Leaders of Omaha's unique plan to build homes for three faiths at one location are proceeding with optimism, confident they will overcome a few whispers of unease.
In a world of turmoil and political-religious animosity, it is remarkable that the plan has advanced this far without public controversy. Nowhere else is a community doing what Omaha has set out to do: Build a synagogue, a mosque and a church next alongside one another, along with a fourth interfaith structure.
Quiet fears that have been expressed range from the possibility of diluting the respective religions, to worries about intermarriage or even the chance that extremists could view the site as a target.
Nonetheless, a feeling of good will prevails, even as leaders acknowledge that support is not unanimous.
But no protests or ugly incidents have occurred such as happened last year in Murfreesboro, Tenn., where a longtime mosque was planning to expand.
"I'd like to think it's because we're a far more tolerant community," said Bob Freeman, who is Jewish and board chairman of the Tri-Faith Initiative. "Sure, some people have fears. But we have repeatedly seen that education and familiarity are the best way to overcome those feelings."
For the mosque, Muslim leaders have hired a fundraiser who is Jewish and an architect who is Christian.
"That is a wonderful example of how the three faiths are working together," said Dr. Syed Mohiuddin of the American Institute of Islamic Studies and Culture in Omaha. "This is the beauty of the whole project."
The houses of worship — the church is Episcopal — are planned for a 37-acre corner of the former Ironwood Golf Course. It was originally the Highland Country Club, built long ago by Jews when they were not allowed to join existing country clubs.
The tri-faith site, east of 132nd Street between Pacific Street and West Center Road, would be part of a much larger residential-commercial development called Sterling Ridge. When the Omaha City Council held a hearing Tuesday, neighbors objected to parts of the overall development, but no one opposed the tri-faith plan.
Nine years ago, well before such a plan was discussed, Temple Israel began studying what to do with its synagogue at 7023 Cass St., its location since 1954. This past May 15, the congregation announced it had voted "overwhelmingly" to build a new synagogue at Sterling Ridge.
That decision was made independently of the tri-faith plan, leaders said, and the congregation plans to move forward even if the church and mosque do not. The synagogue is scheduled to be complete by the fall of 2013.
Architects have been hired for all four buildings. Leaders are moving forward with fundraising and are hopeful for an October announcement that the land has been acquired.
"It's very important for each religious community to decide on its own," said Rabbi Aryeh Azriel of Temple Israel. "We hear excitement about building a new synagogue. That is the goal of this congregation."
One who has raised objections is businessman and longtime Temple congregant Gary Javitch. He contends that some members did not understand at the time of the vote that the plan to build a synagogue was "deeply intertwined" with the plan for a tri-faith campus.
He even asked Temple leaders that a revote be taken with "an opportunity to choose another location as an option."
Javitch said he wants to know whether future next-door neighbors, who would attend the mosque, wish ill on Israel.
"In and of itself, I like the idea of talking with Muslims," Javitch said. "But before committing to a multimillion-dollar project, I want to know what we're getting into."
Freeman, the Tri-Faith Initiative chairman and a member of the Temple congregation, said the Omaha effort can't solve the world's problems.
"We've always known that the Middle East conflict will go on and on," he said. "We are not going to bring peace to the Middle East or to the world. Are we supposed to wait for some kind of sign before we act decently to one another?"
Muslims, Episcopalians and Jews involved in the tri-faith effort all want to know who their next-door neighbors are. Leaders say they have spent the past five years getting to know each other through joint gatherings, including a stirring event in March 2009 attended by more than 1,100 people — called "Dinner in Abraham's Tent: Conversations in Peace."
John Lehr, president of the Temple Israel congregation, said he knows of only two families there out of 750 that oppose the move to Sterling Ridge.
Said Lehr: "That we will move to a development where Christians and Muslims are intentionally trying to follow because they seek to build bridges of dialogue and understanding with Jews is as welcome as it is still sometimes hard to believe."
All involved acknowledge varying degrees of trepidation. Mohiuddin said the primary fear he has heard is that a tri-faith campus might dilute the individual religions.
"Some people," he said, "go so far as to say these three groups are inventing a new religion, an amalgamation."
He and others say the joint discussions have strengthened their own faith. In any case, all have agreed that proselytizing will not be allowed.
The often-unstated fear, given the world history of Muslims and Jews, is that disputes and protests some day could spill over into violence in Omaha or that the tri-faith site could be a target.
Mohiuddin, chairman of the Creighton University department of medicine, said the institutions will have modern security features.
"But much more security is provided by all three religions getting to know each other," he said. "When we get to know each other, fear is removed."
Jon Meyers, who is Jewish and sits on the Tri-Faith board, agreed.
"We could put up as many walls as we can," he said, "or we could tear down walls and build bridges. That's the best way to do it."
The Rev. Canon Tim Anderson of the Episcopal Diocese of Nebraska said he has heard no opposition from Episcopalians but realizes that not everyone in the community will be supportive.
"Anytime you're involved in innovative work that is interfaith and ecumenical, you're putting yourself out there to the world," Anderson said. "We just feel this is something God is calling us to do."
In a metro area with a population of 850,000, the number of people directly affected by the tri-faith effort is relatively small — about 4,500 Episcopalians, 5,500 Jews and nearly that many Muslims.
Even though the tri-faith groups represent about 2 percent of the metro population, the Omaha effort is being watched elsewhere.
The national Jewish publication The Forward said this month that if the Omaha experiment works, it "will become a beacon of cooperation in a world of interreligious strife."
Dr. David Liepert, an author who bills himself as "The Optimistic Muslim," asked on his Internet radio show whether "Omaha, Neb., of all places, is the interfaith capital of the world."
Hell Creek runs through the tri-faith site, and the plan is to span the stream with "Heaven's Bridge." If all goes well, Omaha's bold move will build bridges between people.
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