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Rabbi Azriel’s neighborhood welcomes all, unlike what he saw on recent Middle East trip; Social justice activist and interfaith advocate optimistic about Tri-Faith campus

September 6, 2014 1 comment

I sometimes end up revisiting subjects.  Usually a span of a year or more goes by before I do.  In the case of Rabbi Aryeh Azriel of Omaha, I ended up profiling him twice in the space of a year and going back another year or so I extensively interviewed him at least two more times for additional projects  No worries of overkill or reptition with this man though as he has enough of a compelling personal and professional story to warrant ten profiles and a hundred interviews.  His leadership at Temple Israel Synagogue and his work with the Tri-Faith Initiative alone can fill many notebooks and would in fact make a good book.  You can find my other stories featuring him and his work on this blog.  Immediately below are comments about the rabbi I didn’t have a chance to use – because of space limitations – in my most recent story about him in The Reader (www.thereader.com), which is the story that follows below the comments.  With each interview and story I get to know him a little better and I could second many of the things said about him by his admirers, but they know him far better yet and so I will let their words speak for me.

 

Vic Gutman
“I am a member of Temple Israel. While I’m not a particularly observant Jew, I belong to Temple because of its commitment to social justice. Rabbi Azriel has been an outspoken advocate for social justice, not only at Temple Israel, but in the community. Immediately after 911, Rabbi led a group of Temple members to the only mosque in Omaha (at that time) to help defend it should anyone threaten its members or property. In my opinion, the Tri Faith Initiative would not have been possible without his enthusiastic support and leadership.”

Bob Freeman
“Aryeh would have been hugely successful in any city in the world. It was a great match for him and Omaha that he ended up here and chose to stay. He was able to have an enormous impact on a vibrant congregation and growing community, becoming a dynamic leader in both the Jewish and the secular Omaha communities. In turn, he grew strong, confident and assured he was on the right path, along with his wife and 2 kids. This inner strength enabled him to shape the thoughts of important people who in turn make policy and shape our community and others. He’s done this consistently, day in and day out, for 25 years, making for enormous impact. And he has brought to Omaha an unending stream of national and even international leaders who come here as his friends and confidantes, to draw inspiration from spending time with him while drinking from the same fountains of strength, stability and perspective that Omaha offers.

“Aryeh has profoundly impacted countless individuals, families, an entire congregation, his community and a wide circle of colleagues and friends. His body of work in interfaith and ecumenical affairs has been legion, and provides a strong base of experience and credibility for him to launch the Tri-Faith Initiative, an effort unprecedented in its ambition to model collaborative interfaith relationships.

“It has been my profound blessing to have been close to Aryeh for these 25 years; I know he’s helped make me the person I am today.”

Wendy Goldberg
“Rabbi Azriel is a force for good. His positive spirit and unending energy allow him to connect with people. Relationships are the foundation of his rabbinate. He motivates his team to work for social change. Most common phrase, ‘Let’s do it!'”

Nancy Kirk
“Rabbi Azriel is a man of prophetic vision combined with a clear grasp of the possible. From the earliest days of envisioning a new home for Temple Israel, he saw good neighbors as an essential element of the perfect location. Rabbi Azriel has a clear moral compass that guides his life and has guided the Tri-Faith Initiative. When life is complicated he has a special gift to see the clear center of the issue.”

Jane Rips
Aryeh’s 25 years have flown by in literally the blink of an eye! He has challenged us, guided us, loved us, and helped to create a vibrant and exciting Temple Israel. He is a man of limitless energy and vision. Although his hair is grayer than it used to be, to me he seems unchanged by the passage of time – still passionate about Judaism, Temple Israel and social justice.

Phyllis Glazer
“For 25 years, Rabbi Azriel has been a blessed presence in our midst. He has led our congregation with wisdom, compassion, new ideas, and a delightful sense of humor ALWAYS challenging us to learn, to listen, to think, and to grow. He has made me and my family proud to be a members of Temple Israel. In brief, Rabbi Azriel is my friend, my Rabbi, and a perfect fit!”

 

 

 
Rabbi Azriel’s neighborhood welcomes all, unlike what he saw on recent Middle East trip

Social justice activist and interfaith advocate optimistic about Tri-Faith campus
BY LEO ADAM BIGA

Now apeparing in The Reader (www.thereader.com)

 

Rabbi Aryeh Azriel of Omaha’s Temple Israel Synagogue builds bridges between people of different backgrounds and persuasions. Take for example his driving force work with the Tri-Faith Initiative, the project that intends creating a local campus of Jewish, Muslim and Christian houses of worship around a shared communal space.

Recently returned from a two-month sabbatical to Turkey and his native Israel, Azriel was in Jerusalem when the current maelstrom in Gaza erupted. Always the rabbi, he attended the funeral of three Israeli boys kidnapped and killed by Hamas and paid respects to the father of an Arab boy burned alive by Israeli extremists.

Nearly everywhere he went Azriel spread the hope embodied by Tri-Faith and its efforts to build a harmonious faith-based community. The veteran social justice activist and ecumenical champion, whose work with Omaha Together One Community has seen him advocate for meatpackers and victims of police violence, leads this city’s reform synagogue. He is Tri-Faith’s most ardent supporter. He encouraged his progressive congregation to put stakes down in that project’s emerging blended neighborhood when Temple built its new home in the Sterling Ridge Development near 132nd and Pacific Streets.

Open just over a year, the Temple site will soon be joined by a mosque. If Countryside Community Church decides to be the Christian partner in this interfaith troika it would build a neighboring church there.

On his trip Azriel says people embraced Tri-Faith’s vision of unity but their experience with discord tells them its unattainable.

“They cannot understand because of their conditions how it is possible,” he says. “I mean, there’s such a level of futility in the midst of war in believing in and talking about dreams such as the dream of the Tri-Faith. But they were very eager to listen. I told them the story. I told them about the neighborhood we want to create here.

“They definitely all wished me good luck – being skeptical at the same time. I feel really privileged we can do it in Omaha. Of all the places in the world maybe this is the place one can actually make it work.”

It hurt the heart of this Tel Aviv native to be in his homeland when the simmering Israel-Palestine conflict boiled over into full-scale military actions in the Gaza Strip. Those hostilities continue today.

He stayed in Jerusalem, where he was among invited clergy for a Shalom Hartman Institute seminar on, ironically enough, war and peace. He and some colleagues went to the funeral of the three boys.

“I don’t remember ever such a large funeral because people came from all over the world. We heard the eulogies. It was devastating. I mean, those kids were our kids. It was similar to how I felt about the news of the Arab boy.”

Azriel joined colleagues to attend the youth’s memorial.

“We went to the suburb where the child’s home was. They built a big tent outside the house because there were so many visitors. The father and other family members were sitting there welcoming people. We shook hands and expressed sadness.”

Ever since the missiles began flying, Israel’s retaliated with massive air and ground strikes. Thousands of Palestinians have been killed or injured – thousands more, left homeless.

“I don’t know what will happen with Gaza,” Azriel laments. “I don’t what else there is to destroy. A terrible thing.”

Ceasefires brokered by the international community and peace negotiations led by Egypt and Arab nations have repeatedly broken down. Meanwhile, the nearby anti-Semitic states of Syria and Iraq are devolving in the face of Isis and Jihadists. The perpetually insecure Middle East has perhaps never been so unstable.

During his stay Azriel, whose parents still live in Israel, went through a range of emotions.

“I don’t remember those kinds of events happening in Israel growing up. I saw a level of racism and hate on the part of some Israelis after the three boys were kidnapped that I had never witnessed before.”

He decries Hamas for going too far as well.

“This time Hamas had the guts to fire on holy sites. It was something completely new for us. Usually the safest place to be in Israel during war is Jerusalem. This time they went a little bit crazy. They wanted to show how far the missiles can go.”

The blame goes in all directions: “The Middle East is filled with crazy people from all sides, all religions, all colors.”

The tranquil getaway Azriel expected didn’t materialize.

“It wasn’t the way I was planning it. You can’t have peace of mind in the middle of war. To see the funerals of Israeli soldiers and the death and destruction in Gaza – those are things no human being can stay ambivalent to. So many innocent people dead. It’s very hard.

“I know how it impacted my family. To wake up your parents at 2 o’clock in the morning – my father is 89, my mother is 84 – and to tell them to get dressed and go to a shelter. My father comes to me and says, ‘Are you out of your mind, why are you waking me up? I’m 89, I had a full life, I don’t care…’ Then I’m ready leave to go back to America and my father turns to me and says, ‘You know, it is possible this is the last time we’ll see each other,’ and then I fly home with this for 18 hours. Those things left a very heavy burden on me.”

Azriel expressed his heavy heart in a sermon at Temple upon his Omaha return to Omaha, saying he felt “hope, sadness, anger, guilt, loneliness, frustration, determination and despair.”

“On the one hand I am constantly reminded of the great Israeli phrase which translated, goes, ‘We got through Pharaoh, we can get through this.’ I do, however, also ask myself, will it ever end, and will it ever get better? Are we destined to live by the sword? Are we ever going to know peace? At times I feel really strong. At times I feel so weak…

“This is our home and even when it is tough at home, when our home is in danger, we do not walk away, we will not walk away.”

A new resolve by Israel’s pro-American Arab neighbors to help facilitate a lasting accord has Azriel optimistic.

“I actually look at this war still going on as an amazing opportunity to start a whole different order in the Middle East. There is such a different level of negotiation as a result of Egypt as well as Saudi Arabia,, Jordan and other Arab countries interested finally in brining it to an end. They’re the ones that can affect a better change. It has to be done in a genuine, original, authentic way with the people involved in the region.

They’re willing to put money for the first time for construction to rebuild Gaza and help with humanitarian need.

“I think before it gets better it gets worse even with America and the United Nations intervening. Then I think there’s a possibility for more seriousness in negotiating a two-state solution.”

He’s optimistic, too, the Tri-Faith campus will be realized.

“The excitement, the drive, the motivation is so alive, is so there. No one is giving up on any of this. It’s fantastic.”

“What is most remarkable about Rabbi Azriel, Areyh to his friends, is his passion for the people and the mission he cares for .His love for people knows no boundary. Race, relegion or status are foriegn to him,” says Dr. Syed Mohiuddin, president of the American Institute of Islamic Studies and Culture that’s building the mosque.

Fundraising for the mosque is being led by a Jew, Vic Gutman, and is nearly complete. Azriel expects Countryside members to vote yes to its church’s participation. The annual Tri-Faith picnic hosted by Temple Israel drew hundreds in August. This fall a Neighbor to Neighbor program will bring 30 families – 10 from each faith group – together for communal dinners to promote understanding among neighbors.

“It will be an opportunity to go deeper and deeper into why this is so important,” Azriel says.

Visit http://trifaith.org.

Temple Israel Omaha embraces new home and new era

May 26, 2014 1 comment

For the fall 2013 dedication of its new synagogue building, Temple Israel Omaha commissioned Omaha Publications to create a commemorative, magazine-style program.  I was asked to write four stories for that piece that reflect different dimensions of what that new space means to the leadership and liturgy and how it fits into the emerging Tri-Faith Initiative campus that will eventually find the synagogue joined by a neighborhing Islamic mosque, Episcopal church, and shared interfaith center.  My stories follow.

 

 

Temple Clergy Work as Religious Artists to Help Members Grow in Their Jewishness

©by Leo Adam Biga

Rabbi Aryeh Azriel is known to frankly speak his mind and fearlessly wade into trouble rather than stand silently, idly by. It’s his nature. He and the dynamic clergy team he leads make a good match for the lively reform congregation they serve.

“I refuse to sit on the fence in any relationship I encounter,” says Azriel. “I like to be part of life and to jump into dangerous, sometimes stormy waters. I definitely want to take a chance. I like those kinds of experiments.”

Temple Israel’s participation in the Tri-Faith Initiative and decision to build a new synagogue are just the latest expressions of Azriel and his team leading their flock to challenging new opportunities.

“There is definitely a spirit in this congregation that allows for those kinds of things to happen. This congregation is extremely courageous,” he says.

He feels fortunate havling clergy who enjoy the vital push and pull that characterizes life at Temple Israel.

“I’m very proud of the clergy surrounding me. They’re an amazing fit,” he says, referring to Rabbi Josh Brown and Cantor Wendy Shermet. “We’re not being a spectator. We’re about getting in, getting muddy, getting hurt, getting in all those amazing places and finding strong, creative ways of entering into people’s lives and relationships.”

“Aryeh, Josh and Wendy all bring different gifts to Temple. They complement and supplement each other and are very different from each other, but that is one of our congregation’s greatest strengths,” says member Jane Rips.

Brown says Azriel sets the bold course. “He does not like to sit still or slow down or sort of rest on any laurels. It’s always what needs to change next or what do we move towards next.”

Like their predecessors, Brown and Shermet speak their mind and think outside the box. Azriel wouldn’t have it any other way.

“We’ve selected some people that have provided challenges to me individually but also to the congregation. Free thinkers and innovators with the courage of their convictions.”

“We all challenge each other with no compunction about telling each other we’re wrong,” says Shermet.

There are no bruised egos.

Azriel says, “We are professionals and we have great respect for each other and I think the congregation definitely sees the loyalty between us. Trust and loyalty have to be at the core of not only staff but the congregation. It’s about knowing there is this group of people that can come together and dream together and challenge each other and have a vision and purpose and meaning to what we’re doing.”

The clergy team meets Tuesday mornings to plan their week but the trio confab informally most every day.

“I can’t tell you how many times during the day we are in each other’s offices because there are things that have to be discussed and some of them are urgent,” says Azriel.

The team divides hospital and nursing home visits. They take turns officiating at life cycle events.

“The clergy does not isolate itself. The acts of reaching out, teaching others about Judaism, welcoming questions and attending community events are part of their daily to-do lists,” says member Phyllis Glazer.

Brown works closely with new education director Debbie Messarano and confers with young families and other congregants without strong connections to clergy. Shermet manages the bamitzvah program and all of the worship music. Azriel ensures the team’s teachings and activities enhance Temple’s mission and vision.

“It’s not only listening to each other,” Azriel adds, “but listening to the heartbeat of the congregation is crucial, too. If we for a moment forget what the purpose of our work here is then our work will be in vain.”

The clergy are part of a much larger team.

“It’s more than just the clergy,” Azriel says. “You have to have the right youth group director, the right educator, the right executive director, the right program director, the right office staff, the right lay leadership.”

Still, as the father of this congregation for 25 years Azriel has left a huge imprint.

Rips says, “He has challenged us, guided us, loved us and helped to create a vibrant and exciting Temple Israel.”

“I find this place extremely caring and invigorating,” says Azriel. “It has embraced my family. It has been a wonderful experience.”

 

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brown web

 

 

 

 

 

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Making Judaism Relevant in Prayer-Life Cycle Rituals

©by Leo Adam Biga

Making Reform Judaism relevant to congregants is not an academic question for Temple’s clergy.

“It’s the central question of our work here,” says Cantor Wendy Shermet. “We spend a great deal of time talking about how are we and are we in fact relevant to people with very busy secular lives.”

Much focus is on making holiday observances and life cycle events intrinsic experiences that help members identify with Jewish life and what it means to be a Jew.

“It’s on so many levels, definitely on the intellectual level so they know what Reform Judaism stands for,” says Rabbi Aryeh Azriel. ‘It’s also important to recognize that Reform Judaism of 50 years ago is not the same Reform Judaism of today.

“With every life cycle event there is this question of how do we make it an integral part of the life of that family or that individual.”

Infusing new life into old rituals is one way of keeping things fresh.

Azriel says, “Many times we work on traditional vessels that maybe go back to antiquity and try to fill those old vessels with new meaning. That’s the reform tradition. So there is a tradition of immersion in the mikvah but we took this old vessel and brought a new meaning to people battling cancer and addiction and all those things.

“This is where the clergy get creative. We are constantly very vigilant about understanding the content and the meaning of the moment. That’s why we call ourselves religious artists. We talk about the drama we need to have in a ritual or celebration of a life cycle event. The moment we lose sight of the drama then we are not doing our job.”

In that creative process, he says, “we have upgraded everything, not only rituals, not only the celebration of holidays, but in line with the mission of looking at how we can make a better connection between the personal worshiper sitting in the pew and the experience of their relationship with God. Their spirituality. If we do not upgrade it in the way our people are worshiping they will not stay here.”

Member Phyliis Glazer says, “Rabbi Azriel, Rabbi Brown, Cantor Shermet and all who came before them have been with us at some of our most joyous moments. They have shared in those joys and helped us bear the burdens of the times of our greatest sorrow.”

Rabbi Josh Brown says the more members connect their lives to Temple the more opportunities they have to connect with their Jewishness. He says whenever members choose to participate in a celebration or ritual, it’s an opportunity to grow in their Jewish heritage and faith and to be part of a continuum.

“You’re connecting yourself not only to traditions that are generations, in some cases hundreds or thousands of years old, but you’re also connecting yourself to the future – to prayers your kids will say. There’s power in that connection.”

One of those traditions, Shabbat, the Jewish day of rest, encourages believers to look inward in order to grow in faith.

“Shabbat is this ability to disengage from the week that just passed and to reenergize the holy inside us for the week ahead,” says Azriel. “Shabbat offers an opportunity to go a few notches up in the spiritual-emotional content of our lives and we can do it in the midst of family and friends or in a walk or opening a book or listening to music or coming here for a Shabbat service.”

Azriel says living out Judasim must be a daily thing.

“Judaism calls us to imitate God’s creation, compassion, caring every day. The high holidays are coming now and I think there are missed opportunities if we don’t use those days and those moments to discover who we are. Those are all places for individual fueling. The whole year is an invitation to learn to fuel and to fly high.”

As Temple Israel settles into its new home, Azriel reminds the congregation that “important as it is to build synagogues for Jews it is even more important to build Jews for the synagogues. Synagogues are empty only when Jews are empty.”

The building will fill with memories, emotions and stories with each ritual and celebration held there. On Sept. 28 Stacie Spies-Matz and Jay Matz have the honor and privilege of their daughter Samantha Matz being the first Bat Mitzvah in the new Temple.

“It is exciting and joyful to take those first steps into the future and into the new building,” says Spies-Matz. “We have observed many holidays, participated in religious school, developed great friendships and had our children’s baby naming at Temple. Temple contributes a big piece to how we raise our children.”

 

 

 

 

Art and Music in New Temple Reflect Spirit of Congregation

©by Leo Adam Biga

To enhance worship in the sacred spaces of its new synagogue, Temple charged five artists with creating symbolically-rich ritual objects embedded in Jewish faith and practice. Each artist met extensively with Temple clergy to discuss the religious significance of the ritual object they were commissioned to make.

An exhaustive process determined where art would be located and what it would convey before a jury identified and commissioned the appropriate artists to create the pieces. The Bemis Center for Contemporary Arts facilitated the process.

The idea was to make art integral to spaces, not mere adornments.

The central ritual object on the bimah (the altar or sanctuary) is the Ark (Aron Hakodesh), which is the repository of the Torah scrolls. Many synagogue arks are dramatic works of art or craftsmanship in wood or metal, filled with symbolic elements representing parts of the Jewish tradition.

At Temple’s request Israel resident Galya Rosenfeld created a doubled-layered ark curtain. Bemis Community Arts Program Manager Holly Olson describes it this way, “The front layer is an assemblage of laser-cut fabric pieced together in a repeating Star of David pattern using a color palette referencing Shivat Haminim (the Seven Species named in the Torah). Openings in the center front reveal the back shear curtain printed with holiday symbols.”

Rosenfeld says the two curtains create an “interplay” and “choreography” for displaying the ark. She adds that the colors inspired by “the ritual foods we eat and wines we drink” are meant “to connect people with familiar things from their experience of the holidays” and to “exalt our practice of Judaism.”

Another essential element of the sanctuary is the eternal light that symbolizes the fire that burned on the altar in the ancient Temple in Jerusalem. Temple selected James Woodfill of Kansas City, Mo. to design the eternal light for the sanctuary. His modular work seamlessly blends into the bimah wall. He says the design “lets the light simply emanate from that wall” as an ambient architectural immersion. Rather than imposing a narrative, Olson says the piece “allows for the symbolism to come from the experience.”

Woodfill says he intends for his piece to “instigate a new way of feeling or sensing” for worshipers and “to add a layer of potential optimism and reflection.”

The Temple’s chapel also has an eternal light and another Kansas City artist, Linda Lighton, was inspired by a word cloud congregants generated to express what they wanted the chapel’s eternal light to evoke. Working from that and motifs in the ark doors and stained glass windows she fashioned a translucent porcelain flower. She says, “I hope the members will enjoy and find comfort and solace and inspiration in this light for many years to come.”

In the spirit of Jewish prayer that inspires and instructs worshipers artist Lynne Avadenka of Huntington Woods, Mich. was tasked with bringing Hebrew passages from the Hashkiveinu prayer of peace to graphic life. She executed hand-drawn interpretations of excerpts selected by the worship committee. The prayer’s message of renewal, peace and community holds special meaning for the congregation. Her work is displayed in the wrap-around clerestory windows. A repeated passage – “Grant, O God, that we lie down in peace, and raise up, our Guardian, to life renewed. Spread over us the shelter of Your peace.” – can be read inside the sanctuary. Two other passages can be read from the outside, including one that reads: “For You, God, watch over us and deliver us. For You, God, are gracious and merciful.”

Olson says the soft flow of Avadenka’s hand-drawn work offers a pleasing contrast to the clean, sharp lines of the space’s other designs.

“The commission for the Temple comes with a sense of responsibility to make sure what I am doing is satisfying the members of the Temple and their sense of what their sanctuary should be, along with the aesthetic sensibility of the architect,” says Avadenka.

Nashville, Tenn.-based artist Mel Ziegler is preparing an outdoor sculptural piece for the entrance that will invite members and visitors to interact with the work and perhaps add onto it. He’s responding to a Hebrew passage viewable above the entrance that reads, “Guard our going and coming, to life and to peace, evermore.” Ziegler envisions his work integrated into new traditions at Temple and reflecting the congregation moving forward and embarking on a new path.

In one way or another the work of Ziegler and his fellow artists all express the vital, searching, engaging nature of Temple’s people.

Temple member Todd Simon, a noted art collector who helped lead the commission process, says “the progressiveness, inclusiveness and open-mindedness” of the congregation ensured that Temple didn’t “go with the safest choices but instead was willing to explore and push around the boundaries.” is pleased by the art that’s been cultivated. I think we’ve got a terrific balance between totally new art and artists for whom the artistic problem this presented to them was a brand new challenge to them.”

“I love those pieces,” says Rabbi Aryeh Azriel, who consulted with each artist. “I feel very good about the selection.”

 

curtain web

Ark curtain

 

 

eternal light sanctuary web

Eternal light

 

hebrew windows web

Hebrew passage inscribed windows

 

stained glass web

Stained glass windows

 

On Simon’s recommendation the synagogue hired the Bemis Center to manage the process that selected and supported the artists.

“I sort of inserted my point of view that we ought to really be thinking about art from the very beginning and more importantly that the art is actually a great way to involve a broader group of the congregation in a conversation about what this place is supposed to be about. The process was designed so that the concepts really came from the community the art is supposed to serve. We tried to be as inclusive as we could.”

Between 80 and 100 congregants attended a 2011 workshop. “We asked the congregation to bring to life in words and stories the past present and future of Temple Israel. What it meant to them on a very personal level,” says Simon. “We noticed certain themes and ideas emerged. We knew where we wanted art to potentially touch the building.” The Bemis then assembled a jury of curators and experts who came up with the artists invited to submit an RFQ (Request for Qualifications). From dozens of submissions five were selected.

In addition to the art pieces Temple commissioned original music for the dedication by three composers.

Jonathan Comisar, music director at Congregation Kol Ami in White Plains, NY and on the faculty of his alma mater, Hebrew Union College School of Sacred Music, writes Jewish music for synagogues and other organizations all over the nation. Comisar was asked by Temple Israel Cantor Wendy Shermet to compose a piece of art music that draws on the Hashkiveinu prayer. His piece, “Hashkiveinu: A Shelter of Peace,” is scored for cantor and choir as well as for violin, cello, clarinet and flute.

“It was a wonderful, challenging task,” says Comisar.

The composer says his goal was to interpret the prayer with “integrity and authenticity – to make this not only fitting for a prayer but fitting for the grandeur of a new synagogue.” At the same time he says he needed to create a section children can sing along to and weave the instruments and cantor’s voice into “an organic whole. “It’s like a mini-scene from a play in a lovely and beautiful way with all the right intentions. It’s a moment which marks a milestone in the congregation’s life, so I was very mindful of the significance…”

Guest artists for the performance will feature Comisar at piano and select Omaha Symphony members.

The other original musical works for the dedication are by organist-composer Kurt Knecht from Lincoln, Neb. and songwriter-playwright Karen Sokolof Javitch from Omaha. He is music director at St. Mark’s on the University of Nebraska-Lincoln campus and artistic director and conductor of the Lincoln Lutheran Choir. She is a member of Temple Israel. Knecht’s piece, “Shalom Aleichem,” is for girls and women. Javitch’s piece, “Noah,” is for children.

 

Tri-Faith Initiative campus rendering

 

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Sterling Ridge Site Offers New Horizons to Carry on Old Traditions and to Build New Relationships

©by Leo Adam Biga

Temple Israel and the Tri-Faith Initiative grounds comprise a lovely but small corner of the 153-acre mixed-use Sterling Ridge development that’s 10 to 12 years from full build-out. Temple and its interfaith partners bring deep currents of history, memory and spirituality that stand apart from the development’s retail and business tenants.

Temple alone carries 142 years of traditions. Congregants will soon be neighbors with members of a mosque and a church and their own long faith traditions as well as with residents of an assisted living-memory care facility and with employees and customers of various commercial enterprises. All of it affords opportunities to put faith in action.

“It’s meaningful to have participated in the creation of a vehicle that can enable the fostering of more healthy human interpersonal relationships,” says Tri-Faith board chair and Temple member Bob Freeman. “Personally I can tell you I’m a better person and Jew for the journey. I’m more connected to God.”

There wouldn’t be a new Temple in the Tri-Faith venture without the building project leadership team.

Temple member Ted Zetzman is a builder by trade. He and John Waldbaum worked closely with Finegold Alexander Associates, Charles Vrana and Son Construction Company and Lockwood Development’s Chip James on delivery of the new synagogue.

“What made it have special meaning is that Temple came to me and said we need your help with this and it was something I really knew how to do and could help with,” says Zetzman.

He credits principal architect Maurice Finegold with conceiving the new Temple as a translucent lantern on the prairie. Project Advocates helped find the glass to realize that vision, along with the exterior Jerusalem stone and other materials.

Zetzman says fellow Temple member Harley Schrager, chair of the Building Council and co-chair of the capital and major donor campaigns, “was involved intimately in the concept and setting the standards or objectives for the design from a qualitative standpoint.”

Bound up in coming to the new building is honoring the old building’s rich past.

“The idea is to create an incredible opportunity to elevate people side by side, the new and the old, the inspirations and the challenges,” Rabbi Aryeh Azriel says. “How do you move the congregation? How do you provide the dignity? How do you recognize the departure, the sadness, the up, the down?”

He says Rabbi Josh Brown and Cantor Wendy Shermet “were involved in making sure people were engaged in conversations with the congregation about what exactly would happen with this transition.”

Temple long deliberated whether to move and once the decision was made it next had to decide where to relocate.

“It’s a huge risk this congregation took,” says Azriel. “I mean, how do you build something that satisfies everyone? How do you build a home for 800 families?”

Zetzman says the Temple project and Tri-Faith presence make a great fit for Sterling Ridge by giving it the high profile civic use it needed.

Azriel sees as providential and ironic Temple and Tri-Faith finding the spot of a former Jewish country club that formed in response to Jews being excluded elsewhere.

“I think the choice of the location for the synagogue is an amazing miracle. We went through 32 different locations before we got to this one, and we came to the right place. Once upon a time Jews were The Other but the Jewish community has grown up and been made to feel comfortable in America. So I think we landed in a wonderful moment in the life of a community. We created a location that responds beautifully to the needs of people both in creating connection and meaning with non-Jews and creating a comfortable haven to be able to celebrate rituals and the excitement of being neighbors.”

Brown imagines Temple serving a similar function Highland Country Club served.

“Jews wanted a place where they could sit down and be with the people they cared about and related to best and I think a lot of the design of our new building is to that same purpose. We want people to feel the synagogue is an extension of their home. We want to be a place where people will feel they’ll run into people they know.

“Just as Highland became a place where you could be fully yourself I hope Temple’s the same way.”

Azriel says the new site is the best opportunity to ensure the growth of Reform Judaism in Omaha with the building’s many sacred spaces and expanded social, educational and administrative facilities. The majority of members reside nearby, too.

Then there’s the interfaith engagement.

Azriel says, “The dream is to discover the image of God in all of us and to see how that image is actually the same. It’s not about symbols, it’s about being neighbors. We’re going to hopefully understand what is the meaning of walking into each other’s homes.

“It’s about interacting and placing ourselves together in our daily living. The reason why we went for this is because we wanted to feel real and authentic. The social justice piece is part of Reform Judaism. That’s part of the obligation of every Jew. It’s about constantly reinventing ourselves in areas of social justice and adult learning. That’s why in the new building we carry on the tradition of leaving a brick unfinished because there’s always work to be done. The dream is turning the bricks and mortar of that building into a living entity.”

The way Azriel sees it Temple’s participation in the Tri-Faith is “an outcome” of its longstanding inclusivity.

“I’m extremely happy about the relationship this congregation has with the non-Jewish community. I continued the tradition of rabbis who came before me in making sure solid bridges are built with those communities. This congregation has never been isolated. There was always a desire on my part and on the part of the congregation to continue those relationships.”

He’s thrilled about this new chapter in Temple’s story but he says “it’s never been about the building,” rather “It is about opening empty spaces and helping people become the best people they can be. There will be opportunities that lead people to something deeper. I think we are here as a community to explore the potential that’s available. The journey will be exciting.”

 

 
 
 
 

Episcopal Priest Rev. Ernesto Medina Never Forgets His Latino Hertitage

July 18, 2012 1 comment

As a cradle Catholic I knew little or nothing about the Episcopal Church until a dozen years ago when I began attending services at Church of the Ressurection in North Omaha.  That particular church formed in the 1980s when the all white congregation and the all black congregation of two small, failing churches merged or blended together.  While my knowledge remains fairly sketchy today I’ve come to feel warmly about the Episcopal faith and its great tolerance and acceptance of diversity.  In the following piece I profile an Episcopal priest here, Rev. Ernesto Medina, who has made quite a splash since arriving from Los Angeles in 2007.  His life and work embody much of what the Episcopal Church stands for.

 

 

Rev. Ernesto Medina

 

 

Episcopal Priest Rev. Ernesto Medina Never Forgets His Latino Hertitage

©by Leo Adam Biga

Originally appeared in El Perico

 

As a person of color and priest in the Episcopal Church, Rev. Ernesto Medina is a minority in a moderately diverse denomination.

The California native practices inclusion as a matter of conscience and as a consequence of being Latino in a white world. This self-described “edgy liturgist” is also a confirmed social justice activist.

The new rector at St. Martha‘s Episcopal Church in Papillion, Medina came to Omaha with his wife Susan in 2007 to serve as Dean for Urban Mission at Trinity Cathedral in downtown Omaha. That position entailed outreach with Hispanics and Latinos in south Omaha. He remains connected to that community as a Latino Center of the Midlands board member. Those ties help keep him grounded.

“I need that home base. I really feel good about it,” he said.

Though he shepherds a predominantly white congregation at St. Martha, Medina implements his heritage into services. He recently presided over a Day of the Dead ceremony in which he had members bring photos of deceased loved ones and place them around the altar. He led worshipers in prayer for the departed. He is happy his congregation’s welcomed an extended Latino family at the church.

Like many mainline Christian churches, the Episcopal Church has struggled with racial diversity, though there are pockets of Spanish-speaking members. “The challenge is they don’t have a voice,” he said. “There’s significant more voice than there used to be. My generation stepped up about 10 years ago. For the first time we produced liturgical material written in Spanish for translation into English.”

Clear back to growing up in San Diego Medina’s balanced being true to his ethnic roots while navigating white America. He was the first in his family to attend college. To his own people, he’s not Latino enough. To whites, he’s too ethnic.

“People don’t get me. I grew up as a Mexican in this culture, yet I’m excluded from both realities. The reality of being in both worlds is normal to me, that’s just who I am,” he said. “I preach in English, I dream in Spanish. I’m American educated, my blood is Mexican. American culture sees me as brown. Latino culture sees me as different because I don’t speak with an accent.

“There’s some real pain in it, but it’s OK, because there’s more joy. There’s certain things I do because of it — I will always seek inclusion for everyone.”

He’s on the board of the Tri-Faith Initiative. It promotes interfaith dialogue among Christian, Jewish and Islamic followers, with the goal of a shared campus.

He’s made waves for his candor. About the Episcopal Church, he said, “structurally it’s the most racist institution I know — at the same time it’s the most inclusive of any denomination I know.” He’s broken barriers, too. “In 2000 I became the first Latino in charge of a cathedral in the church’s history,” he said, when named Provost of the Cathedral Center of Saint Paul in Los Angeles. It put him on the front page of the L.A. Times Metro section.

“I understood what I became a steward of. I know as a priest and by virtue of who I am that I have a responsibility for people. My largest congregation was Spanish speaking and 90 percent of them were undocumented.”

 

 

St. Martha’s Episcopal Church in Papillion

 

 

Long before L.A. he became sensitized to the undocumented when as a seminarian he worked in a pear orchard with migrant workers.

“That summer we got them all legal and documented,” he recalled with glee.

At a reunion he was pleased to find the men and their families leading successful lives.

Fast forward to L.A. in the mid-2000s, when he found himself immersed in the immigration reform movement. “I got caught up in the fervor of it,” he said. Part of the machinery of “making it happen,” he was at meetings that organized the mass marches in L.A. He was also among a contingent of religious leaders who went to the nation’s capital to lobby elected leaders.

“We kicked butt in D.C.,” he said.

Medina earlier announced himself a maverick figure when, in 1995, he was named Missioner for Christian Education for the Diocese of Los Angeles.

“It’s what put me on the national map. I was part of that small group that married the two schools together in the Episcopal Church — the liturgists and the educators. It was very exciting.”

It was in that role he co-developed Authority of Generations, a widely adopted guide for church decision-making and program development that emphasizes inclusion of all ages, particularly the elderly and the very young.

Medina, whose love of travel has taken him all over the world, got to know a group of elders in remote Kivalina, Alaska, located above the Arctic Circle. They inspired him to embrace the doctrine that “elders are the gift of wisdom.” It’s a lesson that was also impressed upon him by his family elders and by a mentor priest.

Early in his own priesthood he served in a parish with a school, and it’s then, he said, he came to appreciate “religion in a pluralistic community and the gifts that children bring to community that go beyond innocence.” That experience led him to advocate for the leadership role children can play in various aspects of church life.

His impassioned interest in building bridges and inviting everyone to the table, he said, “is a continuation of a promise” he made his mother. He said she and her mother once went to a priest for help but were ignored in favor of a wealthy parishioner. After Medina announced his intention to be a priest, he said his mom made him swear he would never forget where he came from or snub anyone.

“That was the condition she placed on it,” he said, “which has been what I hope is a constant in what I do. I have a responsibility to give voice to the voiceless.”

He and Susan, parents to two adult children, have traveled far and wide but they feel they’re right where they need to be now.

“When we came to Omaha it felt like we moved home,” he said. “It’s very consistent with our values set.”

 

 

 

 

Omaha Tri-Faith Pioneers Seeing the Fruits of Their Interfaith Collaborative Take Shape

May 26, 2012 9 comments

You wouldn’t necessarily think of Omaha, Neb. as a place for an interfaith collaborative involving the three Abrahamic faith groups but that’s exactly what it is thanks to the Tri-Faith Initiative, a non-profit moving ever closer to its plan for a church, a synagogue, and a mosque on a single campus.  Like most Midwest cities Omaha’s a decidedly Christian stronghold with quite small Jewish and Muslim populations.  It’s also a place where diversity hasn’t always been celebrated or embraced.  Yet the Tri-Faith is an impossible to ignore reality here that’s making waves near and far.  My story below, which is to appear in a future edition of The Reader (www.thereader.com), tries to get at how it is this partnership has been able to reach this point and find itself poised to realize something that perhaps has never been done before, anywhere.  I’m proud it’s happening where I live.  My blog contains a profile I did of Tri-Faith executive director Nancy Kirk, who like all the principals in this endeavor is a highly accomplished person of diverse interests.  What unites them all is a sincere desire to do the right thing by moving past dialogue to action where interfaith relations are concerned.  You’ll also find on this blog a story I did a few years ago on something called Project Interfaith and its director, Beth Katz, and a very long piece on the interfaith relationship forged by two famous figures, Rev. Edward Flangan, the founder of Boys Town, and his close friend and supporter, Henry Monsky.  A smattering of other religious themed stories I’ve done are also on the blog.

 

 

Dr. Syed Mohiuddin and Rabbi Aryeh Azriel

 

 

Omaha Tri-Faith Pioneers Seeing the Fruits of Their Interfaith Collaborative Take Shape

©by Leo Adam Biga

To appear in a future edition of The Reader (www.thereader.com)

 

Omaha’s not always embraced diversity but the local Tri-Faith Initiative may be a history-making model of interfaith cooperation. It’s proceeding with an audacious plan to locate a church, a synagogue, a mosque and an ecumenical center on a combined 35-acre campus.

Organizers say they’ve not found an equivalent gathering of the three Abrahamic faith groups – Christianity, Judaism, Islam – in a single dedicated setting. Not surprisingly, the project’s drawing much attention from media and scholarly attention. Observers are struck by how this partnership between the Episcopal Diocese of Nebraska, Temple Israel and the American Institute of Islamic Studies and Culture has gone from concept to dawning reality in only six years.

The initiative echoes local community engagement efforts from the past – Citizens Coordinating Committee for Civil Liberties – and present – Ak-Sar-Ben, Omaha Community Foundation, Building Bright Futures, Empowerment Network – that coalesce various partners to tackle social-cultural needs.

The Reader met with four “pioneers” behind the Tri-Faith experiment for their take on how the initiative has managed sustaining itself. They say one reason why this alliance has gotten so far so fast is that mere dialogue was never the end goal. Rather, it was a means to realize a brick-and-mortar sanctuary for promoting ongoing interfaith relationships.

“There are many wonderful dialogues going on across the country and around the world, and I’ve been involved in some of those, where people come together for great meetings to talk about interfaith issues,” says Nebraska Episcopal Diocese Canon for Tri-Faith Ministries Timothy Anderson, who will lead the unnamed Episcopal church slated for the campus. “But then you go back to your hotel, pack your bag, get on a plane and fly home. The uniqueness of this is that we are home. The next day we wake up and my neighbor to the right is still Jewish and my neighbor to the left is still Muslim and I have to learn each day how to live in my faith to love my neighbor as myself.”

 

 

Outside the pitched battleground of the Middle East, Jews and Muslims have every reason to be friends.

“I think Muslims are in a way in America the Jews of the past,” says Rabbi Aryeh Azriel of Temple Israel. “I think there is a tendency from time to time to select a new scapegoat. Jews are extremely aware of the ‘game’ that was played with their lives. We paid a price for being a scapegoat for many, many years.

“There is a level of understanding on the part of the Jew when the game is being played with other minority groups. Until the Obama presidency there were many opportunities for Americans to denigrate or to view Muslims as The Other, the stranger, the one that is not welcome, similar in a way to how Jews were treated.”

Azriel says progress between peoples of different faiths or cultures can only occur “when you’re able to step away from where you are and go to uncomfortable places.” Getting past surface niceties to deep interpersonal connections, he says, is what’s made the Jewish-Muslim relationship work in Omaha. Years before the Tri-Faith, he notes, Temple reached out to invite the Muslim community to celebrate Thanksgiving at the synagogue. Muslims have reciprocated by inviting the Jewish community to their celebrations.

“It’s mainly about relationships. If you don’t visit each other’s home, if you’re not in relationship with people, the dialogue becomes completely nebulous and artificial after awhile,” says Azriel.

It’s why, for him, meaningful interfaith exchanges must go beyond talk and tolerance to practice collaborative good works, such as creating a neighborhood where three faith groups co-exist in harmony.

He acknowledges some Temple members resist the partnership. The other groups report similar reluctance or skepticism. It’s meant less than 100 percent buy-in. But that’s where Azriel says leadership can make a difference.

“I really think a clergy that doesn’t challenge his congregation, doesn’t comfort those that are challenged, but also doesn’t disturb those that are comfortable should not lead a congregation. Sometimes you need to be stubborn and continue with the dreaming. So we continue walking on the bridge, even though at times it doesn’t look completely solid and safe. So what? There is a price to pay for daring and a price to pay for stagnation.

“You don’t just wait for something to happen but you mobilize all the resources together to accomplish this. That’s what’s so unique about this combination. All of us know dreams can only be achieved after hard work.”

Dr. Syed Mohiuddin, Islamic Institute president and co-founder and chair of the Department of Medicine at Creighton University, says the relationships hinge on mutual respect and trust. “That’s where it starts.”

In late 2011 the partners backed their words with financial stakes by announcing the purchase of adjoining parcels of land at the site of the former Ironwood Country Club, on the southeast corner of 132nd and Pacific, now part of the Sterling Ridge mixed-use development. The Tri-Faith vision took another major step to fruition when Temple, which completed its $25 million building campaign, broke ground April 15 on its new synagogue. It’s expected to open in August 2013. The other two partners are in the planning and fund-raising stages of their own buildings. A $2.5 million anonymous matching gift kick-started the Islamic Institute’s fund drive.

A fourth structure, the Tri-Faith Center, will be a shared, nondenominational facility for educational-cultural events and activities. It’s also in the planning stage.

The level of support shown for this faith-based collaborative defies the tensions and conflicts that keep different religious traditions apart.

Temple Israel groundbreaking

Rendering of the new Temple Israel synagogue

 

 

The feel good story of the project’s formation is already becoming lore.

As the oldest and largest synagogue in town, Temple long ago outgrew its present facility. Whereas the reform Jewish congregation traces its history back to 1872 and serves 750-plus families, the Islamic Institute formed only in 2006 and counts but a fraction of Temple’s members. Still, the Institute needs a permanent home of its own to accommodate a growing Muslim population. Each cast its gaze out west, where most members live.

Temple already had the experience of a Christian neighbor in First United Methodist Church to the north and of a shared parking lot with the Omaha Community Playhouse to the east. The Jewish and Islamic communities already enjoyed a rapport strengthened when, in the aftermath of the 9/11 terrorist attacks, Azriel led Temple members in a cordon around the local mosque as a show of solidarity. He and his Tri-Faith bretheren describe it as “a pivotal moment” that “forged” the relationship.

Temple’s search for a new home took a collaborative turn when member and Tri-Faith board chair Bob Freeman broached the possibility of building with a faith partner. Not only would there be cost savings from a joint site selection and shared amenities, but opportunities to do interfaith programming.

Azriel says the congregation has “a history of being on the cutting edge of justice work,” which is a theme in his own career. He initiated a Black/Jewish dialogue series at Temple and his justice work has earned him various honors. He insists he’s hardly alone in tackling social issues. “The leadership of this congregation has been deeply involved in the daily life of this town. So many of our people are on the cutting edge of philanthropy, sit on nonprofit boards and are basically the bloodline of what this city is all about.”

It wasn’t long before Azriel and Mohiuddin spoke about partnering. After consulting with their boards they decided to pursue an interfaith project with a Christian participant. After the Catholic Archdiocese of Omaha rejected the idea the Episcopal Diocese of Nebraska was approached. It just happened to be considering a new church in West O on land held in reserve. Then-bishop Joe Burnett asked Anderson to explore joining the two other faith groups in a joint venture. Anderson met Freeman over a game of golf to discuss the possibilities.

Rev. Canon Tim Anderson

 

 

Ironwood proved a symbolic spot for the Tri-Faith. It was founded as Jewish-only Highland Country Club in 1924 in response to Jews being barred from other clubs. Owing to Omaha’s declining Jewish population and a desire to be inclusive, Highland eventually opened to all who could afford it. Tri-Faith partners now refer to Hell Creek, which runs through the property, as Heaven’s Bridge.

All of it plays well in the press. But as the founders take great pains explaining, none of it would have happened without the deliberate efforts of people committed to putting aside differences to make tangible an interfaith community built from the ground up.

Azriel says, “Here is something we are doing intentionally. This is not haphazard. this is not by coincidence. We decided those three communities have to be together and then you bring them to a neighborhood to create it. So there’s a deep intentionality that emerges as a result of the comfort level of the relationships. You can’t get there by coincidence.”

At the end of the day, says Freeman, it’s not platitudes or mission statements or white papers that drive the Tri-Faith.

“As is often the case in collaborative projects it’s the people that make it work and we’ve had a group of amazing people committed to working on this. They’ve sustained that enthusiasm and commitment over five-six years. When I look at the people who have been around the table every one of them is very successful in their own walk of life. These are people who when they take something on they don’t fail, they lead it to a successful conclusion.”

Freeman, who’s worked on several Omaha collaboratives, says the Tri-Faith has been “an unequivocally positive experience.” An attorney by trade, he’s quick to point out that “we’ve had interactions that have been less than perfect but that’s life.”

“But life is about overcoming challenges and obstacles and recognizing different perspectives and being accommodating and continuing to move forward when you’re doing the right thing,” he says, “and we’ve had an uncommon aggregation of really strong, successful, goal-oriented people who’ve just willed this thing forward and been really good at problem solving.”

The Tri-Faith posed many potentially intractable, deal-breaker issues but Freeman says great care was taken to mitigate and mediate these.

“We did some things early on that probably helped contribute to success. We immediately talked about some of the harder issues and had a consensus on how we would address them, so we were able to take them off the table.”

Azriel concedes that when there’s an international flashpoint in Jewish-Muslim relations, fears, insecurities and resentments surface.

“Of course this comes up always as part of the discussion, issues of trust, of loyalty, of what-if scenarios. So you have definitely some of the Israeli-Arab conflict penetrating the conversation and people asking questions or suggesting that maybe its not the right way.

“You talk a lot, you try to respond, you try to bring the person who is asking to a level of comfort but the most important part is to invite them to a meeting with Muslims and Episcopalians.”

It’s in breaking bread and participating in celebrations with each other, he and his colleagues say, that people of divergent backgrounds and beliefs find their common humanity. That’s why the Tri-Faith sponsors events that bring people of different faiths together.

The Tri-Faith made its first big public splash in 2009 with the communal Dinner in Abraham’s Tent. An annual picnic is held. More events have followed, including workshops, panels, a children’s camp and high school programs.

“We were able to establish positive momentum and credibility through programs and projects we pulled off very successfully,” Freeman says.

 

 

Events outside its control become teachable moments. For example, the organization used the 2008 Gaza conflict to present a unified voice. Mohiuddin says, “We were able to come together and wrote a joint editorial in the World-Herald which expressed the concerns we had     without blaming anybody. I thought it was a remarkable accomplishment.”

“I think that was a crucial point in our relationships, that we could move through that and stay together and be of one voice against violence on any side,” says Anderson.

Freeman says the Tri-Faith was able to draft a statement because the partners had set a precedent for addressing the elephants in the room.

“If you’re going to put three houses of worship together in a neighborhood setting there’s some things about that that can be threatening to one another and we immediately got into that. We talked about how we’re not trying to influence each other in our intramural religious efforts.”

In other words, no prosleltyzing. A memorandum of understanding laid it all out.

“An understanding was reached not to go after each other’s congregations to recruit members,” Freeman says. “We recognized the need to be separate, the need to be autonomous. There has to be autonomy. If any of the three want to do something internally in their congregation, in their building, on their land they have to be able to do that and neither of the other two should have any say at all in what that is. Certainly there can be a sensitivity to the impact that might have on your neighbors but nobody should tell anybody else how to govern or operate within their congregational religious life.

“One of the byproducts of that was we don’t want anybody’s faith to be watered down. We’re not trying to make Judaism more Christian, we’re not trying to make Islam more Jewish. So the separateness has to make us independent and even stronger in our own faiths and we’ve seen how that can effectively work.”

Mohiuddin’s experience bears out Freeman’s words. “The most important thing we’re doing is expressing the beliefs we have and as a result we understand our own faith better than we did before because we have to explain it to people and that actually makes your faith stronger, it doesn’t weaken it,” Mohiuddin says.

 

 

“I think we’ve become better Christians, Jews, Muslims by entering into this and trying to live out what our faith really says it’s about, and it’s not about politics, it’s not about power,” says Anderson.

Freeman points to other things the Tri-Faith’s done to solidify itself.

“We incorporated and formed a 501c organization early on (2006) so we would have an identity. We were then able to do some fundraising and get some money in, which enabled us to hire professional help along the way and get good consulting input, so it wasn’t entirely a   volunteer-sustained effort. I think a lot of us felt expanding beyond just a bunch volunteers who met for coffee lent it credibility.”

Two key professionals brought in were Nancy Kirk and Vic Gutman, Omahans with long experience in arts administration, communications and public event planning. Kirk came on as executive director in 2008 and Gutman as media relations director soon after.

Freeman believes the city deserves credit, too, as “a nurturing, incubator environment for multi-group, creative, collaborative initiatives and projects.” He adds, “I think there’s a willingness to try and work together in recognition that something can be greater than the sum of its parts. There are amazing public-private partnerships that develop here. These models exist all over town and result in people working together and trusting each other.”

“The high level of trust people were willing to have in the Tri-Faith Initiative early on,” he says, “is a byproduct of a community spirit that fosters these kinds of things.”

Mohiuddin, who came from his native India to complete his medical studies at Creighton University decades ago, says, “Omaha has been my home for over 40 years and I’ve gotten to know the city, its culture, its style, and it’s just very welcoming.”

Azriel, a native of Israel by way of Baltimore, says the Tri-Faith is comprised of partners “not only predisposed to welcoming The Other but whose religious faith told them this is the way. It will be very hard to create this same scenario in people who are faithless. I think the right moment came and the right people assembled around the table, and then life has never been the same.”

Mohiuddin says, “If you look at any of the wonderful things that happen in the world, you need a core, usually a spark, which acts as a nucleus around which everything turns. It just happens to be in Omaha, it just happens to be us.”

Like his fellow pioneers Mohiuddin says the Tri-Faith could have easily disbanded by now “if we had allowed ourselves to get discouraged by the dissenting voices, if we did not have the courage of our own convictions.” Indeed, he attributes its survival to “the conviction of the founding members to stay with it,” adding, “We had such a strong belief that what we were doing was necessary and that this was the right thing to do and the right time to do it.”

On a more practical level, says Freeman, the partners are motivated to see the project through because it means a new house of worship for each faith group, plus an interfaith center. It’s the prospect of bringing these “homes” to completion, strengthening all three faith communities in the process, that supersedes everything else.

The Tri-Faith pioneers welcome the attention the initiative is generating and hope their work provides a framework for more interfaith collaboratives. But Mohiuddin speaks for his colleagues when he says, “I can’t be distracted” from the work at hand.

The partners have come too far now to be sidetracked and lose sight of the prize. Not when the campus Mohiuddin calls “our dream land” is so close at hand.

Faith without action is dead and the Tri-Faith is nothing if not an action-oriented movement. One with a life all its own and a promised land  to be filled.

Nancy Kirk: Arts Maven, Author, Communicator, Entrepreneur, Interfaith Champion

October 21, 2011 6 comments

There are people who talk about doing things and people who do things. Nancy Kirk is the latter. That’s not to say she finishes everything she starts. Like those unfinished manuscripts of hers she’d like to get to one day. But lots of us can say that. She’s also a model of reinvention – of following one path in life and then finding a new direction and then another to feed her ever-searching sensibility. In truth, all of her paths have followed a similar humanistic and cultural track. She began her career in the arts, then went entrepreneurial in the antique quilt and fabrics world, and more recently has taken up interfaith work as executive director of an initiative whose ultimate aim is to bring together a synagouge, a church, and a mosque on the same campus in Omaha, Neb. The following profile I wrote about this intriguing woman will be the November cover story in the New Horizons. Read it here first.

 

 

 

 

Nancy Kirk: Arts Maven, Author, Communicator, Entrepreneur, Interfaith Champion

©by Leo Adam Biga

Originally appeared in the New Horizons

 

 

Long before becoming executive director of the Tri-Faith Initiative, the Omaha collaborative that finds Jews, Christians and Muslims building a shared worship campus, Nancy (Timmins) Kirk made a name for herself in the quilting world. Only not as a quilter, she’s quick to point out, but rather as a designer and aficionado.

It’s only natural to assume she’s a quiltmaker since she and her late husband owned The Kirk Collection, an antique fabrics supply, restoration and appraisal business that gained an international reputation and clientele. Nancy still carries on aspects of the business by conducting workshops, making presentations and producing DVDs and CDs on antique quilt restoration.

“I still love the teaching and the writing and the speaking,” she said. But the grind of multi-day conferences takes more of a toll these days on Kirk, who has survived a heart attack and open heart surgery.

Much like her work with the nonprofit Tri-Faith, whose groundbreaking plan for a synagogue, church and mosque on adjoining property is drawing worldwide interest, Kirk came to quilting an inveterate seeker always curious to know more. She’s learned enough to speak with not only passion but authority about quilting as art, craft and healing process and quilts as potent, touchstone objects of utility, aesthetics and humanity.

“Quilting serves many different purposes,” she said. “For some people it’s a craft activity, a stress reliever. Studies have shown the activity of quilting changes the brain’s alpha waves. For other people it’s an art medium, a very expressive way for a designer to work. For others it becomes very therapeutic.”

Quilts evoke intimate feelings tied to memories, rituals and relationships.

“For the viewer or the recipient, quilts exist for people at an emotional level that is really very primitive,” she said. “People respond with a part of their brain that usually has no language. Quilts represent people’s deep emotional connections with home, with comfort, with safety, with love. You see people wrapping up in quilts or touching quilts and being reminded of parents and grandparents and places they used to live. And you start hearing these wonderful stories.”

The way Kirk sees it, every quilt has a story to tell.

“All you have to do is plant yourself near a quilt, particularly an older quilt, at a quilt show and by the end of the day you’ll hear dozens of stories from people because they’re so evocative, especially in this part of the country, where people grew up with quilts. They’re very powerful objects.”

Before The Kirk Collection became a mail order source of antique fabrics for quilters the business made its name as a supplier to Hollywood film and television studio designers and costumers in need of period materials. Nancy and Bill Kirk provided fabrics that ended up in costumes of such major motion pictures as Titanic, Forest Gump and Wyatt Earp and network shows like Brooklyn Bridge and Homefront.

The couple ran the business out of their Bemis Park home before opening a store at 45th and Military Ave. Their customer roster extended to Europe and Asia.

Before she got into quilting, Kirk worked in the arts, where her aesthetic sensibilities were honed to give her a deep appreciation for not only the fine and performing arts but antiques, including textiles and fabrics.

The daughter of university professor parents who divorced when she and her sister were young, Kirk grew up in her native New York City and a variety of other locales.

She absorbed a classic liberal arts education at Antioch (Ohio) college, where she studied social sciences and journalism. She’s put her writing skill set to good use over the years as an arts administrator and public relations professional. Her unplanned fascination with arts management was fired when she spent two years with an Antioch theater project in Baltimore, MD.

“At this funny little free theater we brought in very experimental theater and dance companies from all over the world — The Medicine Show, Pilobolus. It was the out of town try-out place for experimental theater and dance. I became absolutely in love with experimental theater and dance and I was exposed to some of the best in the world. We were always at odds with the state and local arts councils because we were doing and promoting this work that was very outside the mainstream.”

By the time she earned her master’s in arts management from the University of Illinois and moved to Omaha to work a paid internship with the Nebraska Arts Council, she found herself in the midst of a cutting edge arts movement here. She arrived only a week after the devastating 1975 tornado and neither its widespread damage nor the paralyzing blizzard of ’75 that followed that winter could scare her away. Neither did the relative uproar over the Bicentennial I-80 sculpture project, edgy stagework by the Omaha Magic Theatre and the counterculture head shops, avant garde films and art happenings in the then-fledgling Old Market.

Indeed, she was won over by how open-minded Nebraskans were to new ideas.

“In all the time I worked for the state arts council and then 11 more years for the local arts council there was no one who said we shouldn’t have art.”

She recalled an I-80 sculptures forum in some backwater Neb. town where “an old man in coveralls got up and said, ‘I sure don’t understand this stuff, but I want to make sure my grandchildren have a chance to see it,’ and that was the attitude pretty much for anything.” One of her roles with the state arts council was traveling to rural hamlets and educating the local populace about the touring programs coming their way.

She said resistance or suspicion to unfamiliar art disappeared when she framed the needs of artists “in terms that (rural) audiences could understand from their own perspective,” adding, “That was a big part of my job.” Like the time she went to a small town in advance of a touring opera program. She laid to rest concerns singers were divas for requiring humidifiers in their rooms by explaining that the artists needed the devices to keep their throat and voice supple in the same way farm tractors or threshers need routine maintenance to run right. Once she put things in practical terms, she said, humidifiers were readily volunteered.

“I came to have a real appreciation of what arts councils were doing in terms of opening up the doors to the arts in a lot of communities where there had really been nothing outside the high school play. A lot of them shied away from cutting edge kind of work.”

The arts councils that sprung up in the ’60s and ’70s, she said, “were bringing the arts out of the urban areas and into the rest of the country.” For example, she said the Omaha Community Playhouse formed the Nebraska Theatre Caravan “and took theater into towns that had never had professional theater and Opera Omaha organized small touring evenings of opera.”

Visual artists, dancers, authors, poets and others began criss-crossing the state to present before general audiences or to do residencies in schools. Her focus on bringing the arts to underserved populations extended to a visual art program in the state penitentiary, where even death row inmates were provided art supplies for their self-expression. Her work introduced her to the man who became her husband, Bill Kirk, who was a theater actor-director and kindred spirit.

She authored an award-winning book, Lobbying for the Arts, used all over the country.

An advantage Omaha owns when it comes to supporting the arts and other things, she said, is that it’s still small and accommodating enough to provide ready “access to power,” unlike other cities she’s lived where access is limited to few. “Here, all you had to do was pick up the phone and ask for an audience with Willis Strauss or Peter Kiewit or Leo Daly or John Bookout. You could be heard. They might not agree with you, they might not end up supporting your cause, but you could make your case. I think it’s very much the same attitude that created Ak-Sar-Ben. It’s this place of kind of infinite possibility and egalitarianism.”

 

 

Nancy Kirk discussing quilt restoration

 

 

She said Omaha’s can-do spirit is what sold her on this place and has kept her put.

“This is the kind of city I wanted to live in. I think this same spirit of civic work still exists now. It’s an attitude that makes the most extraordinary things possible.”

“Tri-Faith is another example of it,” she said of the initiative whose partners are Temple Israel, the Episcopal Diocese of Nebraska and the American Institute of Islamic Studies and Culture, “Not only was there no significant opposition to it, there was a kind of, Well, I don’t quite understand it, but what can we do to help? attitude. When it came to raise money for the land four foundations stepped up.”

The intended Tri-Faith campus is on the grounds of the former Highland Country Club, which Jews formed decades ago when denied admittance to goy clubs. The campus plan is part of the Sterling Ridge mixed-use development in southwest Omaha that’s presently undergoing site preparation work. Plans call for three worship centers — one for each participating faith group — and a shared interfaith education center Kirk refers to as “the meeting place.”

Support for the project, which launched in 2006, has come together quickly from large though as yet undisclosed donors.

“Basically the donations have been made because it’s good for the city,” said Kirk. “They see this vision that this makes Omaha a better place to live for everybody.”

Tri-Faith was conceived in response to a seemingly mundane dilemma.

“The genesis is parking lots. This is a project about parking lots — very seriously,” Kirk said.

Temple Israel synagogue has long been in need of a new site, having outgrown its current building and plot just east of 72nd and Cass. With its congregation largely residing now in suburbia, a move west only made sense. When synagogue leaders began contemplating what they’d like in a new site, said Kirk, they were “very intentional about finding good neighbors” like the ones they have today in the Omaha Community Playhouse and First United Methodist Church.

She said when Temple heard that the Institute was planning to build a new mosque in west Omaha synagogue member Bob Freeman, Rabbi Aryeh Azriel and others contacted AISC president and co-founder Dr. Syed Mohiuddin,  “to discuss looking for land together to share parking lots.”

 

 

 

 

Consistent with hospitality being “such a central concept to all the Abrahamic faith traditions,” she said, representatives from each group came bearing mounds of food for the meeting. That first confab led to more. She said, “When they eventually began talking matters of faith rather than concrete it occurred to them they had two of the three major Abrahamic traditions represented.” As a potential Christian partner the parties approached the Catholic archdiocese of Omaha, whose then-archbishop, Rev. Elden Curtiss, declined. They next made overtures to the Episcopal Diocese of Nebraska, whose then-leader, Rev. Joe Burnett, accepted.

In 2006 Tri-Faith was incorporated as a 501c3 and since then the organization has presented several interfaith events to promote understanding, all while working toward a common goal of a shared campus. The endeavor has made headlines around the world at a time when religious and cultural differences continue to be serious dividing points. Building bridges is an appealing idea as the globe grows ever flatter and more interconnected thanks to online social networking and to grassroots movements like those of the Arab Spring and Occupy Wall Street.

“It turns out the parking lots are such a metaphor for what’s going on in the world because the fact is we all have to share this earth. — it’s how do we live together,” said Kirk.

Her Tri-Faith involvement began in 2008, when it might be said her decades-long quest for spiritual fulfillment reached a new plane. In some ways, she acknowledges, she’s a most unlikely director of an interfaith project because for the first 35 years of her life she struggled with matters of faith. Then again, her uneasy journey steeled her for leading an initiative about celebrating differences.

“My father was a fallen-away Catholic, my mother was a fallen-away Unitarian, so I was brought up with no particular religion, in a household that wavered somewhere between agnosticism and atheism. But both parents allowed us to be exposed to some variety of religions. There was no objection if we went to church with friends.”

On some level, Kirk’s faith odyssey echoed that of her divining rod maternal grandmother, Sophia Lyon Fahs, who was ordained a Unitarian minister at 80 and wrote dozens of religious education books. Her last book, The Church Across the Street, was a comparative religions study. The liberal, progressive themes of inclusion and tolerance her grandmother advocated are in line with those of Kirk and the Tri-Faith Initiative.

Kirk comes from a long line of matriarchal figures and accomplished professionals. Her great-grandmother wrote books about her Presbyterian missionary work in China.

So it wasn’t as if Kirk didn’t have ready examples of faith to follow. In fact, she said, “I envied people who had great faith but I didn’t understand the experience and didn’t expect to ever have it. I was never anti-religious, I just was not religious.”

Then, in the midst of building her arts career, what she least expected happened.

“I was one of those bolt of lightening people. Literally in the course of a 24-hour period I came to a very deep belief in the existence of God. I was at home and all of a sudden I felt this incredible sense of certainty. It was so different than the kind of rational approach I’d always had to life. That’s when I started searching and doing a lot of reading. I didn’t talk to anyone about it really for a very long time.”

Before becoming a couple Nancy and Bill Kirk were friends. On a long road trip for an arts program she told him about her spiritual awakening and “how confusing it all felt” because it didn’t necessarily jive with what organized religion prescribed.

“And he said something very helpful — that the personal experience you feel is faith and all the stuff you hear in church and in the bible and other sources is belief, and belief is what happens in your head and faith is what happens in your heart …and that both are OK. The part that is faith is intended to be a questioning process throughout your life. Your responsibility as a human being  is to continue to explore and try to understand and to go through periods of disbelief.”

“The deeper you explore that abyss that you’re always afraid you’ll fall into and never come out of,” she said, “the more you discover there are those dark nights of the soul when you feel faith has deserted you. But usually it’s the belief that’s deserted you, and the faith part can lead you back away from the edge of the precipice. And then you rebuild the belief.”

A Tri-Faith Initiative picnic

 

 

After being stricken with the spirit, Kirk tried on a number of faiths but it was only four years ago she “came to the Episcopal Church.” She’s a member of St. Andrew’s. She was finally swayed to the denomination, which she’d flirted with before, after seeing the church’s presiding bishop in the U.S., Most Rev. Katharine Jefferts Schori on CBS. “I said, ‘I would follow that woman anywhere,’ so when it came to look for a new church I looked for an Episcopal church.”

Coming from where she did to where she is today, Kirk said, has informed and shaped the spiritual life she enjoys today and her work with Tri-Faith.

“So this rather eclectic religious background of growing up outside any one particular faith tradition and not necessarily having a particular belief in any of them for the larger part of my life in some ways really helped prepare me for what I’m doing now. Because I came to the habit of questioning, researching, listening hard and trying to understand other people’s faith journeys as part of my own.”

The discernment she does by opening herself to other beliefs enriches her life and her faith. “I find it fascinating and each of those encounters helps me refine my own faith and without any denial of my own tradition as I have adopted it now.”

Kirk felt drawn to engage in the Tri-Faith experiment after taking an inventory of her life a few years ago and deciding to embark on a new path she felt called to follow.

“When I turned 60 (she’s 64 today ) I made a 44-year life plan. I’ve always made long range plans. Women in my family thankfully tend to be long-lived. My grandmother died at 103. My mother died at 94. Both were active until the end. So it seemed like 104 was a good age to shoot for. I had become really fascinated with the changing role of religion in a pluralistic  society. The Kirk Collection was kind of winding down, I’d closed our retail store. I didn’t want to cut another piece of fabric ever again in my life. After about 25 years in the quilt world I was ready for a change. My husband had died. It was time to reinvent myself again.”

She didn’t tell anyone (at first) about her new life plan. Then, she said, she “finally got up the nerve” to tell her business coach and much to her relief “he didn’t laugh.” “Once I said it out loud it was like, ‘Yeah, that’s what I want to do — some kind of ministry.’ Lay or ordained, it didn’t matter, but this is the subject area I wanted to be in.”

She felt compelled to give back.

“Sixty is a great place to start because chances are you’ve done pretty much what you intended to do professionally and getting your kids raised up. It’s not really like a bucket list but there’s still a chance to contribute meaningfully to the world. We want to make sure by the end of our life we know our life had meaning and this is a great age at which to be doing it. We don’t have a lot of the distractions we had before of raising kids and building career. Sixty to 100 there’s a chance to do things that really change the world and getting it done is more important than getting credit.”

The philosophy reminds her of her college’s motto: “Be ashamed to die until you’ve won some victory for humanity.”

Fatefully, a group of Tri-Faith board members made a presentation at St. Andrew one Sunday. Until then, she’d not even heard of the venture but she was immediately and powerfully attracted to its vision of three faiths partnering together.

“This is what I’m supposed to be doing,” is what she said she thought to herself. It wasn’t long before she offered her services to help spread Tri-Faith’s message and dream. When she learned the group was seeking an executive director she made a proposal and was hired. She saw the mission as a perfect fit for many reasons, not the least of which is her considerable PR experience and expertise.

In a world full of noise and mixed messages, she said she aims to keep Tri-Faith on point with its mission of “celebrating the diversity of our religious traditions.” “It’s beyond tolerance and acceptance and respect, it’s really about building relationships among people and celebrating those differences,” she said.

“As one of our board members, Rev. Ernesto Medina said, ‘The reason we know it’s working is we know the names of each others children,’ and that’s what it’s all about. It’s building those relationships.”

 

 

A Tri-Faith Initiative event

 

 

She said in this increasingly global space we inhabit “I think the world is having to live into a new definition of who is our neighbor. I think we’re called on to be really aware of our neighbors and getting to know them.”

Through events like Abraham’s Tent and the Tri-Faith Picnic, she said Jewish, Christian and Islamic rites are celebrated and people learn what to say or do during worship services and ceremonies. As distinct as each tradition is, Tri-Faith  reminds participants “there’s so much the faiths share — we all greet each other with peace, we’re all talking about and praying to the same God.”

She said learning how to offer peace in each faith tradition can be a profound thing, whether saying “peace be with you” or “shabbat shalom” or “as-salamu alaykum.” “Just those few simple words,” she said, “and all of a sudden you feel very comfortable. It’s those little things that take the strangeness out of it.”

Then there is the exploration Tri-Faith inspires.

“A great thing that happens with the Tri-Faith is that as you engage in interfaith work and discussions you feel compelled to learn more about your own faith. You begin to explore your own tradition. You either question or affirm or study why you believe what you do and universally you end up more attached and committed to your own faith.”

She’s impressed by how the Tri-Faith board, composed of both lay and religious, doesn’t stray from its mission.

“I’ve worked with many nonprofit boards over the years and this is truly unlike any other board I have ever worked with. They expect that everything is possible, they have committed themselves to one another to make things possible. There are really no internal politics, there’s no jockeying for position. There’s a spirit that infuses their discussions that they’re really there to do God’s work and that it’s going to happen. There’s such a certainty it’s going to happen. There’s a spirit of peace in the room that is extraordinary.”

She said internal politics don’t surface though she concedes “politics sometimes intrudes from the outside.”

She said the fallout of 9/11 played a part in Tri-Faith’s formation “in the sense that we’re all in this together and we’re the ones that have to find a solution to this, and focusing on the division is not the way.”

It’s not the first time the city’s faith groups have banded together. She said several joined forces to help feed and house Chief Standing Bear’s supporters during the great Indian leader’s Fort Omaha trial. Many were active in the civil rights struggle. A number formed Together Inc. after the ‘75 tornado. More recently, faith groups have united in calling for an end to urban violence. But the Tri-Faith Initiative is something else again. She said Rev. Medina, pastor of St. Martha’s Church in Papillion, may have best summed up the miracle of the initiative with, “This was beyond the imagination of many people but not beyond the imagination of God.”

It hasn’t all been perfect.

“There have been bumps in the road,” Kirk acknowledged, “and people who’ve gotten their noses out of joint over this or that, but for the most part even those who were a little suspicious at first have often ended up as the biggest cheerleaders.”

She’s proud of many things she’s done in her life, from her work in the arts to her entrepreneurial success to her raising two adopted children, but she’s pretty certain Tri-Faith will be her most impactful legacy, at least in terms of sheer magnitude.

She can’t imagine making a greater contribution than bringing people together.

“I think the most meaningful part of the work is when I see people come to the table and sit with people of other faiths with excitement and anticipation instead of fear. If we’ve done our job and created a safe place, a place of trust where people feel they can be authentically themselves and authentically interested in the other, that is a real place of grace.”

If heredity’s any guide, then Kirk has miles to go before she sleeps. Reflecting upon her life, her diverse pursuits have “felt to me as a continuum,” she said, adding, “They all enrich people’s lives in important ways and all involve starting something new, whether new types of arts programs, a new small business or a one-of-a-kind religious development. I like being in on the start of things…”


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