Kelly: Rabbi Azriel's interfaith work builds bridges for Omaha worshippers -
Published Wednesday, October 9, 2013 at 1:00 am / Updated at 3:13 am
Kelly: Rabbi Azriel's interfaith work builds bridges for Omaha worshippers

The Omaha rabbi who helped protect a mosque on 9/11 is looking forward to his synagogue's future Muslim and Protestant neighbors — and to his Jewish daughter's marriage to a Catholic.

If that sounds like a lot of interfaith mingling, well, few have done more to promote understanding among faiths than Rabbi Aryeh Azriel of Temple Israel.

Among his many friends is Dr. Syed Mohiuddin, a Creighton University cardiologist and a Muslim who will attend Friday's 6 p.m. dedication of the recently built Temple Israel. He also looks forward to breaking ground for a mosque nearby and to building on his friendship with the rabbi.

“It is heartfelt,” he said. “We have shared our thoughts, our hopes and our prayers.”

After Islamic terrorists attacked the United States on Sept. 11, 2001, Azriel and about 20 members of his congregation went to the mosque near 73rd and Pinkney Streets to ward off any possible vandalism. Though the mosque and the temple already had contacts, Mohiuddin said that gesture laid the foundation for a closer relationship.

“Absolutely,” he said. “I can't think of anything more heartening or more reassuring that showed we had friends.”

That friendship has helped lead to Omaha's unique project southeast of 132nd and Pacific Streets — a synagogue, a mosque and a church, all to be built near each other on the same 35-acre plot.

Azriel, 63, who grew up in Israel, this year marked 25 years as senior rabbi at Temple Israel, Omaha's congregation of Reform Judaism. In May, he said, he signed “my final three-year contract.”

In 2016, he plans to move to Chicago, hometown of his wife, Elyce. He won't remain in Omaha as “emeritus rabbi,” he said, so as not to interfere in any way with his successor.

Though known in part for his interfaith work, Azriel remains focused on his beloved congregation, on the Jewish faith and on celebrating the new synagogue.

The tri-faith effort, he said, does not dilute the faith of Jews, Muslim and Christians, and there is to be no blending or proselytizing. But it could be a model of tolerance and understanding.

In January, the rabbi's daughter, Leora, will be married at the Livestock Exchange Building in South Omaha, after a blessing ceremony the night before at the synagogue.

Azriel is fine with the location of the wedding itself, quipping: “Do you think anyone listens to the father, even if the father is a rabbi?”

It will be a Jewish ceremony, officiated by a cantor and a rabbi — but not by Rabbi Azriel. “I just want to be the father of the bride.”

She and her future husband have agreed that any children would be raised Jewish.

For some Jews, especially in Conservative or Orthodox congregations, marrying within the faith is required.

Preserving the faith by educating the young is important, Azriel said, as are marriages between Jews. “But I see a great uplift resulting from interfaith marriages.”

Azriel also has been heartened over the years by the decline in anti-Semitism in America. And just as Christians and Jews now get along well, he said, “the same will happen with Muslims. I completely believe this will also work out one day.”

On a recent day, he proudly walked through the new synagogue, noting that it is bright, inviting and open to natural light. Gardens will adorn the landscape, along with a playground and an amphitheater.

High above the sanctuary, Hebrew words etched in glass pray for peace — the words facing inward as well as outward in the direction of the future mosque and church.

The terrain slopes down from the synagogue and then rises to the west. Azriel pointed out the sites for the other houses of worship, as well as the stream below that may be spanned by “Heaven's Bridge.”

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An appropriate name, because the longtime name of the stream — seriously — is Hell Creek.

The rabbi said he hopes that by the time he departs in 2016, all of the buildings at the tri-faith site will be completed.

The board of the Tri-Faith Initiative, he said, looked at 38 sites before settling on this one — a former golf-course country club originally built by Jews because they weren't allowed to join other Omaha country clubs.

The tri-faith project, on a corner of the Sterling Ridge retail-residential-office development, has gained attention far beyond Omaha.

Vic Gutman of Omaha, who is coordinating fundraising, said he will visit soon with foundations in Washington, D.C., interested in the Omaha tri-faith campus because “this is exactly what they want to see in the world.”

David Liepert, an author who bills himself as the “Optimistic Muslim,” asked on his Internet radio show in 2011 whether “Omaha, Neb., of all places, is the interfaith capital of the world.”

The Forward, a national Jewish publication, has said that if the Omaha experiment works, it “will become a beacon of cooperation in a world of interreligious strife.”

Gutman hopes that groundbreaking will occur in 2014 for the mosque, the church (Episcopal and Lutheran) and an interfaith center. Cost estimates, respectively, are $6 million, $5 million and $4.5 million, and fundraising is under way.

Temple Israel, which moved from its synagogue at 7023 Cass St., opened several weeks ago in time for the High Holy Days of Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur. The cost of the new temple was more than $20 million, but the congregation raised a total of $25 million so as to include an endowment.

Gutman estimated the total costs of the tri-faith project, including land acquisition, at between $42 million and $45 million. Donors have been generous.

“There are visionaries in this community who share the excitement for this project,” Gutman said. “It's something that Omaha will be known for.”

It may indeed gain international attention, but that's not why Rabbi Azriel joined in the push for it.

“I'm not dreaming about what will be a message and a lesson for the rest of the world,” he said. “My vision is limited to what we can do here. We have done some things, but there is a lot of work to do.”

Contact the writer: Michael Kelly    |   402-444-1000

Mike writes three columns a week on a variety of topics.

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