At first, the idea seemed crazy: three religions, all on one shared plot of land.
Temple Israel has existed as a Jewish congregation in Omaha since its founding in 1871, and the location of the temple had moved westward multiple times to correspond with where the congregation’s families lived. But when former president Bob Freeman suggested working with partners of other faiths to assist another move west in 2005, the congregation’s status as part of the reform movement took on a new meaning.
It took a few years to finalize, but Freeman’s initial vision successfully brought together congregations from the Jewish, Muslim and Christian faiths on one parcel of land as the Tri-Faith Initiative.
“Being a beacon is a lot of responsibility, but we’re also excited,” said Executive Director and founding board member Wendy Goldberg. “The model is powerful and doesn’t exist any other place in the world.”
It has not been an easy process to launch the Tri-Faith Initiative, though. The non-profit organization officially began in 2006, but it was not until 2011 that the Initiative purchased land between 132nd and Pacific Streets and built its future worship houses.
First up was Temple Israel, which completed its construction in 2013 and immediately began to serve its 700-plus families. It was an exciting moment for Goldberg, who had to stay positive throughout the long wait.
“This whole project is about showing up for each other,” Goldberg said. “It started with Rabbi Aryeh Azriel and a few other people who showed up at the mosque not necessarily knowing what would happen with their physical presence, but knowing that showing up for each other feels good and builds trust.”
The project could not have gotten this far without the help of Shakil Ahmed, even if he was unable to see out the completion of the Tri-Faith Initiative. Ahmed helped spearhead the founding of the American Muslim Institute along with Dr. Syed Mohiuddin in 2006 despite fears that the move could divide the Muslim community in Omaha.
Ahmed said he thought of it as expanding the community instead.
“I knew from my community I’d meet some resistance, and I was okay with that because our religion tells us to talk about our faith and discuss the common things between the different faiths,” Ahmed said in an online talk with Tri-Faith leaders. “With that intention, we wanted to explore the possibility, and I talked to many people in my community, and some brave souls decided to participate with me.”
Securing a Christian partner proved to be the trickiest of all. The Episcopal Diocese of Nebraska supported the Tri-Faith Initiative since 2006 but struggled to find the right congregation to join the shared grounds. Instead, the Countryside Community Church joined in 2015 before completing its church building in April 2019.
The last piece of the puzzle was a building for the Tri-Faith Initiative, which finished construction in August 2020. Finally, October brought forth a virtual grand opening that officially marked the completion of Freeman’s once-audacious idea.
“The exciting part of the location being complete is that it’s no longer about bricks or mortar,” Goldberg said. “When you show up and hear one individual story about their connection to their faith or their community, that’s empowering and it’s really made us believe that the collective impact of our time together matters.”
Since each congregation is its own separate entity, they are individually responsible for building and operation costs. That leaves the Tri-Faith Initiative to raise funds separately that provide for shared community programs and events.
For example, the group started a community garden last year that aimed to address food insecurity. That is just one way that Goldberg believes bringing three faiths together on the common ground can help achieve social justice, a principle present among all three organizations.
Most of all, those who are heavily involved within the Tri-Faith Initiative said they are thankful that the organization has allowed them to form and nurture strong relationships with people of different faiths.
“The places and the times when we are mixed together, and we are learning, those are the highlights for me,” said Rabbi Azriel in an online talk with Tri-Faith leaders. “The ability to teach and learn constantly is fabulous.”
Goldberg said there’s plenty to be learned from such meetings.
“We have a lot to learn from each other, and this initiative has given me endless opportunities to witness that in other people’s lives,” Goldberg said. “Omaha should be proud that Tri-Faith happened here.”