By Naomi Zeveloff
From The Jewish Daily Forward
Deep in America’s heartland, a Reform synagogue, a nondenominational mosque and an Episcopalian church are all putting down roots on a 37-acre tract of land that once belonged to a Jewish country club. A body of water called Hell Creek runs through the development, over which the faith groups plan to build “Heaven’s Bridge.”
Fantastical as it sounds, this interfaith campus is currently in the works in Omaha, Neb. Slated for completion in 2014, the Tri-Faith Initiative is an experiment in religious coexistence in a city better known as a hub of corn-fed conservatism.
“The only other place where such a thing exists is Jerusalem,” said Dr. Syed Mohiuddin, chairman of the Creighton University School of Medicine. Mohiuddin’s organization, the American Institute of Islamic Studies and Culture, is building a mosque on the campus. “Jerusalem is so important to these three faiths. We are sort of reproducing that model.”
If the experiment works, the city of Omaha — with a metropolitan area population of about 900,000, including 5,500 Jews, 6,000 Muslims and 4,500 Episcopalians — will become a beacon of cooperation in a world of interreligious strife. But before that can happen, the three groups still need to navigate fears, stereotypes and bureaucratic hang-ups.
The story of the Tri-Faith Initiative began with a simple quest for a parking lot. Temple Israel, the largest synagogue in Omaha, is located in the city’s congested downtown district. On the High Holy Days, the Reform congregation borrows parking space from its two neighbors, the Omaha Community Playhouse and the First United Methodist Church. When Temple Israel’s leaders decided to relocate the congregation to West Omaha, where many of the synagogue’s members now live, they reached out to Mohiuddin, who was planning a nondenominational mosque in the same neighborhood.
“It wasn’t a directive from the rabbi to say, ‘Go get with this group of Muslims,’” said Jon Meyers, a board member at Temple Israel. “Having said that, we realized: ‘Hey, this is a really cool thing. Why don’t we look at exploring this?’”