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A series commemorating Black History Month – North Omaha stories Part II

February 8, 2018 Leave a comment

 
Commemorating Black History Month
Links to North Omaha stories from 1998 through 2018.
Articles on social justice, civil rights, race, history, faith, family, community, business, politics. education, art, music, theater, film, culture, et cetera
 
A weekly four-part series
This week: Part II –  Faith, family, community, business, politics

 

https://leoadambiga.com/2016/11/16/interfaith-journ…rfaith-walk-work/

Good Shepherds of North Omaha: Ministers and Churches Making a …

https://leoadambiga.com/…/the-shepherds-of-northomahaministers-and- churches-making-a-difference-in-area-of-great-need/

https://leoadambiga.com/2010/08/30/two-blended-hous…houses-unidvided

https://leoadambiga.com/2016/11/14/small-but-mighty…idst-differences

https://leoadambiga.com/2011/09/16/everyones-welcom…g-bread-together/

https://leoadambiga.com/2014/02/02/upon-this-rock-h…trinity-lutheran/

https://leoadambiga.com/2010/05/31/gimme-shelter-sa…en-for-searchers

https://leoadambiga.com/2011/01/09/an-open-invitati…-catholic-church

https://leoadambiga.com/2012/07/15/everything-old-i…-church-in-omaha/

https://leoadambiga.com/2015/03/10/the-sweet-sounds…ts-freedom-choir/

Sacred Heart Freedom Choir | Leo Adam Biga’s My Inside Stories

https://leoadambiga.com/tag/sacred-heart-freedom-choir/‎

Salem’s Voices of Victory Gospel Choir Gets Justified with the Lord …

https://leoadambiga.com/…/salems-voices-of-victory-gospel-choir-gets- justified-with-the-lord/

https://leoadambiga.com/2010/07/11/the-myers-legacy…ng-and-community/

A Homecoming Like No Other – The Reader

http://thereader.com/news/a-homecoming-like-no-other/

Native Omaha Days: A Black is Beautiful Celebration, Now, and All …

https://leoadambiga.com/…/nativeomahadays-a-black-is-beautiful- celebration-now-and-all-the-days-gone-by/

https://leoadambiga.com/2011/06/11/back-in-the-day-…party-all-in-one

https://leoadambiga.com/2011/06/05/how-one-family-d…-during-the-days/

Bryant-Fisher | Omaha Magazine

http://omahamagazine.com/articles/tag/bryant-fisher/.

A Family Thing – The Reader | Omaha, Nebraska

http://thereader.com/news/a_family_thing/.

https://leoadambiga.com/2011/06/11/big-mama’s-keeps…ve-ins-and-dives/

Big Mama, Bigger Heart | Omaha Magazine

http://omahamagazine.com/articles/big-mama-bigger-heart/

Entrepreneur and craftsman John Hargiss invests in North Omaha …

http://thereader.com/visual-art/entrepreneur_and_craftsman_john_hargiss_invests_in_north_omaha/

https://leoadambiga.com/2016/06/30/creative-to-the-…s-handmade-world/

https://leoadambiga.com/2013/09/27/minne-lusa-house…on-and-community/

https://leoadambiga.com/2013/10/22/a-culinary-horti…ommunity-college/

https://leoadambiga.com/2012/08/28/revival-of-benso…estination-place

A Mentoring We Will Go | Leo Adam Biga’s My Inside Stories

https://leoadambiga.com/2010/06/18/a-mentoring-we-will-go

https://leoadambiga.com/2018/01/08/tech-maven-lasho…past-stereotypes/

https://leoadambiga.com/2017/08/22/omaha-small-busi…rs-entrepreneurs

Omaha Northwest Radial Hwy | Leo Adam Biga’s My Inside Stories

https://leoadambiga.com/tag/omaha-northwest-radial-hwy/

Isabel Wilkerson | Leo Adam Biga’s My Inside Stories

https://leoadambiga.com/tag/isabel-wilkerson/

The Great Migration comes home – The Reader

http://thereader.com/visual-art/the_great_migration_comes_home/.

Goodwin’s Spencer Street Barber Shop – Leo Adam Biga’s My Inside …

https://leoadambiga.com/2010/04/29/goodwins-spencer-street-barbershop-we-cut-heads-and-broaden-minds-too/.

Free Radical Ernie ChambersThe Reader

http://www.thereader.com/post/free_radical_ernie_chambers

https://leoadambiga.com/2016/03/15/deadeye-marcus-m…t-shooter-at-100/

https://leoadambiga.com/2012/01/15/north-omaha-cham…s-the-good-fight

North’s Star: Gene Haynes builds legacy as education leader with …

https://leoadambiga.com/…/norths-star-gene-haynes-builds-legacy-as- education-leader-with-omaha-public-schools-and-north-high-school…

Brenda Council: A public servant’s life | Leo Adam Biga’s My Inside …

https://leoadambiga.com/…/brenda-council-a-public-servants-life/‎

https://leoadambiga.com/2012/04/17/carole-woods-har…ess-and-politics/

Radio One Queen Cathy Hughes Rules By Keeping It Real …

https://leoadambiga.com/2010/04/29/radio-one-queen-cathy-hughes…

Miss Leola Says Goodbye | Leo Adam Biga’s My Inside Stories

https://leoadambiga.com/2011/09/01/miss-leola-says-goodbye/.

https://leoadambiga.com/2011/09/02/leola-keeps-the-…-side-music-shop/

Aisha Okudi’s story of inspiration and transformation …

http://thereader.com/news/aisha_okudis_story_of_inspiration_and_transformation/

Alesia Lester: A Conversation in the Gossip Salon | Leo …

https://leoadambiga.com/2016/03/09/alesia-lester-a-conversation-in…

Viv Ewing | Omaha Magazine

http://omahamagazine.com/articles/tag/viv-ewing/

https://leoadambiga.com/2015/02/11/sex-talk-comes-w…rri-nared-brooks/

https://leoadambiga.com/2010/08/29/strong-smart-and…-girls-inc-story/

https://leoadambiga.com/2015/10/13/omaha-couple-exp…ica-in-many-ways

Parenting the Second Time Around Holds Challenges and …

https://leoadambiga.com/2012/11/25/parenting-the-second-time…

Pamela Jo Berry brings art fest to North Omaha – The Reader

http://thereader.com/visual-art/pamela_jo_berry_brings_art_fest_to_north_omaha/

https://leoadambiga.com/2010/06/06/its-a-hoops-cult…asketball-league/

Tunette Powell | Omaha Magazine

http://omahamagazine.com/articles/tag/tunette-powell/

Finding Her Voice: Tunette Powell Comes Out of the Dark …

https://leoadambiga.com/2013/01/24/finding-her-voice-tunette..

Shonna Dorsey | Omaha Magazine

http://omahamagazine.com/articles/tag/shonna-dorsey/

Finding Normal: Schalisha Walker’s journey finding normal …

https://leoadambiga.com/2014/07/18/finding-normal-schalisha-walker..

Patique Collins | Omaha Magazine

http://omahamagazine.com/articles/tag/patique-collins/

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

September 1, 2017 1 comment

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
Appearing 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.

Temple Israel Omaha embraces new home and new era

May 26, 2014 1 comment

For the fall 2013 dedication of its new synagogue building, Temple Israel Omaha commissioned Omaha Publications to create a commemorative, magazine-style program.  I was asked to write four stories for that piece that reflect different dimensions of what that new space means to the leadership and liturgy and how it fits into the emerging Tri-Faith Initiative campus that will eventually find the synagogue joined by a neighborhing Islamic mosque, Episcopal church, and shared interfaith center.  My stories follow.

 

 

Temple Clergy Work as Religious Artists to Help Members Grow in Their Jewishness

©by Leo Adam Biga

Rabbi Aryeh Azriel is known to frankly speak his mind and fearlessly wade into trouble rather than stand silently, idly by. It’s his nature. He and the dynamic clergy team he leads make a good match for the lively reform congregation they serve.

“I refuse to sit on the fence in any relationship I encounter,” says Azriel. “I like to be part of life and to jump into dangerous, sometimes stormy waters. I definitely want to take a chance. I like those kinds of experiments.”

Temple Israel’s participation in the Tri-Faith Initiative and decision to build a new synagogue are just the latest expressions of Azriel and his team leading their flock to challenging new opportunities.

“There is definitely a spirit in this congregation that allows for those kinds of things to happen. This congregation is extremely courageous,” he says.

He feels fortunate havling clergy who enjoy the vital push and pull that characterizes life at Temple Israel.

“I’m very proud of the clergy surrounding me. They’re an amazing fit,” he says, referring to Rabbi Josh Brown and Cantor Wendy Shermet. “We’re not being a spectator. We’re about getting in, getting muddy, getting hurt, getting in all those amazing places and finding strong, creative ways of entering into people’s lives and relationships.”

“Aryeh, Josh and Wendy all bring different gifts to Temple. They complement and supplement each other and are very different from each other, but that is one of our congregation’s greatest strengths,” says member Jane Rips.

Brown says Azriel sets the bold course. “He does not like to sit still or slow down or sort of rest on any laurels. It’s always what needs to change next or what do we move towards next.”

Like their predecessors, Brown and Shermet speak their mind and think outside the box. Azriel wouldn’t have it any other way.

“We’ve selected some people that have provided challenges to me individually but also to the congregation. Free thinkers and innovators with the courage of their convictions.”

“We all challenge each other with no compunction about telling each other we’re wrong,” says Shermet.

There are no bruised egos.

Azriel says, “We are professionals and we have great respect for each other and I think the congregation definitely sees the loyalty between us. Trust and loyalty have to be at the core of not only staff but the congregation. It’s about knowing there is this group of people that can come together and dream together and challenge each other and have a vision and purpose and meaning to what we’re doing.”

The clergy team meets Tuesday mornings to plan their week but the trio confab informally most every day.

“I can’t tell you how many times during the day we are in each other’s offices because there are things that have to be discussed and some of them are urgent,” says Azriel.

The team divides hospital and nursing home visits. They take turns officiating at life cycle events.

“The clergy does not isolate itself. The acts of reaching out, teaching others about Judaism, welcoming questions and attending community events are part of their daily to-do lists,” says member Phyllis Glazer.

Brown works closely with new education director Debbie Messarano and confers with young families and other congregants without strong connections to clergy. Shermet manages the bamitzvah program and all of the worship music. Azriel ensures the team’s teachings and activities enhance Temple’s mission and vision.

“It’s not only listening to each other,” Azriel adds, “but listening to the heartbeat of the congregation is crucial, too. If we for a moment forget what the purpose of our work here is then our work will be in vain.”

The clergy are part of a much larger team.

“It’s more than just the clergy,” Azriel says. “You have to have the right youth group director, the right educator, the right executive director, the right program director, the right office staff, the right lay leadership.”

Still, as the father of this congregation for 25 years Azriel has left a huge imprint.

Rips says, “He has challenged us, guided us, loved us and helped to create a vibrant and exciting Temple Israel.”

“I find this place extremely caring and invigorating,” says Azriel. “It has embraced my family. It has been a wonderful experience.”

 

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Making Judaism Relevant in Prayer-Life Cycle Rituals

©by Leo Adam Biga

Making Reform Judaism relevant to congregants is not an academic question for Temple’s clergy.

“It’s the central question of our work here,” says Cantor Wendy Shermet. “We spend a great deal of time talking about how are we and are we in fact relevant to people with very busy secular lives.”

Much focus is on making holiday observances and life cycle events intrinsic experiences that help members identify with Jewish life and what it means to be a Jew.

“It’s on so many levels, definitely on the intellectual level so they know what Reform Judaism stands for,” says Rabbi Aryeh Azriel. ‘It’s also important to recognize that Reform Judaism of 50 years ago is not the same Reform Judaism of today.

“With every life cycle event there is this question of how do we make it an integral part of the life of that family or that individual.”

Infusing new life into old rituals is one way of keeping things fresh.

Azriel says, “Many times we work on traditional vessels that maybe go back to antiquity and try to fill those old vessels with new meaning. That’s the reform tradition. So there is a tradition of immersion in the mikvah but we took this old vessel and brought a new meaning to people battling cancer and addiction and all those things.

“This is where the clergy get creative. We are constantly very vigilant about understanding the content and the meaning of the moment. That’s why we call ourselves religious artists. We talk about the drama we need to have in a ritual or celebration of a life cycle event. The moment we lose sight of the drama then we are not doing our job.”

In that creative process, he says, “we have upgraded everything, not only rituals, not only the celebration of holidays, but in line with the mission of looking at how we can make a better connection between the personal worshiper sitting in the pew and the experience of their relationship with God. Their spirituality. If we do not upgrade it in the way our people are worshiping they will not stay here.”

Member Phyliis Glazer says, “Rabbi Azriel, Rabbi Brown, Cantor Shermet and all who came before them have been with us at some of our most joyous moments. They have shared in those joys and helped us bear the burdens of the times of our greatest sorrow.”

Rabbi Josh Brown says the more members connect their lives to Temple the more opportunities they have to connect with their Jewishness. He says whenever members choose to participate in a celebration or ritual, it’s an opportunity to grow in their Jewish heritage and faith and to be part of a continuum.

“You’re connecting yourself not only to traditions that are generations, in some cases hundreds or thousands of years old, but you’re also connecting yourself to the future – to prayers your kids will say. There’s power in that connection.”

One of those traditions, Shabbat, the Jewish day of rest, encourages believers to look inward in order to grow in faith.

“Shabbat is this ability to disengage from the week that just passed and to reenergize the holy inside us for the week ahead,” says Azriel. “Shabbat offers an opportunity to go a few notches up in the spiritual-emotional content of our lives and we can do it in the midst of family and friends or in a walk or opening a book or listening to music or coming here for a Shabbat service.”

Azriel says living out Judasim must be a daily thing.

“Judaism calls us to imitate God’s creation, compassion, caring every day. The high holidays are coming now and I think there are missed opportunities if we don’t use those days and those moments to discover who we are. Those are all places for individual fueling. The whole year is an invitation to learn to fuel and to fly high.”

As Temple Israel settles into its new home, Azriel reminds the congregation that “important as it is to build synagogues for Jews it is even more important to build Jews for the synagogues. Synagogues are empty only when Jews are empty.”

The building will fill with memories, emotions and stories with each ritual and celebration held there. On Sept. 28 Stacie Spies-Matz and Jay Matz have the honor and privilege of their daughter Samantha Matz being the first Bat Mitzvah in the new Temple.

“It is exciting and joyful to take those first steps into the future and into the new building,” says Spies-Matz. “We have observed many holidays, participated in religious school, developed great friendships and had our children’s baby naming at Temple. Temple contributes a big piece to how we raise our children.”

 

 

 

 

Art and Music in New Temple Reflect Spirit of Congregation

©by Leo Adam Biga

To enhance worship in the sacred spaces of its new synagogue, Temple charged five artists with creating symbolically-rich ritual objects embedded in Jewish faith and practice. Each artist met extensively with Temple clergy to discuss the religious significance of the ritual object they were commissioned to make.

An exhaustive process determined where art would be located and what it would convey before a jury identified and commissioned the appropriate artists to create the pieces. The Bemis Center for Contemporary Arts facilitated the process.

The idea was to make art integral to spaces, not mere adornments.

The central ritual object on the bimah (the altar or sanctuary) is the Ark (Aron Hakodesh), which is the repository of the Torah scrolls. Many synagogue arks are dramatic works of art or craftsmanship in wood or metal, filled with symbolic elements representing parts of the Jewish tradition.

At Temple’s request Israel resident Galya Rosenfeld created a doubled-layered ark curtain. Bemis Community Arts Program Manager Holly Olson describes it this way, “The front layer is an assemblage of laser-cut fabric pieced together in a repeating Star of David pattern using a color palette referencing Shivat Haminim (the Seven Species named in the Torah). Openings in the center front reveal the back shear curtain printed with holiday symbols.”

Rosenfeld says the two curtains create an “interplay” and “choreography” for displaying the ark. She adds that the colors inspired by “the ritual foods we eat and wines we drink” are meant “to connect people with familiar things from their experience of the holidays” and to “exalt our practice of Judaism.”

Another essential element of the sanctuary is the eternal light that symbolizes the fire that burned on the altar in the ancient Temple in Jerusalem. Temple selected James Woodfill of Kansas City, Mo. to design the eternal light for the sanctuary. His modular work seamlessly blends into the bimah wall. He says the design “lets the light simply emanate from that wall” as an ambient architectural immersion. Rather than imposing a narrative, Olson says the piece “allows for the symbolism to come from the experience.”

Woodfill says he intends for his piece to “instigate a new way of feeling or sensing” for worshipers and “to add a layer of potential optimism and reflection.”

The Temple’s chapel also has an eternal light and another Kansas City artist, Linda Lighton, was inspired by a word cloud congregants generated to express what they wanted the chapel’s eternal light to evoke. Working from that and motifs in the ark doors and stained glass windows she fashioned a translucent porcelain flower. She says, “I hope the members will enjoy and find comfort and solace and inspiration in this light for many years to come.”

In the spirit of Jewish prayer that inspires and instructs worshipers artist Lynne Avadenka of Huntington Woods, Mich. was tasked with bringing Hebrew passages from the Hashkiveinu prayer of peace to graphic life. She executed hand-drawn interpretations of excerpts selected by the worship committee. The prayer’s message of renewal, peace and community holds special meaning for the congregation. Her work is displayed in the wrap-around clerestory windows. A repeated passage – “Grant, O God, that we lie down in peace, and raise up, our Guardian, to life renewed. Spread over us the shelter of Your peace.” – can be read inside the sanctuary. Two other passages can be read from the outside, including one that reads: “For You, God, watch over us and deliver us. For You, God, are gracious and merciful.”

Olson says the soft flow of Avadenka’s hand-drawn work offers a pleasing contrast to the clean, sharp lines of the space’s other designs.

“The commission for the Temple comes with a sense of responsibility to make sure what I am doing is satisfying the members of the Temple and their sense of what their sanctuary should be, along with the aesthetic sensibility of the architect,” says Avadenka.

Nashville, Tenn.-based artist Mel Ziegler is preparing an outdoor sculptural piece for the entrance that will invite members and visitors to interact with the work and perhaps add onto it. He’s responding to a Hebrew passage viewable above the entrance that reads, “Guard our going and coming, to life and to peace, evermore.” Ziegler envisions his work integrated into new traditions at Temple and reflecting the congregation moving forward and embarking on a new path.

In one way or another the work of Ziegler and his fellow artists all express the vital, searching, engaging nature of Temple’s people.

Temple member Todd Simon, a noted art collector who helped lead the commission process, says “the progressiveness, inclusiveness and open-mindedness” of the congregation ensured that Temple didn’t “go with the safest choices but instead was willing to explore and push around the boundaries.” is pleased by the art that’s been cultivated. I think we’ve got a terrific balance between totally new art and artists for whom the artistic problem this presented to them was a brand new challenge to them.”

“I love those pieces,” says Rabbi Aryeh Azriel, who consulted with each artist. “I feel very good about the selection.”

 

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Ark curtain

 

 

eternal light sanctuary web

Eternal light

 

hebrew windows web

Hebrew passage inscribed windows

 

stained glass web

Stained glass windows

 

On Simon’s recommendation the synagogue hired the Bemis Center to manage the process that selected and supported the artists.

“I sort of inserted my point of view that we ought to really be thinking about art from the very beginning and more importantly that the art is actually a great way to involve a broader group of the congregation in a conversation about what this place is supposed to be about. The process was designed so that the concepts really came from the community the art is supposed to serve. We tried to be as inclusive as we could.”

Between 80 and 100 congregants attended a 2011 workshop. “We asked the congregation to bring to life in words and stories the past present and future of Temple Israel. What it meant to them on a very personal level,” says Simon. “We noticed certain themes and ideas emerged. We knew where we wanted art to potentially touch the building.” The Bemis then assembled a jury of curators and experts who came up with the artists invited to submit an RFQ (Request for Qualifications). From dozens of submissions five were selected.

In addition to the art pieces Temple commissioned original music for the dedication by three composers.

Jonathan Comisar, music director at Congregation Kol Ami in White Plains, NY and on the faculty of his alma mater, Hebrew Union College School of Sacred Music, writes Jewish music for synagogues and other organizations all over the nation. Comisar was asked by Temple Israel Cantor Wendy Shermet to compose a piece of art music that draws on the Hashkiveinu prayer. His piece, “Hashkiveinu: A Shelter of Peace,” is scored for cantor and choir as well as for violin, cello, clarinet and flute.

“It was a wonderful, challenging task,” says Comisar.

The composer says his goal was to interpret the prayer with “integrity and authenticity – to make this not only fitting for a prayer but fitting for the grandeur of a new synagogue.” At the same time he says he needed to create a section children can sing along to and weave the instruments and cantor’s voice into “an organic whole. “It’s like a mini-scene from a play in a lovely and beautiful way with all the right intentions. It’s a moment which marks a milestone in the congregation’s life, so I was very mindful of the significance…”

Guest artists for the performance will feature Comisar at piano and select Omaha Symphony members.

The other original musical works for the dedication are by organist-composer Kurt Knecht from Lincoln, Neb. and songwriter-playwright Karen Sokolof Javitch from Omaha. He is music director at St. Mark’s on the University of Nebraska-Lincoln campus and artistic director and conductor of the Lincoln Lutheran Choir. She is a member of Temple Israel. Knecht’s piece, “Shalom Aleichem,” is for girls and women. Javitch’s piece, “Noah,” is for children.

 

Tri-Faith Initiative campus rendering

 

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Sterling Ridge Site Offers New Horizons to Carry on Old Traditions and to Build New Relationships

©by Leo Adam Biga

Temple Israel and the Tri-Faith Initiative grounds comprise a lovely but small corner of the 153-acre mixed-use Sterling Ridge development that’s 10 to 12 years from full build-out. Temple and its interfaith partners bring deep currents of history, memory and spirituality that stand apart from the development’s retail and business tenants.

Temple alone carries 142 years of traditions. Congregants will soon be neighbors with members of a mosque and a church and their own long faith traditions as well as with residents of an assisted living-memory care facility and with employees and customers of various commercial enterprises. All of it affords opportunities to put faith in action.

“It’s meaningful to have participated in the creation of a vehicle that can enable the fostering of more healthy human interpersonal relationships,” says Tri-Faith board chair and Temple member Bob Freeman. “Personally I can tell you I’m a better person and Jew for the journey. I’m more connected to God.”

There wouldn’t be a new Temple in the Tri-Faith venture without the building project leadership team.

Temple member Ted Zetzman is a builder by trade. He and John Waldbaum worked closely with Finegold Alexander Associates, Charles Vrana and Son Construction Company and Lockwood Development’s Chip James on delivery of the new synagogue.

“What made it have special meaning is that Temple came to me and said we need your help with this and it was something I really knew how to do and could help with,” says Zetzman.

He credits principal architect Maurice Finegold with conceiving the new Temple as a translucent lantern on the prairie. Project Advocates helped find the glass to realize that vision, along with the exterior Jerusalem stone and other materials.

Zetzman says fellow Temple member Harley Schrager, chair of the Building Council and co-chair of the capital and major donor campaigns, “was involved intimately in the concept and setting the standards or objectives for the design from a qualitative standpoint.”

Bound up in coming to the new building is honoring the old building’s rich past.

“The idea is to create an incredible opportunity to elevate people side by side, the new and the old, the inspirations and the challenges,” Rabbi Aryeh Azriel says. “How do you move the congregation? How do you provide the dignity? How do you recognize the departure, the sadness, the up, the down?”

He says Rabbi Josh Brown and Cantor Wendy Shermet “were involved in making sure people were engaged in conversations with the congregation about what exactly would happen with this transition.”

Temple long deliberated whether to move and once the decision was made it next had to decide where to relocate.

“It’s a huge risk this congregation took,” says Azriel. “I mean, how do you build something that satisfies everyone? How do you build a home for 800 families?”

Zetzman says the Temple project and Tri-Faith presence make a great fit for Sterling Ridge by giving it the high profile civic use it needed.

Azriel sees as providential and ironic Temple and Tri-Faith finding the spot of a former Jewish country club that formed in response to Jews being excluded elsewhere.

“I think the choice of the location for the synagogue is an amazing miracle. We went through 32 different locations before we got to this one, and we came to the right place. Once upon a time Jews were The Other but the Jewish community has grown up and been made to feel comfortable in America. So I think we landed in a wonderful moment in the life of a community. We created a location that responds beautifully to the needs of people both in creating connection and meaning with non-Jews and creating a comfortable haven to be able to celebrate rituals and the excitement of being neighbors.”

Brown imagines Temple serving a similar function Highland Country Club served.

“Jews wanted a place where they could sit down and be with the people they cared about and related to best and I think a lot of the design of our new building is to that same purpose. We want people to feel the synagogue is an extension of their home. We want to be a place where people will feel they’ll run into people they know.

“Just as Highland became a place where you could be fully yourself I hope Temple’s the same way.”

Azriel says the new site is the best opportunity to ensure the growth of Reform Judaism in Omaha with the building’s many sacred spaces and expanded social, educational and administrative facilities. The majority of members reside nearby, too.

Then there’s the interfaith engagement.

Azriel says, “The dream is to discover the image of God in all of us and to see how that image is actually the same. It’s not about symbols, it’s about being neighbors. We’re going to hopefully understand what is the meaning of walking into each other’s homes.

“It’s about interacting and placing ourselves together in our daily living. The reason why we went for this is because we wanted to feel real and authentic. The social justice piece is part of Reform Judaism. That’s part of the obligation of every Jew. It’s about constantly reinventing ourselves in areas of social justice and adult learning. That’s why in the new building we carry on the tradition of leaving a brick unfinished because there’s always work to be done. The dream is turning the bricks and mortar of that building into a living entity.”

The way Azriel sees it Temple’s participation in the Tri-Faith is “an outcome” of its longstanding inclusivity.

“I’m extremely happy about the relationship this congregation has with the non-Jewish community. I continued the tradition of rabbis who came before me in making sure solid bridges are built with those communities. This congregation has never been isolated. There was always a desire on my part and on the part of the congregation to continue those relationships.”

He’s thrilled about this new chapter in Temple’s story but he says “it’s never been about the building,” rather “It is about opening empty spaces and helping people become the best people they can be. There will be opportunities that lead people to something deeper. I think we are here as a community to explore the potential that’s available. The journey will be exciting.”

 

 
 
 
 

Rabbi Azriel: Legacy as Social Progressive and Interfaith Champion Secure


 

Rabbi Aryeh Azriel of Omaha has been sowing seeds of social justice for a very long time.  My short piece about him for Omaha Magazine comes a few months after he oversaw his reform congregation’s move to a new synagogue building.  The new temple is the first structure on the campus of the TriFaith Initiative, on whose board he serves. When the campus is completed it will be home to the synagogue, a mosque, an Episcopal church, and a tri-faith center.  He’s justifiably proud of how his faithful came together to support and shepherd their part of the tri-faith project through to completion, marking a new chapter in the historic congregation’s life.  He’s excited to fill the new temple with the emotion and energy of all the dynamic services, classes, celebrations, and rituals that go on there.  He’s served the congregation many years and now that he’s announced he’ll be retiring in 2016 he wants to make sure his leadership continues steering a right course until he steps down and a new leader takes over.

 

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Rabbi Azriel: Legacy as Social Progressive and Interfaith Champion Secure

by 

Originally appeared in Omaha Magazine (http://omahamagazine.com/)

 

Rabbi Aryeh Azriel has led Omaha’s reform Jewish congregation, Temple Israel Synagogue, since 1988. Along the way he’s become known for his social justice advocacy and for his efforts building bridges to other faith communities. He’s a board member of the ground-breaking Tri-Faith Initiative that’s bringing the three Abrahamic traditions together on the same campus. Temple Israel represents the Jewish tradition in the endeavor.

After putting his liberal stamp on Omaha, Azriel has signed his last three-year contact. His retirement takes effect in June 2016. This good shepherd wants the best for his flock and successor. Therefore, after he steps down he and his wife, Elyce, (they’re parents to two adult children) will move to Chicago, where they have strong ties, rather than be a distraction here.

“I want to see the congregation continue to thrive with someone else,” he says, “and sometimes there is a challenge when the emeritus rabbi stays in the same city. It’s important to have a rabbi running this congregation without an emeritus rabbi breathing down their neck. There’s definitely a need for me to not only step aside but to move to another place so the new person, whether male or female, has some independence to do things their own way.”

 

 

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When his time at Temple is done he will leave behind some tangible results, starting with the new synagogue building near 132nd and Pacific that opened last summer in the Sterling Ridge mixed-use development. The temple is the first completed element of the Tri-Faith campus being developed there. Azriel has been a driving force for his progressive congregation bearing witness to interfaith acceptance and communion. The temple will soon be joined by a neighboring mosque, a Christian church, and an interfaith center.

The contemporary modern, glass-sheathed new home replaced the previous facility at 70th and Cass that the nearly 800-family congregation outgrew years ago. It marked the first time in his career the native of Israel oversaw a new building project.

“It’s really a once in a lifetime experience,” Azriel says. “Many people in the congregation took part in this process.”

After years planning and praying the consensus is the open, Prairie-style structure is a good thing.

“The feedback on the building from the congregation is amazing,” he says. “We created exactly what we needed.”

The building, bathed in natural light from many windows, includes high tech features, but Azriel says it’s rooted in tradition. For example, leading to the main sanctuary are two facing modular walls—one a memorial bearing the names of members who’ve passed away and the other the stained glass windows that adorned the old sanctuary.

 

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“I think it’s extremely important for any institution that serves people to always have a heart for the institutional memory. There must be a place where a new building will not avoid the past or prevent you from remembering it. This congregation was established in 1871, and so even with a new building we still have to have one eye back in the history. We’ve maybe updated the technology but it’s the same Judaism—the same traditions, the same customs.”

What the temple most needed was more space to accommodate folks at services, receptions, classes, and other events and the much larger synagogue accomplishes this. Beyond the greater numbers that can be served the spacious digs provide more opportunities for interaction.

“This is definitely a communal experience,” he says. “It’s a house of study, a house of gathering and a house of prayer. It’s also a community gathering place for Jews and non-Jews. So it’s not just worship, it’s social justice, it’s adult and youth education, it’s making connections to churches in this area. I’m now creating relationships with some of the churches out here and it will be interesting to grow those relationships and to start something new.”

Just as he hoped, a central community square or commons area has become a focal point for people to hang out.

“We are finding that people are actually lingering because the space is so inviting. They want to stay longer and they like the schmoozing.”

Azriel doesn’t worry much about his legacy.

“It’s definitely not about bricks and mortar, it’s about relationships and hopefully about leaving a good name.”

He knows Temple’s contribution to the Tri-Faith campus represents just one part of an unfolding journey in understanding.

“This piece is done but the other pieces are extremely important too. To be able to create that community is another step. Some steps will be done before I leave and some will be done after I leave, and I’ll come back to see them bear fruit.”

For synagogue details, visit http://www.templeisraelomaha.com. Follow Tri-Faith Initiative news at trifaith.org.

 

Omaha’s St. Peter Catholic Church Revival Based on Restoring the Sacred

May 12, 2011 8 comments

If a potential client of mine had not referred me to a revival going on at a once proud Catholic church in Omaha that had fallen on hard times but is now undergoing a revitalization, I wouldn’t have known about it.  This despite the fact I often drove past this church. The story I wrote about the transformation going on at St. Peter Catholic Church in Omaha originally appeared in El Perico. I applaud what the pastor there, Rev. Damien Cook, and his staff and parishioners are doing to infuse new life into the church by going back to the future in a sense and restoring the sacred to celebrations that had been stripped of solemnity and pageantry in the post-Vatican II world.  On this same blog you can find my story titled, “Devotees Hold Fast to the Latin Rite,” and other Catholic-themed stories, particularly two dealing with the recently closed St, Peter Claver Cristo Rey High School and several dealing with Sacred Heart Catholic Church, including one focusing on the church’s inclusive spirt and another on its Heart Ministry Center.

 

 

 

 

Omaha’s St. Peter Catholic Church Revival Based on Restoring the Sacred

©by Leo Adam Biga

Originally published in El Perico

Just east above a stretch of I-480 stands St. Peter Catholic Church at 27th and Leavenworth. Its classical Greco-Roman facade is unlike anything in that sketchy near downtown Omaha district. Amid ramshackle urban surroundings the stone edifice is a solid, substantial front door for a poor, working class area made up of transients, bars, liquor stores and social service agencies as well as light industrial businesses, eateries, artist studios, apartments and homes.

When St. Peter’s pastor Rev. Damien Cook arrived in 2004 the church teetered on its last legs.

“It was a dying parish,” he says flatly.

He says before the Interstate came in the parish thrived but when homes were razed for the road-overpass construction, parishioners scattered to the far winds, leaving a psychological scar and physical barrier that isolated the parish.

From the pulpit Fr. Cook saw few pews filled in a sanctuary seating 800. The membership rolls counted only a small if dedicated cadre. With the school long closed and most old-line parishioners long gone, things looked bleak.

Seven years later, however, St Peter is enjoying a revival– “the numbers have vastly gone up” — that has its roots in demographics and faith. As the parish celebrates its 125th anniversary this spring and makes plans for an extensive interior church restoration there’s a resurgence afoot that belies the forlorn neighborhood.

“It’s a big year for us,” Cook says.

Always a mixed ethnic district, the Hispanic population was growing when Cook came, but has spiked since then. Many more began attending after St. Anne‘s closed. Now the church is predominantly Hispanic, though there’s a sizable non-Hispanic base as well.

Several Spanish Masses are offered each week. Quinceanera ceremonies occur there. A Spanish school of evangelization holds retreats in the old school building.

Where the congregation was decidedly aged before, it now over-brims with families, many with young children. Catechism classes serve more than 300 youths.

Perhaps most impressive, Cook says, is that the majority coming to St. Peter today don’t live within the parish boundaries but drive-in from all across the metro, making it a true “commuter parish.”

 

Rev. Damien Cook

Fr. Damien Cook

 

 

Why are folks flocking there?

It seems Cook has struck a chord in the effort to, he says, “restore the sacred at the church.” It trends with a national movement aimed at returning to a more traditional liturgy that expresses the awe, majesty, splendor and reverence of communal worship. He says many people tell him they were missing what St. Peter provides.

At St. Peter restoring the sacred means:

• integrating Latin into elements of every Mass, both English and Spanish

• performing traditional sacred music and chant

• using incense

• worshipers receiving communion at the altar rail

• multiple clergy and altar boys participating

Additionally, St. Peter offers daily confession and chanted vespers. Each spring it conducts a festive Corpus Christi procession that follows a 1.4 mile route. As a canopy covered vessel containing the Eucharist is carried, children strew the path with flower petals, music plays and prayers are recited aloud. It all culminates in fireworks, song, food and thanksgiving outside the church.

Cook says parishioners embrace these rites and share their enthusiasm with others, which in turn helps St. Peter grow attendance and membership.

“I just feel really blessed,” he says. “There’s always been faith here, and I inherited that from the priests who went before me. Even if the congregation was smaller the people here were really receptive to the whole evangelization process — of going out and telling their friends, ‘You should come down to St. Peter’s for Mass. Just try it once.’ And once people do they get kind of hooked.

“So the people themselves are the greatest gift to me. They really want to know more about the faith, they really do want the sacred and are excited about restoring the sacred.”

 

 

St-Peter-platform-with-Tannoy-speakers

 

 

 

 

He says his congregation’s thirst for solemnity and spiritual nourishment is part of a universal yearning.

“If you look at every culture and religion in the world there’s a desire for the transcendent, for the sacred,” he says.

Challenges remain. Cook wants St. Peter to better link its English and Spanish-speaking parishioners.

“I don’t sense any hostility between the two different cultures. We come together on various parish projects, but it’s still been very difficult. I’m still trying to learn the magic, the grace, the appropriate way to unite the two, because I don’t want there to be two different parishes. We’re one family of God. But the language difference is a reality. It’s just natural people feel more accustomed among their own.

“I sense unity here. but if we could only find the bridge for the Spanish and English-speaking segments to create that one parish.”

He also wants St. Peter to minister more to its distressed neighbors.

“We have everything from prostitutes at night on the corner to really inebriated people to aggressive panhandlers to shootings near us. We’re proud to be here as an anchor to the community. We’re privileged to serve the poor. We really do need to be out doing more evangelization because we have a whole neighborhood of people, Catholic and non-Catholic, to be invited.”

He hopes redevelopment happens for “the sake of more security, safety and opportunity” for residents. He firmly believes the area’s rich with potential, saying,

“It just needs people to realize that.”

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