell our children” — proclaimed Dorhauer — “that once upon a time in a land called Omaha, the Jew, the Muslim and the Christian started a movement that changed the world.”

By Dan Simon