Temple Israel will move into its new west Omaha synagogue this month, a major step for keeping the congregation strong and for developing a site shared with Muslims and Christians.
Backers say the synagogue's opening is evidence that the interfaith site, an idea that started taking root about eight years ago, will become reality. Plans call for building a church, a mosque and a center for all faiths near the synagogue as part of a tri-faith project.
The Episcopal Diocese of Nebraska will have a new partner at the church it plans to build — the Nebraska Synod of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America. The diocese invited the synod to collaborate on forming a congregation at the new church. Nationally, the Episcopal Church and Evangelical Lutheran Church have worked together for more than a dozen years on shared ministries.
Dr. Syed Mohiuddin, president of the Omaha-based American Institute of Islamic Studies and Culture, said the synagogue gives the tri-faith project a big boost.
“Having the first cornerstone makes our project even more viable,” he said.
He hopes the site will become a national model of religious collaboration, understanding and respect. Organizers believe it might be the only site nationally where Jewish, Islamic and Christian congregations are intentionally planning to build houses of worship in the same place.
Specifics haven't been worked out, but community service and education are potential areas of collaboration, said Bob Freeman, chairman of the board of the Tri-Faith Initiative, the nonprofit organization coordinating the interfaith effort.
The interfaith site sits on 35 acres in the Sterling Ridge retail-office-residential development south of 132nd and Pacific Streets on the former Highland Country Club golf course, more recently known as Ironwood.
Construction timelines are firming up for the mosque and church, but dates could change depending on fundraising.
Mohiuddin said the goal is to break ground on a mosque by late fall or early spring. The project, funded primarily through donations, will include a study and cultural center all under one roof, he said.
Construction costs are estimated at $5 million, and more than half has been raised, Mohiuddin said. His organization, the American Institute of Islamic Studies and Culture, is overseeing the effort.
The Rev. Canon Tim Anderson of the Episcopal diocese said it hopes to start construction of a church as early as 2015. After the architectural drawings are complete, work will start on fundraising, he said.
Plans call for a fourth building, a center that would be used by the three faith groups and possibly by the community, Freeman said. The center, built and operated by the Tri-Faith Initiative organization, might include conference, educational and social space. Construction, funded through donations, would likely wait until the mosque and church are completed, Freeman said.
Freeman said discussions that led to developing a tri-faith site started in late 2005, when leaders of Temple Israel reached out initially to members of the Islamic community. Interfaith gatherings grew, and the Episcopal Diocese of Nebraska joined what became the Tri-Faith Initiative.
As Temple Israel looked at sites for a new synagogue, it wanted to make sure it had good neighbors on any adjacent undeveloped land. By December 2011 all three groups had purchased land at the Sterling Ridge site.
Rabbi Aryeh Azriel of Temple Israel said the new, larger synagogue, which holds its first worship service Aug. 30, will help the 142-year-old year old congregation continue to thrive.
He said Temple Israel has a long tradition of collaborating with houses of worship throughout the city, and will continue to do so from its new location.
Temple members who live near the current synagogue will remain an important part of the congregation, he said.
Temple, the oldest Jewish congregation in Nebraska, has been at 70th and Cass Streets since 1954.
He said his congregation has outgrown its current synagogue, which was originally built for about 350 families, although there have been additions over the years.
Temple now has about 725 families, and the count has remained steady in recent years.
Temple Israel officials declined to provide the construction cost for the new synagogue, which was covered through donations.
The new 58,500-square-foot synagogue, which features stone from a Jerusalem quarry, is one-third larger than the existing one. The new sanctuary seats nearly 900, instead of 300 at the Cass Street location. There also will be more space to accommodate funerals, weddings and other events.
There will be more classroom space for youth and adult programs, and the social hall can accommodate up to 350 people, with room for a dance floor. There is a large community courtyard where congregation members and visitors can relax and enjoy a drink from the coffee bar.
The new synagogue also will have a better security system, and improved capabilities for such technology as video conferencing and webcasting.
An international group of artists created artwork for the building's sacred spaces, such as the curtain covering the Ark, the special cabinet that contains the Torah scrolls. The new sanctuary was built so the people will feel nearer to the Ark, Azriel said.
“The connection between the words of the scrolls and the souls of the people is closer,'' he said.