Coexistence On The Prairie


In the heartland city of Omaha, at a meandering stream called Hell Creek, Jews, Christians and Muslims are knocking on heaven’s door.

In what is likely the most far-reaching experiment in interfaith relations in the country, the largest Jewish congregation in Omaha, along with the Episcopal Diocese of Nebraska and the American Institute of Islamic Studies and Culture will share space in a 35-acre parcel of land in suburban West Omaha. The multi-million-dollar project is called the Tri-Faith Initiative; each of the institutions will have its own building/worship space, and a fourth building, the Tri-Faith Center, will eventually serve as a kind of interfaith gathering place and educational center.

The first phase of the ambitious project takes root next Sunday when members of the 800-family Reform Temple Israel march their Torahs seven miles from their downtown home to the new campus. When they reach Hell Creek some of the temple’s old-timers will remember it as the site of a golf course Jews founded in 1924 because they were barred from the city’s other courses.

“It’s so perfect,” Temple Israel’s senior rabbi, Aryeh Azriel, told The Jewish Week. “It’s sacred ground. So many prayers were recited there by Jews for a tiny white ball.” Given its location, the rabbi said, the project “is such a sign of where we used to be, and where we are now.”

The journey from downtown Omaha to the suburbs hasn’t always been smooth — either for the temple or Omaha’s 6,500 Jews. The rabbi relates a chilling story from a few years ago during the project’s early stages. “A congregant came to me and said, ‘Rabbi, what are you going to do when they roll a live hand grenade in the pews right in front of you?’” — a not-so-veiled reference to Muslim extremists. At first the rabbi tried humor: “I’d assume someone in the congregation didn’t like me,” he quipped. Then, he recalled saying, “ ‘I’d fall on it.’ The guy had a tear in his eye and never asked those questions again. And he’s a donor.”

Rabbi Azriel’s relationship with Omaha’s 6,000-strong Muslim community has been a fruitful one, he said. Last week, in fact, he took part in an end-of-Ramadan event “where I walked into [the Islamic Center of Omaha] with my kipa and was welcomed with open arms.” He pointed out that last Rosh HaShanah, members of Omaha’s Muslim community delivered apples and honey to his congregation. In the days after 9/11, with anti-Muslim sentiment running high, he said he and some congregants went to the mosque to be part of a human shield protecting the house of worship.

But there also have been dustups, according to the rabbi and to Vic Gutman, a longtime Temple Israel congregant and spokesman for the Tri-Faith Initiative. Gutman says that in the wake of a story in Omaha’s federation paper, The Jewish Press, that a Palestinian-American on the board of the Tri-Faith Initiative favored the movement to boycott Israel, the board member resigned.

“We don’t think we’re going to create world peace,” said Gutman. “We’re hoping to be a model for others — if we can make something like this happen in Omaha… We’ll measure the success of this after all the buildings are built. How do people from the different faiths interact? What kinds of bonds are created because of the interactions? Or will people just go back into their own silos?”

The initiative, Gutman said, is aiming to have an impact through the generations. “How will our grandchildren’s views of the other religions be different from ours? How will they react to people who don’t pray like they do?”

The four-building complex (money has come from five local foundations, including one run by Warren Buffett’s daughter, Susan Buffett) is scheduled to be completed in 2015. And the name of the walkway over Hell Creek, which will literally and symbolically link the partners in Omaha’s campus of Abrahamic faiths? Heaven’s Bridge.