Coalition plans interfaith campus in Omaha

Rabbi Aryeh Azriel, center, is flanked by the Very Rev. Ernesto Medina, left, and Shakil Ahmed at an interfaith meeting in 2008 at his Temple Israel in Omaha.<br />
 (Tri-Faith Initiative)

Rabbi Aryeh Azriel, center, is flanked by the Very Rev. Ernesto Medina, left, and Shakil Ahmed at an interfaith meeting in 2008 at his Temple Israel in Omaha.
(Tri-Faith Initiative)

NEW YORK (JTA) — An interfaith coalition in Nebraska is testing the viability of what is believed to be an American first: a joint campus to house a Jewish, Muslim and Christian house of worship.

The plan, under development by a local nonprofit called the Tri-Faith Initiative, would join a mosque, a Reform synagogue and an Episcopal church in a suburban Omaha location. No site has yet been found, but organizers are hopeful the project will come to fruition.

“The first week we thought about it we put the odds at a million to one,” Bob Freeman, the chairman of the Tri-Faith board, told JTA. “I think now there is a real possibility — and I don’t quote odds anymore per se — but I think there’s a real possibility it could work.”

The plan, which has been under discussion for years, will receive a significant boost Friday when national leaders of all three faiths join together for an event being billed as "Dinner in Abraham’s Tent."

The evening will begin with worship services for each of the three faiths followed by a panel discussion, “Conversations on Peace,” featuring Rabbi Peter Knobel, past president of the Central Conference of American Rabbis; Ingrid Mattson, president of the Islamic Society of North America; and the Rev. Katharine Jefferts Schori, presiding bishop of the Episcopal Church in the United States. Mark Pelavin of the Reform movement’s Religious Action Center will moderate.

Hundreds are expected to attend the event, which will be held at a convention center in Omaha and broadcast live on the Internet.

“The question that you need to ask me is why not to do it,” said Rabbi Aryeh Azriel, whose synagogue, Temple Israel, is the Jewish partner in the Tri-Faith Initiative.

“It’s something that needs to be done,” Azriel told JTA, “and I really believe that there is no time to wait to establish a peaceful relationship among the three groups.”

Founded four years ago, the Tri-Faith Initiative is a join project of Temple Israel, the Episcopal Diocese of Nebraska and the American Institute of Islamic Studies and Culture, an organization founded in 2006 principally to be the Muslim counterpart in the initiative.

Though the viability of the campus is still being determined, some members of the Omaha Jewish community have not waited to voice their concerns about the plan.

In a recent letter printed in the Omaha Jewish Press, Phil Schrager, a Temple Israel member and major donor to local Jewish charities, expressed “strong reservations about the efficacy” of the plan because a Palestinian-born member of the Tri-Faith board had signed on to a cultural and academic boycott of Israel.

“I think that Rabbi Azriel ought to be applauded for the time and effort that he’s putting forth to try to promote peace among the religions and promote dialogue and conversations,” Schrager told JTA. “But I separate that from the Tri-Faith campus, which I have concerns about.”

Both Freeman and Azriel said they were pained to learn about the boycott, but nevertheless they vowed to continue the dialogue.

“I’d never met a Muslim until three years ago,” Freeman said, “so I had the same prejudices and stereotypes and assumed there were bad things about their faith and region and they all believed them. And I don’t think that’s the case anymore based on my personal experiences.”

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