An Invitation to a Tri-Faith Neighborhood

Rev. Tim Anderson is asked if the Episcopal Diocese of Nebraska would like to join Jewish and Muslim communities in a groundbreaking Tri-Faith neighborhood in Omaha. 

Case Excerpt

The full case is comprised of an (A) Case and a (B) Case.

Rabbi Aryeh Azriel, senior rabbi at Temple Israel, left the meeting at the Roman Catholic Archdiocese feeling disappointed but not discouraged. He walked with his friend Bob Freeman, a member of Temple Israel, and as they left the Archbishop’s Office and Chancery, they stopped outdoors on the wide sidewalk to discuss the meeting with Archbishop Eldon Curtiss. Curtiss had politely, but firmly, declined their invitation. They understood it was a unique invitation—they had asked him if the Catholic community in Omaha, Nebraska would like to join them in building a tri-faith campus on which a Jewish synagogue, a Christian church and a Muslim mosque would co-locate as neighbors. Their vision was for all three of the religions that traced their roots to Abraham to participate in this “trifaith” project, and a Muslim group was already committed.

The Catholics were the largest Christian group in the city, but they would not be joining. The Archbishop explained that when he came to Omaha to be the head of the archdiocese, there was a deficit of nearly 8 million dollars, and he had made a promise not to leave the diocese with any deficit. This was not the right time to take on more debt; the Archbishop was nearing the mandatory retirement age of 75. Standing out on the sidewalk, Azriel and Freeman chatted: Who should they approach next? They discussed a number of possible denominations. Azriel wondered: Was there a Christian denomination in Omaha that would be willing to build an intentional Abrahamic neighborhood with them?

The Beginning of Tri-Faith

The idea of a Tri-Faith neighborhood on one campus began with a parking lot. Temple Israel, Omaha’s only Reform Jewish synagogue, had outgrown its building and badly needed a complete renovation or a new building. The congregation of 750 families was worshipping in a space designed for 350 families. For years, Temple’s board had worked on cost projections and the search for a new building site. One Saturday morning, as the rabbi pulled into the parking lot behind the synagogue, he saw Bob Freeman walking from his nearby home with a yellow legal tablet in his hand. Freeman had an idea: What if they were to find a partner to build along with them, so they could share parking lots, providing significant cost savings for both groups? His idea reflected their current arrangement with the Community Playhouse to the east and First United Methodist Church across the street, with which they had shared parking lots for many years. The schedules of the three facilities were complementary, so each was able to offer extra parking for the others’ use. Rabbi Azriel liked the idea of finding another congregation with a complementary schedule to build “next door,” and he knew who he wanted to invite to be their neighbors: his Muslim colleagues.

Born in Israel, Azriel had come of age in the midst of war. He grieved the loss of friends in Israel’s Six Day War when he was a teenager, and again in the Yom Kippur War six years later. As a rabbi, he was a passionate advocate for social justice and for a peaceful solution to Muslim-Jewish conflict. When he arrived in Omaha in 1988, Azriel discovered “a kind of purity and naïveté”[1] in this city surrounded by cornfields and prairie. Azriel explained, “There’s something still pristine…the crust of this land of Nebraska has not yet been corrupted.” Azriel thought: “It could be a place where deep interfaith relationships could be cultivated.”

Discussion Questions

1. What motivates Rabbi Aryeh Azriel to start a tri-faith campus? What are some of the questions and concerns his congregation might raise about the idea of co-locating? How might he respond to these?

2. What is the value—and what are some of the risks—of such symbolic projects? How important are the practical dimensions of this project?

3. How might the setting—of Omaha, Nebraska—impact this case?

4. Azriel’s vision for the project is “Abrahamic”: what are the benefits, and costs, of taking this approach?

5. If you were imagining a Tri-Faith campus with a church, mosque, and synagogue on shared land, what elements might it have? Are there any elements that would be essential? What do you think would be the most difficult part of such a project?



Expand for Citation

[1] All quotes from Rabbi Aryeh Azriel: Rabbi Aryeh Azriel, interviews by author, Omaha, NE, March 13, 2011