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Syed Mohiuddin: A pillar of the Tri-Faith Initiative in Omaha

September 1, 2017 3 comments

Dr. Syed Mohiuddin, co-founder and director of the American Muslim Institute in Omaha, is one of the driving forces behind a singular project here called the Tri-Faith Initiative that’s garnering worldwide attention. Nebraska is known for many things, but the Tri-Faith Initiative may just end up being what most folks identify with this state other than perhaps Warren Buffett, Alexander Payne, Nebraska football, corn and the Sandhills. The Tri-Faith is a truly visionary and brave undertaking that you might not expect to find in this conservative place, but here it is happening. This intentional effort at bringing the three Abrahamic faiths together in communal ways and at a shared physical campus called the Tri-Faith Commons is getting national and international media coverage because nothing like this has been attempted before. This intense interest is ongoing despite the fact the campus is still being developed. Temple Israel Synagogue and the American Muslim Institute are now neighbors there and soon to follow will be Countryside Community Church. That’s right, a synagogue, a mosque and a church will purposely be close neighbors and partners. Their congregations and visitors will share a planned Tri-Faith Center. For Mohiuddin and his fellow Tri-Faith players, it is a dream come true. Read my cover story about him in the September 2017 issue of New Horizons just hitting newsstands and mail boxes. Or read it right here.

 

Syed Mohiuddin: A pillar of the Tri-Faith Initiative in Omaha

©by Leo Adam Biga
Appeared in the September 2017 issue of the New Horizons

Omaha’s national name recognition hinges on a few staple people, places and things.

Everybody by now knows about Warren Buffett and Alexander Payne. Jun Kaneko and Conor Oberst have their followers. Terence Crawford’s made Omaha a relevant pro boxing championship site. Mutual of Omaha, the Omaha Community Playhouse, the Henry Doorly Zoo, the Old Market, Creighton University and the University of Nebraska Medical Center boost the city’s profile. So do the College World Series, Creighton men’s basketball, the U.S. Olympic Swim Trials and the NCAA Women’s Volleyball Finals.

Something new here making a big impression nationwide is the Tri-Faith Initiative, the decade-old interfaith endeavor whose partners are a Jewish synagogue, an Islamic mosque and a Christian church. Two of three worship spaces at its Tri-Faith Commons campus are now open at the Sterling Ridge development near 132nd and Pacific. Temple Israel got there first in 2013. The American Muslin Institute followed earlier this year. Ground has broken on the new Countryside Community Church joining them in 2018. That leaves a fourth and final building, the joint Tri-Faith Center, slated to start construction next year and welcome visitors in 2019.

The project’s been profiled by national media ranging from CNN to “The Daily Show.” But unlike so many things, the Tri-Faith isn’t dependent on celebrity or attendance or ratings – but on being good neighbors.

A founder, Rabbi Aryeh Azriel, is a household name and much beloved figure for his many years leading reform Temple Israel, where he’s rabbi emeritus. He’s known for supporting social justice causes and he did interfaith work long before this project. He and Temple member Bob Freeman initiated the conversation that grew into the Tri-Faith. Their earliest confabs about it were with someone less known but no less important in making it a reality, Dr. Syed Mohiuddin. The Omaha cardiologist and teacher is the co-founder and president of the American Muslin Institute.

Eventually, the Episcopal Diocese of Nebraska came on board to complete this troika of Abrahamic faiths. Rev. Tim Cannon was a player in those early years. When the diocese later pulled out, United Church of Christ member Countryside Community Church elected to be the project’s Christian partner led by Rev. Eric Elnes, who is himself a veteran of interfaith efforts.

“I was disappointed the Episcopal church did not do it, but for some reason I never had any doubt we would have a third partner and that we will have a Tri-Faith campus,” Mohiuddin said. “I always had that faith.”

Mohiuddin has been there from the start and he’s never ceased being inspired by the Tri-Faith concept.

“From day one when I heard about it, I thought it was a great idea and I was sorry i didn’t think of it myself,” he said. “It’s so unique and it’s so exciting. This has never been done, at least purposely.”

His unwavering faith has inspired others.

“My work on the Tri-Faith Initiative helped me to encounter the kind and compassionate Dr. Mohiuddin – a man of dignity, peacefulness, knowledge and kindness. A man of infinite patience, full of courage and a clever navigator in a sea full of obstacles and hazards.” said Azriel. “In all my years of knowing him, nothing deterred him from the goal of building the Tri-Faith. He’s a real advocate for the Muslim community in Omaha and the world.”

The two men forged their bond when, in the wake of the 9/11 terrorist attacks, Azriel rallied Jews to protect a mosque at 73rd and Pinkney. No harm came to it.

Cultural exchanges began occurring between the mosque and the synagogue. So when a few years later Azriel reached out about forming the Tri-Faith, Mohiuddin already knew his heart.

“We had a very good relationship with Rabbi Azriel and the synagogue,” he said, “He came to the defense of the mosque when 9/11 happened. Synagogue members were in the process of thinking of moving from 70th and Cass. It was too small for their congregation and too old. They wanted to go somewhere where they could select their neighbors.”

It just so happened the newly formed AMI was looking to build its own facility rather than continue leasing spaces.

“It was very important to us that we have an educational and religious center in Omaha, particularly in west Omaha, so that we could have a place that we call our own to have not only religious activities but also educational, cultural activities.”

Thus, the founders like to say the project sprang from a conversation about sharing parking lots.

Mohiuddin credits Azriel with moving the Tri-Faith forward, saying, “He is the prophet.” He added, “Bob Freeman was also very prominent in this development. Bob was the first president.”

Common ground
The Tri-Faith blossomed from the fertile soil of celebrating commonalities and differences.

“First of all, we began with the idea that the three Abrahamic religions have a common root,” Mohiuddin said. “We have a very rich historical tradition which goes all the way back to the prophet Abraham. The idea which prophet Abraham preached is common to all three faiths. We have different interpretations, but we believe in the same things. And based on this idea we thought we could establish a campus where we could live together and demonstrate to the world that the three faiths really have no animosity per se, but they really are branches of a common tree.”

The vision from the start called for three worship spaces and a communal, nondenominational interfaith center.

“We will be able to show the world that the three faiths do believe in the common traditions, they can be servants of God and they can work for good things in the world, including social justice and other things which we need to defend with a common voice.”

Fixing on a location for the campus took time.

“The first few years we just met and talked about things -– mostly about where we should go. I can’t remember how many places we went looking for a site that would be ideal. In the meantime we began to know each other and we became very good friends. We thought this was something which had more truth than simple parking. We were building relationships, we were beginning to know each other not only through our religious practice but how we lived our lives.”

Relationships are the foundation of it all because the partners understand that tensions and fears borne of not knowing the other have prevented Jews, Muslims and Christians from interfaith communion.

“Our intent was to correct some of this misunderstanding, establish working, cooperative, friendly relationships among the Abrahamic faiths,” he said, “and we thought there could be no better way of doing this than sharing a campus. That became a very early goal with the partners. That’s exactly what has happened and it has deepened our friendship, deepened our trust in each other.

“The amazing thing is when we started this project nobody said, Why are you doing it and what is it in for you? We simply trusted each other and believed that this is something which needs to be done and we did it.”

Along the way, few have openly questioned or doubted the project’s validity and sustainability. Mohiuddin said it’s crucial that he and his fellow visionaries never let the detractors sway them. He said the project could have been derailed “if we had allowed ourselves to get discouraged by the dissenting voices and if did not have the courage of our own convictions.”

Ultimately, he said the Tri-Faith’s survived due to” the conviction of the founding members to stay with it,” adding, “We had such a strong belief that what we were doing was necessary and needed to be done and that this was the right thing to do and the right time to do it.”

He has an answer for skeptics who worry participation in the project will dilute or diminish any of the faiths.

“The most important thing we’re doing is expressing the belief we have and that has actually made our faith stronger. We understand our own faith better than we did before because we have to explain it to people. It actually makes your faith stronger, it doesn’t weaken it.”

Why did it take until the 2000s for this to happen and why did it find life in Omaha?

“If you look at any of the wonderful things that happen in the world, you need a core, usually a spark, which acts as a nucleus around which everything turns,” Mohiuddin said. “It just happens to be in Omaha, it just happens to be us.”

Coming out of the shadows
The fact that Mohiuddin is still relatively unknown despite being a Tri-Faith founder and longtime fixture in Omaha’s medical community reflects the low profile Muslims have here and his own soft-spoken, modest demeanor. Hardly a newcomer, the 80-year-old first came here from his native India in 1963 to study at Creighton. Though a familiar figure in local medical circles, he remained off the general public’s radar until the emergence of the Tri-Faith. Even now, his reserved manner is more likely to keep him in the background than the foreground.

From its humble start amongst a few friends, the Tri-Faith’s evolved into a public display of interfaith action with events like Dinner Under Abraham’s Tent and the annual Tri-Faith Picnic. Mohiuddin’s been the face of the low-key Muslim community here. He galvanized support for the AMI to be a part of the Tri-Faith. He helped secure donors to build its combined mosque and educational center at the Commons.

He often appears with his Jewish and Christian counterparts at community forums and press conferences. Though he’s happy to share the Tri-Faith story, he prefers letting the limelight shine on others. Avoiding publicity is getting harder these days. Thousands of well-wishers and dozens of reporters turned out for the AMI’s open house in July. The overwhelming response took Mohiuddin by surprise, though it was hardly the first time locals extended welcome to Muslims here.

He appreciates how Muslims are generally well-received in America but he’s aware hate crimes are a reality, too.

“Muslim integration to the United States is a new phenomenon,” he said, “and Muslim integration to Nebraska is an even newer phenomenon.”

He said the more exposure people have to Muslims, the more they’ll recognize the core values of Islam –acceptance, compassion, equality, justice, peace – are the shared values of the partners and of all humanity and specifically of the three Abrahamic faiths.” He hopes the Tri-Faith can help dispel myths. “Many stories you hear and read are biased – they don’t present a true picture of Islam.”

Against this backdrop, he was all the more touched by how many people attended the open house.

“It was astounding, it was stunning,” he said seated in a conference room at the new facility. “We had never anticipated more than 150 people. We served food and it was probably gone in the first 15 minutes. There were anywhere from 1,500 to 3,000 people here. The open house was to start at one but people started coming here at noon and they didn’t leave until 5 or later.

“It was absolutely a wonderful occasion. It indicated to us there is enough interest in our community and we hope we did a good job of introducing our Institute and mosque and how our Muslim faith is practiced.”

The event fulfilled the vision for the campus, as the parking lot for the synagogue, which is just to the west of the Institute, accommodated the overflow crowd. He said Tri-Faith communications director Vic Gutman may have captured the moment best by commenting, “Where in the world can you see people parking at a Jewish temple and walking over to a Muslim mosque?”

Where indeed.

The outpouring of good will goes back to when funds were being raised for the $6.2 million Institute building.

“What was amazing was getting support from the non-Muslim community – almost 50 percent,” he said. “It again reaffirmed my belief that the three faiths are supportive of each other.”

Finding a home at Creighton and in Omaha Mohiuddin experienced American egalitarianism and Midwestern hospitality when he and his late wife first arrived in the States. They’d only been married a month earlier overseas. He said though Omaha’s become a much larger city, “what hasn’t changed is how welcoming it is.””That’s the reason I decided to stay in Omaha,” he said. “That, and my university – Creighton, which I loved and still do. Creighton, a Catholic institution, has always been very open, accepting and supportive. I never felt that I was a stranger.” This despite “there being hardly any Muslims or people from India at that time in Omaha,” he noted. “We were so pleased with the reception we got from Creighton University and Creighton Medical Center.”

“I never looked back.”

He fondly recalled he and his wife being befriended.

“We were looking for an apartment because on an intern’s salary we couldn’t afford to buy a house. Somebody introduced us to an Italian family who owned a house and wanted to rent an apartment out to a couple. We took the apartment and we became friends. They would invite us to their celebrations, including Christmas. It was wonderful. It was a large family and we all sat at a long table and thoroughly enjoyed the food and each other’s company.”

Mohiuddin fell in love with America and applied for his U.S, citizenship as soon he was eligible. Gaining citizenship is something he cherished.

“It was a wonderful occasion. Again, it was part of being accepted and how welcoming America is.”

His fascination with America began back in India. He grew up in the city of Hyderabad.

“I come from a middle class Muslim family, so we lived comfortably, but we didn’t have cars or other luxuries. My father was a forest officer. He died very young – when I was only 4-years-old. My mother was my teacher. She was very interested in teaching me. All the things I know about Islam and Muslims is from her.”

His mother didn’t have much formal education.

“In India in those days girls were not really allowed to have a formal education. It’s getting better.”

The India he knew has given way to new ways but persistent challenges remain.

“There has been a lot of progress. It’s certainly much more modern than what we had. But I think there’s still some fundamental problems with the annual population growth. It’s a very small country (geographically) and if the overpopulation problem is not addressed, then we’ll really have a problem.

“There’s still consistent lack of education, particularly in the rural areas, that needs to be addressed.”

Motivated to help people from an early age, Mohiuddin was still a boy when he vowed to be a physician. He was in college in India when he decided he wanted to do all his post-graduate training in the West. He became proficient in English, which all the medical literature was written in, and determined he would study in the U.S. rather than Great Britain.

“I admit freely I had a fundamental suspicion of the British because I knew how they had treated the people of India and our struggle for freedom, so I came here.”

He came intending to be an endocrinologist but got hooked on the then-new field of cardiology.

“I liked the idea that cardiology was going to make very rapid progress and in that I was not wrong.”

He’s seen dramatic advances in cardiac diagnoses and care. He said today’s interventions don’t just treat symptoms “but truly make people better” and get them right back on their feet. “We used to keep our (surgical) heart patients for weeks. All of that has changed. Now people go home in two days.”

Teaching became his real passion.

“I don’t think I would have even been satisfied being only in practice and treating patients and not teaching. That’s why I stayed at Creighton. I could have left and joined one of the large cardiology practices in Omaha and probably been much more financially successful,
but that’s not what I wanted to do.

“I was very fortunate to have very good teachers at Creighton and they just happened to be cardiologists. They’re one of the reasons I went into cardiology. I learned from them how enjoyable it is to teach, how enjoyable it is to see the light that comes on a student’s face when they learn this how a cardiac murmur starts.”

His teachers also modeled a career commitment to education by remaining there for decades as he went on to do himself.

His own integration into the mainstream was reflected by him being named chairman of the Department of Medicine at the Creighton University School of Medicine. He also served as president of the American Heart Association and governor of the American College of Cardiology (Nebraska Chapter).

Syed and his wife raised three children. Their fully Americanized kids attended Brownell Talbot and Creighton.

Standing for what is right
Life for the Mohiuddins was good, safe and uneventful. Then 9/11 happened and Muslims were suddenly under suspicion. When the Jewish community stood watch at the mosque, that show of concern and solidarity reassured Mohiuddin about his fellow man.

The love and respect demonstrated by that stand infuses the Tri-Faith and explains why it still flourishes.

“That’s where it starts,” he said, “because you know there have been a lot of interfaith dialogues that have not gotten anywhere. The key is having respect for our partners and for any differences we have. These are the similarities in our intention and purpose which brings us together. The word tolerance is a no-no in our discussions. ‘Don’t speak to me of tolerance,’ Rabbi Azriel says. “That’s not what we’re about. That is the change in paradigm. One of the things Rabbi Azriel said in our first meeting was, ‘I’m tired of dialogue.’ This is about relationships, not dialogue.”

Being in relationship is what it means to be a true neighbor and, he said, “by forming a Commons together, constantly we are neighbors – we look to each other and share our dreams.”

“Unlike a dialogue, at the end of which you get up and leave, here we cannot leave,” he said looking out at the green spaces between the synagogue and mosque. The unturned dirt for the church is next door.

More evidence of togetherness came a few years ago when Gaza hostilities erupted between Palestinians and Israelis.

“The Muslim population was distraught this was happening. But we were able to come together with our Jewish and Christian friends and write a joint editorial in the Omaha World-Herald which expressed the concerns we had without blaming anybody. I thought it was a remarkable accomplishment.”

Then came acquiring the former Highland Country Club land for the campus. Jews had built the club at a time when they were denied access and membership to gentile-only venues. Jews, Muslims and Christians now break bread there.

“We spent almost eight years looking for a place to build and finally we found the ground for the campus. When the Jewish synagogue began construction we began to see that this is really going to be a real thing. It was no longer (just) an idea we had been celebrating but a real fact of life. This will be an example for the whole community and hopefully for the United States and possibly the world.”

Mohiuddin emphasizes that situating the synagogue and mosque there also fills practical needs because their memberships mostly live out west. And just as with Temple, the AMI needed a new place with more space.

“There are three mosques in Omaha but they are simply small prayer places,” he said. “None of those have any capability of providing educational or civil services. What we have built is not only a prayer center but also a center for education and for support of the Muslim community, especially the new arrivals who need a lot of help and support and anything else the community might need.”

He said whereas the Institute and Temple were already looking to build new structures before the Tri-Faith, Countryside Community Church was not, which makes their participation all the more impressive.

Mohiuddin admires Countryside pastor Eric Elnes for bringing his congregation into the fold.

“He was probably the most visionary person among us because it was his leadership that got his congregation to consider this was the thing to do, this was the place to go, and they passed a resolution to move with a 99 percent majority.”

A larger purpose for erecting the AMI building was uniting a sometimes factious Muslim community.

“There are, as in any religion, different sects with different interpretations of Islam or the Koran or what the prophet said or didn’t say. That has caused division within the Muslim community. We wanted to be clear from the beginning this is a mosque for all Muslims no matter who they are. Whether they are Shiite, Sunni, whatever, we are not going to prohibit them – we are going to open them with open arms.

“If you can’t welcome your own brothers and sisters, how can we welcome our cousins?”

Another overriding goal is to practice gender equity,

“We want to make sure, and we have made it our fundamental aim, to treat women and men as equals because all religions, and Islam is not exception, have treated women as somewhat inferior to men. Our board members include three women.”

The new mosque’s prayer hall has only a discreet screen separating the sexes and it’s there at the request of women, he said, for modesty.

A bright shining symbol of trust A distinguishing feature of the building exterior is a towering, free-standing minaret that departs from the traditional custom of being affixed to the structure. The minaret symbolizes rising shafts of light that represent the five pillars of islam.

“These are the fundamentals of our religion and they meet at the top at the star that’s lit in the evening. One of our board members took a special interest in designing the minaret.”

The intent of the building also reflects where it is, who it serves and what happens there.

“This is not a typical Middle Eastern mosque,” he said. “This is a mosque for people in Omaha. This is an Omaha mosque. The building not only serves as a mosque and a place for prayers in Omaha, which is its primary function, but it is also an institute that has educational functions, civic functions, social functions. It includes a gymnasium and a space for children. The building provides for all that and that was something badly needed in Omaha. That’s why we continue to call it American Muslim Institute.”

Mohiuddin has enjoyed a long, distinguished professional career but nothing tops this.

“Establishing the American Muslim Institute and being a part of the Tri-Faith initiative I consider the most important things I have done.”

Already, the Tri-Faith Commons is becoming a destination spot for tour groups who want to see this experiment with their own eyes.

“I think people will come to see it’s a unique campus.They will see the three Abrahamic faiths working with each other, learning from each other, sharing their dreams, their hopes together.

“This will be the exact opposite of what we’re hearing about and some of its true – that Muslims mistreat Christians or Christians and Jews mistreat Muslims. This will be a counter to all of these things,”

The partners’ relationship as neighbors is readily evident.

“From the mosque you can see the synagogue and you will be able to see the other buildings. You’ll be able to see how closely we are situated.”

The gleaming glass-fronted buildings glow at night.

Proximity alone, he said, will offer tangible proof of this unique interfaith community and “of our message that the people of the Abrahamic faiths can live and work together and go on to the next generation.” The Commons is here and now but it’s real impact may yet come in the future.

“We are doing it for our children,” he said. “The whole purpose is for the next generation. This has been a dream for us and it is a dream come true. That’s our dreamland.”

None of it would have been possible without trust.

“We just had somehow this bond of trust when we started and we still have it.”

Can it happen elsewhere?

“I say why should this be unique. There ought to be other Muslims and Christians and Jews who follow similar paths and when they see this thing actually working this will give them more hope and more faith that this can be done.”

He advises others contemplating such an interfaith marriage: “Don’t have high expectations because you’ll only be disappointed. But there has to be a fundamental trust, there has to be a fundamental sharing of objectives and what is our goal. Then also a shared vision for how are we able to get there.”

As work readies on the new Countryside church, plans for the Tri-Faith Center are being finalized.

“I think soon we’ll make a decision on how large the building will be and what the function will be,” Mohiuddin said. “My own vision is that it will be an education center that would serve all three faiths. More importantly. it would serve people in Omaha and outside Omaha.”

Yes, the Tri-Faith is the culmination of a Jew, a Muslim and a Christian having fellowship. But just as there are no walls or fences separating the buildings, there are no boundaries excluding anyone from participating in it.

“The Tri-Faith belongs to all of us,” said Mohiuddin.

He and the others invite everyone to this dreamland.

Follow the project at http://trifaith.org.

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Omaha Tri-Faith pioneers seeing fruits of interfaith collaborative take shape

May 26, 2012 9 comments

You wouldn’t necessarily think of Omaha, Neb. as a place for an interfaith collaborative involving the three Abrahamic faith groups but that’s exactly what it is thanks to the Tri-Faith Initiative, a non-profit moving ever closer to its plan for a church, a synagogue, and a mosque on a single campus.  Like most Midwest cities Omaha’s a decidedly Christian stronghold with quite small Jewish and Muslim populations.  It’s also a place where diversity hasn’t always been celebrated or embraced.  Yet the Tri-Faith is an impossible to ignore reality here that’s making waves near and far.  My story below, which is to appear in a future edition of The Reader (www.thereader.com), tries to get at how it is this partnership has been able to reach this point and find itself poised to realize something that perhaps has never been done before, anywhere.  I’m proud it’s happening where I live.  My blog contains a profile I did of Tri-Faith executive director Nancy Kirk, who like all the principals in this endeavor is a highly accomplished person of diverse interests.  What unites them all is a sincere desire to do the right thing by moving past dialogue to action where interfaith relations are concerned.  You’ll also find on this blog a story I did a few years ago on something called Project Interfaith and its director, Beth Katz, and a very long piece on the interfaith relationship forged by two famous figures, Rev. Edward Flangan, the founder of Boys Town, and his close friend and supporter, Henry Monsky.  A smattering of other religious themed stories I’ve done are also on the blog.

Tri-Faith-Initiative-Press-Conference

 

 

 

Omaha Tri-Faith pioneers seeing fruits of interfaith collaborative take shape

©by Leo Adam Biga

Originally appeared in The Reader (www.thereader.com)

 

Omaha’s not always embraced diversity but the local Tri-Faith Initiative may be a history-making model of interfaith cooperation. It’s proceeding with an audacious plan to locate a church, a synagogue, a mosque and an ecumenical center on a combined 35-acre campus.

Organizers say they’ve not found an equivalent gathering of the three Abrahamic faith groups – Christianity, Judaism, Islam – in a single dedicated setting. Not surprisingly, the project’s drawing much attention from media and scholarly attention. Observers are struck by how this partnership between the Episcopal Diocese of Nebraska, Temple Israel and the American Institute of Islamic Studies and Culture has gone from concept to dawning reality in only six years.

The initiative echoes local community engagement efforts from the past – Citizens Coordinating Committee for Civil Liberties – and present – Ak-Sar-Ben, Omaha Community Foundation, Building Bright Futures, Empowerment Network – that coalesce various partners to tackle social-cultural needs.

The Reader met with four “pioneers” behind the Tri-Faith experiment for their take on how the initiative has managed sustaining itself. They say one reason why this alliance has gotten so far so fast is that mere dialogue was never the end goal. Rather, it was a means to realize a brick-and-mortar sanctuary for promoting ongoing interfaith relationships.

“There are many wonderful dialogues going on across the country and around the world, and I’ve been involved in some of those, where people come together for great meetings to talk about interfaith issues,” says Nebraska Episcopal Diocese Canon for Tri-Faith Ministries Timothy Anderson, who will lead the unnamed Episcopal church slated for the campus. “But then you go back to your hotel, pack your bag, get on a plane and fly home. The uniqueness of this is that we are home. The next day we wake up and my neighbor to the right is still Jewish and my neighbor to the left is still Muslim and I have to learn each day how to live in my faith to love my neighbor as myself.”

Outside the pitched battleground of the Middle East, Jews and Muslims have every reason to be friends.

“I think Muslims are in a way in America the Jews of the past,” says Rabbi Aryeh Azriel of Temple Israel. “I think there is a tendency from time to time to select a new scapegoat. Jews are extremely aware of the ‘game’ that was played with their lives. We paid a price for being a scapegoat for many, many years.

“There is a level of understanding on the part of the Jew when the game is being played with other minority groups. Until the Obama presidency there were many opportunities for Americans to denigrate or to view Muslims as The Other, the stranger, the one that is not welcome, similar in a way to how Jews were treated.”

Azriel says progress between peoples of different faiths or cultures can only occur “when you’re able to step away from where you are and go to uncomfortable places.” Getting past surface niceties to deep interpersonal connections, he says, is what’s made the Jewish-Muslim relationship work in Omaha. Years before the Tri-Faith, he notes, Temple reached out to invite the Muslim community to celebrate Thanksgiving at the synagogue. Muslims have reciprocated by inviting the Jewish community to their celebrations.

“It’s mainly about relationships. If you don’t visit each other’s home, if you’re not in relationship with people, the dialogue becomes completely nebulous and artificial after awhile,” says Azriel.

It’s why, for him, meaningful interfaith exchanges must go beyond talk and tolerance to practice collaborative good works, such as creating a neighborhood where three faith groups co-exist in harmony.

He acknowledges some Temple members resist the partnership. The other groups report similar reluctance or skepticism. It’s meant less than 100 percent buy-in. But that’s where Azriel says leadership can make a difference.

“I really think a clergy that doesn’t challenge his congregation, doesn’t comfort those that are challenged, but also doesn’t disturb those that are comfortable should not lead a congregation. Sometimes you need to be stubborn and continue with the dreaming. So we continue walking on the bridge, even though at times it doesn’t look completely solid and safe. So what? There is a price to pay for daring and a price to pay for stagnation.

“You don’t just wait for something to happen but you mobilize all the resources together to accomplish this. That’s what’s so unique about this combination. All of us know dreams can only be achieved after hard work.”

Dr. Syed Mohiuddin, Islamic Institute president and co-founder and chair of the Department of Medicine at Creighton University, says the relationships hinge on mutual respect and trust. “That’s where it starts.”

In late 2011 the partners backed their words with financial stakes by announcing the purchase of adjoining parcels of land at the site of the former Ironwood Country Club, on the southeast corner of 132nd and Pacific, now part of the Sterling Ridge mixed-use development. The Tri-Faith vision took another major step to fruition when Temple, which completed its $25 million building campaign, broke ground April 15 on its new synagogue. It’s expected to open in August 2013. The other two partners are in the planning and fund-raising stages of their own buildings. A $2.5 million anonymous matching gift kick-started the Islamic Institute’s fund drive.

A fourth structure, the Tri-Faith Center, will be a shared, nondenominational facility for educational-cultural events and activities. It’s also in the planning stage.

The level of support shown for this faith-based collaborative defies the tensions and conflicts that keep different religious traditions apart.

 tri-faith-the-center
 Rendering of the Tri-Faith Center

 

 

The feel good story of the project’s formation is already becoming lore.

As the oldest and largest synagogue in town, Temple long ago outgrew its present facility. Whereas the reform Jewish congregation traces its history back to 1872 and serves 750-plus families, the Islamic Institute formed only in 2006 and counts but a fraction of Temple’s members. Still, the Institute needs a permanent home of its own to accommodate a growing Muslim population. Each cast its gaze out west, where most members live.

Temple already had the experience of a Christian neighbor in First United Methodist Church to the north and of a shared parking lot with the Omaha Community Playhouse to the east. The Jewish and Islamic communities already enjoyed a rapport strengthened when, in the aftermath of the 9/11 terrorist attacks, Azriel led Temple members in a cordon around the local mosque as a show of solidarity. He and his Tri-Faith bretheren describe it as “a pivotal moment” that “forged” the relationship.

Temple’s search for a new home took a collaborative turn when member and Tri-Faith board chair Bob Freeman broached the possibility of building with a faith partner. Not only would there be cost savings from a joint site selection and shared amenities, but opportunities to do interfaith programming.

Azriel says the congregation has “a history of being on the cutting edge of justice work,” which is a theme in his own career. He initiated a Black/Jewish dialogue series at Temple and his justice work has earned him various honors. He insists he’s hardly alone in tackling social issues. “The leadership of this congregation has been deeply involved in the daily life of this town. So many of our people are on the cutting edge of philanthropy, sit on nonprofit boards and are basically the bloodline of what this city is all about.”

It wasn’t long before Azriel and Mohiuddin spoke about partnering. After consulting with their boards they decided to pursue an interfaith project with a Christian participant. After the Catholic Archdiocese of Omaha rejected the idea the Episcopal Diocese of Nebraska was approached. It just happened to be considering a new church in West O on land held in reserve. Then-bishop Joe Burnett asked Anderson to explore joining the two other faith groups in a joint venture. Anderson met Freeman over a game of golf to discuss the possibilities.

Rev. Canon Tim Anderson

 

 

 

Ironwood proved a symbolic spot for the Tri-Faith. It was founded as Jewish-only Highland Country Club in 1924 in response to Jews being barred from other clubs. Owing to Omaha’s declining Jewish population and a desire to be inclusive, Highland eventually opened to all who could afford it. Tri-Faith partners now refer to Hell Creek, which runs through the property, as Heaven’s Bridge.

All of it plays well in the press. But as the founders take great pains explaining, none of it would have happened without the deliberate efforts of people committed to putting aside differences to make tangible an interfaith community built from the ground up.

Azriel says, “Here is something we are doing intentionally. This is not haphazard. this is not by coincidence. We decided those three communities have to be together and then you bring them to a neighborhood to create it. So there’s a deep intentionality that emerges as a result of the comfort level of the relationships. You can’t get there by coincidence.”

At the end of the day, says Freeman, it’s not platitudes or mission statements or white papers that drive the Tri-Faith.

“As is often the case in collaborative projects it’s the people that make it work and we’ve had a group of amazing people committed to working on this. They’ve sustained that enthusiasm and commitment over five-six years. When I look at the people who have been around the table every one of them is very successful in their own walk of life. These are people who when they take something on they don’t fail, they lead it to a successful conclusion.”

Freeman, who’s worked on several Omaha collaboratives, says the Tri-Faith has been “an unequivocally positive experience.” An attorney by trade, he’s quick to point out that “we’ve had interactions that have been less than perfect but that’s life.”

“But life is about overcoming challenges and obstacles and recognizing different perspectives and being accommodating and continuing to move forward when you’re doing the right thing,” he says, “and we’ve had an uncommon aggregation of really strong, successful, goal-oriented people who’ve just willed this thing forward and been really good at problem solving.”

The Tri-Faith posed many potentially intractable, deal-breaker issues but Freeman says great care was taken to mitigate and mediate these.

“We did some things early on that probably helped contribute to success. We immediately talked about some of the harder issues and had a consensus on how we would address them, so we were able to take them off the table.”

Azriel concedes that when there’s an international flashpoint in Jewish-Muslim relations, fears, insecurities and resentments surface.

“Of course this comes up always as part of the discussion, issues of trust, of loyalty, of what-if scenarios. So you have definitely some of the Israeli-Arab conflict penetrating the conversation and people asking questions or suggesting that maybe its not the right way.

“You talk a lot, you try to respond, you try to bring the person who is asking to a level of comfort but the most important part is to invite them to a meeting with Muslims and Episcopalians.”

It’s in breaking bread and participating in celebrations with each other, he and his colleagues say, that people of divergent backgrounds and beliefs find their common humanity. That’s why the Tri-Faith sponsors events that bring people of different faiths together.

The Tri-Faith made its first big public splash in 2009 with the communal Dinner in Abraham’s Tent. An annual picnic is held. More events have followed, including workshops, panels, a children’s camp and high school programs.

“We were able to establish positive momentum and credibility through programs and projects we pulled off very successfully,” Freeman says.

Events outside its control become teachable moments. For example, the organization used the 2008 Gaza conflict to present a unified voice. Mohiuddin says, “We were able to come together and wrote a joint editorial in the World-Herald which expressed the concerns we had     without blaming anybody. I thought it was a remarkable accomplishment.”

“I think that was a crucial point in our relationships, that we could move through that and stay together and be of one voice against violence on any side,” says Anderson.

Freeman says the Tri-Faith was able to draft a statement because the partners had set a precedent for addressing the elephants in the room.

“If you’re going to put three houses of worship together in a neighborhood setting there’s some things about that that can be threatening to one another and we immediately got into that. We talked about how we’re not trying to influence each other in our intramural religious efforts.”

In other words, no prosleltyzing. A memorandum of understanding laid it all out.

“An understanding was reached not to go after each other’s congregations to recruit members,” Freeman says. “We recognized the need to be separate, the need to be autonomous. There has to be autonomy. If any of the three want to do something internally in their congregation, in their building, on their land they have to be able to do that and neither of the other two should have any say at all in what that is. Certainly there can be a sensitivity to the impact that might have on your neighbors but nobody should tell anybody else how to govern or operate within their congregational religious life.

“One of the byproducts of that was we don’t want anybody’s faith to be watered down. We’re not trying to make Judaism more Christian, we’re not trying to make Islam more Jewish. So the separateness has to make us independent and even stronger in our own faiths and we’ve seen how that can effectively work.”

Mohiuddin’s experience bears out Freeman’s words. “The most important thing we’re doing is expressing the beliefs we have and as a result we understand our own faith better than we did before because we have to explain it to people and that actually makes your faith stronger, it doesn’t weaken it,” Mohiuddin says.

“I think we’ve become better Christians, Jews, Muslims by entering into this and trying to live out what our faith really says it’s about, and it’s not about politics, it’s not about power,” says Anderson.

Freeman points to other things the Tri-Faith’s done to solidify itself.

“We incorporated and formed a 501c organization early on (2006) so we would have an identity. We were then able to do some fundraising and get some money in, which enabled us to hire professional help along the way and get good consulting input, so it wasn’t entirely a   volunteer-sustained effort. I think a lot of us felt expanding beyond just a bunch volunteers who met for coffee lent it credibility.”

Two key professionals brought in were Nancy Kirk and Vic Gutman, Omahans with long experience in arts administration, communications and public event planning. Kirk came on as executive director in 2008 and Gutman as media relations director soon after.

Freeman believes the city deserves credit, too, as “a nurturing, incubator environment for multi-group, creative, collaborative initiatives and projects.” He adds, “I think there’s a willingness to try and work together in recognition that something can be greater than the sum of its parts. There are amazing public-private partnerships that develop here. These models exist all over town and result in people working together and trusting each other.”

“The high level of trust people were willing to have in the Tri-Faith Initiative early on,” he says, “is a byproduct of a community spirit that fosters these kinds of things.”

Mohiuddin, who came from his native India to complete his medical studies at Creighton University decades ago, says, “Omaha has been my home for over 40 years and I’ve gotten to know the city, its culture, its style, and it’s just very welcoming.”

Azriel, a native of Israel by way of Baltimore, says the Tri-Faith is comprised of partners “not only predisposed to welcoming The Other but whose religious faith told them this is the way. It will be very hard to create this same scenario in people who are faithless. I think the right moment came and the right people assembled around the table, and then life has never been the same.”

Mohiuddin says, “If you look at any of the wonderful things that happen in the world, you need a core, usually a spark, which acts as a nucleus around which everything turns. It just happens to be in Omaha, it just happens to be us.”

Like his fellow pioneers Mohiuddin says the Tri-Faith could have easily disbanded by now “if we had allowed ourselves to get discouraged by the dissenting voices, if we did not have the courage of our own convictions.” Indeed, he attributes its survival to “the conviction of the founding members to stay with it,” adding, “We had such a strong belief that what we were doing was necessary and that this was the right thing to do and the right time to do it.”

On a more practical level, says Freeman, the partners are motivated to see the project through because it means a new house of worship for each faith group, plus an interfaith center. It’s the prospect of bringing these “homes” to completion, strengthening all three faith communities in the process, that supersedes everything else.

The Tri-Faith pioneers welcome the attention the initiative is generating and hope their work provides a framework for more interfaith collaboratives. But Mohiuddin speaks for his colleagues when he says, “I can’t be distracted” from the work at hand.

The partners have come too far now to be sidetracked and lose sight of the prize. Not when the campus Mohiuddin calls “our dream land” is so close at hand.

Faith without action is dead and the Tri-Faith is nothing if not an action-oriented movement. One with a life all its own and a promised land  to be filled.

 
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