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In Omaha, Three Faiths Share One Big Idea

The Tri-Faith Initiative brings together a synagogue, a church, and a mosque, with a promise to build bridges between them

Jonathan Zalman
August 30, 2017
Photo: Scott Griessel
'Circle of Peace,' the center's 9/11 remembrance event in 2016.Photo: Scott Griessel
Photo: Scott Griessel
'Circle of Peace,' the center's 9/11 remembrance event in 2016.Photo: Scott Griessel

A new kind of “neighborhood” is nearing completion in West Omaha, Nebraska—a place where Jews, Muslims, and Christians will share spaces, food, ideas, joy, and pain.

Over 10 years ago, a group of Omaha’s religious and lay leaders hatched an idea: Build three, brand-new houses of worship—a temple, a mosque, and a church—located close together on the same plot of land; ensure that the design scheme feels borderless, flowing, and inviting of interaction; encourage communication between communities—promoting, among other things, cross-religious education and, well, understanding; put into place the right leaders to foster these activities; have plentiful parking; coexist; shock the world.

If all goes according to plan, all the elements of the Tri-Faith Initiative should be in place by 2019. A new, 58,500 square-foot building on 14 acres for Temple Israel, a Reform congregation and the oldest in Omaha, was completed in 2013; a new 16,000 square-foot masjid, run by the American Muslim Institute, held an opening celebration service in its new $6.5 home last month, at the end of Ramadan, that was so packed they had to clear out furniture in the lobby to create enough prayer space; and a new house of worship for Countryside Community Church broke ground this summer. There will also be a Tri-Faith “commons” building, a fourth edifice still in the planning phase that will function as a central meeting place of sorts and ideally house an executive director and a small staff, according to organizers.

The “fifth element” of the project is an open landscape that, when completed, will have fruit trees and manicured brush and flowers and water and meditative spaces that will function as an environmental glue of sorts for the entire campus. “Basically it will become Spain—the good days of Spain,” said Aryeh Azriel, a Tri-Faith co-founder who served as Temple Israel’s rabbi for 28 years before retiring last year. Bifurcating the land is Hell Creek, which people will soon be able to traverse via “Heaven’s Bridge.”

There’s an easy joke that CNN, The Daily Show, and NPR have all leaned on in their coverage of Tri-Faith: A rabbi, a pastor, and an imam walk into a bar… Message being: Sure, these faiths share Abrahamic origins, but they also share ancient animosities. Can this really work?

Tri-Faith organizers say that their co-religious initiative is the first of its kind in the United States. And they believe that Omaha—a shiny blue dot in an otherwise red region—is the ideal canvas upon which to paint their vision.


The story of the Tri-Faith Initiative essentially begins in December 2005 when Jewish and Muslim community leaders met to discuss a pressing religious matter: parking. But these pragmatic-minded talks quickly flourished and the group began to “dream outrageously,” as Azriel put it.

At the time, Temple Israel’s aging building was in need of constant repair, and there was a need for more space—the congregation, over the course of five decades, had more or less doubled in size, said Bob Freeman, a former president of Temple Israel and Tri-Faith co-founder who chaired its board until 2016. Additionally, Temple Israel’s members were moving westward, a longtime trend for many of Omaha’s Jewish families. As a result, there was real interest in relocating.

There were advantages to the current location, however, as a Methodist church and Omaha’s Community Playhouse had previously been built next door, creating a “park-like environment around our temple building and free overflow parking on those few peak-use days that congregants appeared in great numbers,” said Freeman, who used to live near the temple and was not initially enamored with the idea of moving to West Omaha. “My view was: If we’re going to move, we ought to try to consciously replicate some of those characteristics that we had,” including the ability to choose neighbors (rather than leave that up to developers who would likely have differing priorities). Said Freeman: “The logical starting point was other religious buildings in town—a church, a mosque; their peak-use days aren’t going to coincide with Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur and you would have compatibility of use as a neighbor.”

Freeman and Azriel had learned that some members of Omaha’s growing Muslim community were also desiring change, and wanted to create a new mosque further west. They had coffee with a number of lay Muslim leaders—including Syed Mohiuddin, a renowned cardiologist who lectures at Creighton University, and Karim Khayati, a technology and business professional—who believed in what would soon coalesce as the pluralistic philosophy of Tri-Faith. As these talks were regularly taking place, Mohiuddin, Khayati, and a handful of Omaha’s Muslims leaders decided the time was right to catalyze their brewing vision: to officially incorporate a progressive-minded Islamic organization, and establish an affiliated mosque.

At first, the new organization was named the American Institute of Islamic Studies and Culture. Today it’s known as the American Muslim Institute, or AMI. Mohiuddin, who can trace his family roots to Syed Abdul Qadir Gilani Al Amoli, a 12th-century preacher who founded the Qadiri Sufi Order of Islam, now serves as the organization’s president; Khayati is the vice president.

“When [Freeman and Azriel] said they were looking for a partner, we said, ‘We are in,” recalled Mohiuddin. “Without them, there would be no Tri-Faith.”

In order to complete the Abrahamic triad, a Christian partner, The Episcopal Diocese of Nebraska, was brought on, and in November 2006 Tri-Faith’s leadership penned a visionary, pluralistic Memorandum of Understanding, spelling out the overall vision: “…To build bridges of respect, trust, and acceptance, to challenge stereotypes of each other, to learn from one another, and to counter the influence of extremists and agents of hate.”

Now, Tri-Faith’s organizers had to get their respective congregations to buy in—not only to Tri-faith’s vision and philosophy but also to relocation.

In the end, out of 700 congregational families, Temple Israel lost just one.

According to Azriel, there was “pushback” from Temple Israel’s congregants and other Omaha residents worried that Tri-Faith would become a target for terrorists. “Their issues were centered around fear or really, ignorance,” said Azriel, citing the effect of Middle East politics on many of their outlooks. If these congregants were willing, Freeman or another Tri-Faith backer would set up personal meetings—lunches, coffees—with a member of Temple Israel and an AMI leader, such as Khayati, Mohiuddin, or AMI’s secretary Nuzhat Mahmood, who serves on the Tri-Faith board of directors. Typically, Temple Israel congregants walked out with a fresh perspective. “We were determined to win to some ‘converts’ [to supporting this interfaith initiative],” said Freeman. In the end, out of 700 congregational families, Temple Israel lost just one.

There was also resistance from The Jewish Federation of Omaha, which tried to convince Azriel to bring Omaha’s Jewish congregations together, rather than partner with other faiths. “I said, ‘What?’ That requires God and a lot more intervention,” he recalled, with equal parts humor and realism. “It’s much easier [to accomplish] with Muslims and Christians than it would be with the Jews.”

By 2011, Temple Israel, AMI, the Episcopal Diocese of Nebraska (the Christian arm of Tri-Faith), and the Tri-Faith Initiative (a 501c3) purchased four individual parcels of land at the corner of 132nd and Pacific Streets on what used to be the Highland Country Club, a golf course established by Jews in 1924 because they were barred from joining other clubs. (Freeman’s maternal grandparents once belonged to the club.) It later became Ironwood Country Club, which failed financially, and the land was sold to a developer in 2010.

The new space for Temple Israel, whose congregation formed in 1871, broke ground in June 2012. On August 25, 2013, members of Temple Israel paraded a Torah scroll from 7023 Cass St., where it had been located since 1954, to its brand-new, $21 million modern digs that had just completed construction at 13111 Sterling Ridge Drive in West Omaha. Two weeks later, on Shabbat, Temple Israel held a dedication ceremony in its new chapel, featuring a speech by Rabbi Eric Yoffie, the President Emeritus of the Union for Reform Judaism. He deemed the day “a great and historic moment in the history of American Judaism.”

The Episcopal Diocese of Nebraska remained a Tri-Faith partner until April 2015, as it was facing fundraising troubles. It transferred its stake in the project to Countryside Community Church, an ecumenical congregation that has operated since 1949. The opportunity to get involved with Tri-Faith was a dream come true for Reverend Eric Elnes, the church’s senior pastor, who had been feeling pangs of “weird intuition” that were knocking around in his head and heart for a year. “I was just blown away [by Tri-Faith’s vision],” said Elnes.

Elnes said he believed in Tri-Faith’s forward thinking so much that he was prepared to lose families to other churches. Elnes and his staff, including Reverend Chris Alexander, the church’s associate pastor, guessed that about 70 to 80 percent of the congregation would agree to join. Out of 600 families, they lost about 100 households. “In the end we were right,” said Elnes.

In time they’ve raised $26 million, $4 million of which is coming from the sale of its current space. The rest, said Elnes, is coming from its congregants and private and philanthropic donations, including the Sherwood Foundation, a nonprofit headed by CCC member Susie Buffet, who has also helped finance Tri-Faith.

Mohiuddin believes that the church’s move is the most extraordinary of the three since CCC had no urgent reason to move. “We love our building,” Elnes told NPR in December 2015. “There is literally no good reason to move whatsoever, except to follow this Tri-Faith Initiative, which has really, absolutely moved our hearts.”


Jews have come to Omaha in waves since the mid-19th century. Today, an estimated 6,000 Jews reside in Omaha, down from a peak of more than twice that in 1912. Along the way, the city has been home to the first chapter of AZA—Aleph Zadik Aleph, the male arm of the B’nai B’rith Youth Organzation for high school students—and some of the first chapters of the National Council of Jewish Women and Hadassah.

One recent afternoon, Marty Shukert, who served as the planning and community development director for the City of Omaha for seven years, and is now a principal at a prestigious architecture and design firm there, showed me around the city. He pointed out, among sundry other things, various historical Jewish landmarks—from repurposed synagogues and formerly dense Jewish neighborhoods, and where members of his family used to live, to the can’t-miss headquarters of Omaha Steaks, a massive beef marketer that was begun (and is still run) by the Simons, a Jewish family that immigrated to America from Latvia 100 years ago. (They are members of Temple Israel.)

Omaha native Shukert is an unofficial local historian. In the late 19th and early 20th century, he said, most Jews lived along Omaha’s Near North side, which was also densely African-American. Beginning in the 1930s and ’40s, Omaha’s Jewish population gradually began to move westward, toward Midtown and neighborhoods like Dundee. In 1941, the first synagogue for Beth El, for example, where Shukert is a congregant, was dedicated at its former home at 49th and Dodge, in Dundee, a former streetcar suburb.

In the 1950s, many Jews lived in a neighborhood called Dillon’s Fairacre—but everybody called it Bagel. “The Bagel neighborhood became the receiver of upwardly mobile Jewish families with kids who were establishing households after the War, and moving on up,” said Shukert, who at the time lived in a more working-class neighborhood called Benson. In 1950, Beth Hamedrosh Hagadol and B’nai Israel merged and became Beth Israel, the Orthodox synagogue. That same year, Beth Israel moved into a new shul built on 52nd Street (it moved west in 2004 to 126th St). In 1954, Temple Israel, the Reform synagogue, last but not least, moved even further west (street numbers rise as you move west), to 72nd and Cass Streets, from its downtown location, where it had stood since 1908.

Into the late ’60s and ’70s, many Jewish families continued to move even further west; the Jewish population was decentralizing. One major influence on this trend, said Shukert, was the new location of the JCC, which in 1973 moved from its downtown location to West Omaha, at 132nd and Dodge. The synagogues followed suit. In 1991, Beth El, the Conservative synagogue would complete the westward migration—all the way to 144th and Dodge. Beth Israel would eventually move too, to 126th. So, too, would Temple Israel, to its current location as part of the Tri-Faith Initiative, at 132nd. Carol Gendler, a resident of Omaha for 60 years, believes that even these moves weren’t far enough west: “People live in the 200s now,” she said.


I met Azriel for coffee at the Starbucks directly across from Countryside Community Church’s location at 8787 Pacific Street. In order to give Temple Israel’s new rabbi, Brian Stoller, some space, Azriel keeps an office in the church, where he serves as its scholar-in-residence, an unpaid position. “I teach Christians Judaism,” said Azriel.

Born in Tzfat in 1949 to Bulgarian parents, Azriel was stricken with polio when he was just six months old; the illness has rendered one of his legs nearly unusable, currently causing him to walk with a significant limp. Until a few years ago he didn’t have to use a cane, but he said he’ll likely be in a wheelchair soon, a fate Azriel is completely fine with. “[Being stricken with polio] gave me a lot of time to grow up and develop from inside,” said Azriel. “It gave me a reason to be alive.”

Under Azriel’s watch, Temple Israel has a solid history of interfaith dialogue and community-building. According to Freeman, for the past 20 years, there’s been a rotating interfaith Thanksgiving service that combines hundreds of congregants from a local Methodist church, a Catholic church, and Temple Israel. Azriel, who was on the mayor’s inter-ministerial alliance, has participated in a number of interfaith panels, events, and lecture series, for instance.

Azriel’s leadership has been steadily liberal, his voice often accompanying stories of social activism. In an article regarding Azriel’s retirement, the Omaha World-Herald reported that the rabbi “has displayed energy, passion, and perseverance on community issues including fair housing, welfare reform, and gun violence.” In 1997, Omaha mayor Hal Daub presented Azriel with a “Living the Dream” award for his “work in the community on such projects as the low-income home-building, black/Jewish dialogue, a community garden project [that dates back to 1992] and last year’s black/Jewish Passover Seder,” reported The Jewish Press. Azriel has also led numerous efforts to raise money for the Food Bank, as well as engage in interfaith dialogue and collaborative community projects.

He has also been an ardent supporter of same-sex marriage, performing a “commitment ceremony” at Temple Israel’s old location in June 1999. Though he had support from the temple’s leaders, the event proved controversial within the congregation itself, reported the Omaha World-Herald. A similar ceremony took place at a church across the street two years prior, and the reverend who performed that ceremony, Jimmy Creech, was friends with Azriel. Today, same-sex unions are welcome at Temple Israel. Same-sex marriages have been legal in Nebraska since June 29, 2015. Prior to that ruling, Azriel signed the Heartland Clergy for Inclusion #ReadytoMarry proclamation, one of 73 clergy to do so, including Rabbi Josh Brown, also of Temple Israel. (Rabbi Craig Lewis, of Congregation B’nai Jeshurun, a Reform congregation in Lincoln, the state capital, was the only other Nebraska rabbi to support this proclamation.) Elnes was also a signatory on the Heartland Clergy for Inclusion proclamation, along with Alexander. CCC performs same-sex marriages; in fact, the United Church of Christ was the first Christian denomination to ordain an openly gay person in 1973 and the first to affirm same-sex marriage in 1995. (AMI does not recognize same-sex marriages.)

Azriel calls Brian Stoller, who was officially installed as Temple Israel’s senior rabbi at the beginning of 2017, “caring” and a scholar. Stoller, an affable Texan, served for nine years as associate rabbi at B’nai Jehoshua Beth Elohim in Deerfield, Illinois, before moving to Omaha with his family.

‘I want my shelves to be filled with texts from my Tri-Faith partners’ traditions. I want to be able to have facility with them and to teach with them.’

Stoller’s spacious office at Temple Israel is lined with books: the Babylonian Talmud, an English edition by Rabbi Adin Steinsaltz, and other various rabbinic literature, from the Rambam’s Mishneh Torah to the Shulchan Aruch. Two shelves, however, are emptier than others—those are reserved for books about Islam and Christianity whose seminal texts, liturgy, and philosophies he’s steadily and purposefully learning. “We all see ourselves as part of Abraham and Sarah’s tent,” he said. “I want my shelves to be filled with texts from my Tri-Faith partners’ traditions. I want to be able to have facility with them and to teach with them.”

On one shelf is a framed photograph of Stoller with former Illinois Senator Peter Fitzgerald, for whom he served as press secretary for four years, ending in 2003. In 2008 Stoller earned rabbinic ordination from Hebrew Union College’s Jewish Institute of Religion in Cincinnati; he is working toward earning a Ph.D. in Halakhah, or written and oral Jewish law, under the tutelage of Rabbi David Ellenson, chancellor emeritus of HUC—who had previously been a scholar-in-residence at Temple Israel, and is coming to speak at Stoller’s official installation in November. At the moment, Stoller is focused on getting his bearings within his own congregation, meeting internally with staff, as well as conversations and studying with members of his congregation, learning about their needs. “There will be growing pains, challenges to navigate,” he said. “We have to recalibrate our understanding of what it means to be a Jewish congregation.”


Outside the AMI mosque is a towering minaret resembling the five pillars of Islam—Shahada (Faith), Salat (Prayer), Zakāt (Charity), Sawm (Fasting) and Hajj (Pilgrimage to Mecca). Mohiuddin explained the meaning and importance of each pillar to me in his soft, comforting voice. “This is a mosque built in Omaha, for Omaha people,” he said.

The building itself is clean and airy—half of the walls, it seems, are panes of glass, a purposeful design intended to signal to congregants, and to their Tri-Faith partners, that the building is open to them. It’s part of a commitment to learning about, and interacting with, Jews and Christians as a way to the mosque’s congregants’ way of life, from prayer and beyond. “At night, [AMI] is the most lighted, most brilliant building in the whole area,” Mohiuddin said. “We wanted the community to know: We are here for you.”

AMI’s imam, Mohamad Jamal Daoudi concurred, saying, “We are the enemy of what we don’t know.”

There are now four mosques in Omaha, serving an estimated 4,000 to 6,000 Muslims, according to Mohiuddin, a population that has steadily grown, often because of conflict overseas. In 2014, Abdul Raheem Yaseer, the assistant director of the Center for Afghanistan Studies at the University of Nebraska at Omaha, told the Omaha Daily-Herald that Muslims came to Omaha beginning in the 1940s and 1950s—black Muslims from Chicago who found work at packing houses and area farms. The first mosque in town, the Islamic Center of Omaha, was created in the mid-seventies, and it still operates on 73rd Street, serving Muslims from India and Pakistan, said Mohiuddin. Many Muslims in Omaha have fled war, from Afghanis to Somalians and Sudanese, beginning in the ’90s. There are Muslims in Omaha from an estimated 20 countries now. Syrians refugees, though a small group, are a very recent arrival to Omaha. In the year from October 2015 to September 2016, Nebraska was tops in resettling refugees per capita.

Daoudi is from Damascus, but he has lived in the U.S. for 22 years. He served as imam for The Islamic Center of North Valley in Lancaster, California, followed by a stint at The Islamic Association of West Virginia, in Charleston, before receiving a Doctor of Ministry degree in 2005 from the United Theological Seminary in Dayton, Ohio. That same year, he became a U.S. citizen.

Daoudi has not been back to Damascus since 2012. Since the beginning of the Syrian crisis, he said he’s lost plenty of friends, including a young tutor who was taken by Assad’s forces for facilitating Facebook communications for the opposition. Tri-Faith, he said, is the only thing that gives him hope. “I’m living because of the honor of God, honoring me just to be surviving,” he said.

Mohiuddin first arrived in Ohama in 1963, from Hyderabad, India, where he was born in 1934. He believes that there were only three Muslims in Omaha at the time—all of them from India—and they would get together occasionally. After receiving a medical degree from Osmania University, he came to the U.S. to attend Creighton University for a post-grad program, but he was eventually forced to leave the U.S. when his J-1 visa ran out. So he moved to Canada and enrolled at the Université Laval in Quebec City, earning a degree in medicine. In 1970, Creighton asked him to return, offering him a full-time job teaching the department of cardiology. Mohiuddin said he’s stopped doing hospital work, focusing on outpatient care and giving lectures. Now, he hopes to cede his role as AMI president to Khayati, 45, who grew up in Tunisia and came to Omaha in 1998.

The notion of “pushback” was different for AMI since, unlike CCC or Temple Israel, the newly established mosque did not have an existing congregation to “answer” to; AMI’s vision came first, and the rest followed. “We’re not going to please everybody,” said Khayati, “not going to be one size fits all for every Muslim every person.” The mosque’s commitment to the interfaith initiative, Khayati said, might be too progressive for some: “We’re not the conservative side of Islam.” And yet, within 12 weeks of opening, the mosque has gone from having 30 to 40 daily members to around 200.

Part of AMI’s purpose is to overcome “a sense of isolation”—a sentiment that serves as a microcosm of sorts for the Muslim community at large in the U.S., which has been subject to scrutiny, however unfairly, since 9/11. “Somebody hijacked our faith,” said Khayati.

But 9/11 also helped bring the religious communities in Omaha together. After the Twin Towers were struck, Azriel sprang to action: He sensed his Muslim neighbors needed protection, a friendly presence. Very early in the morning, he called a few members of the congregation, and about 20 of them of drove over to the Islamic Center of Omaha and formed a human circle around it. People honked their horns as they drove by, but there was no violence that day. Afterward, Azriel and his congregants were invited into the mosque to pray, a moment he describes as “wonderful,” then returned Temple Israel to debrief. “I think it opened the gates to the Muslim community to see how sincere we are,” said Azriel.

“To me, that’s the start of the Tri-Faith,” said Elnes. “It’s burned into my memory.”

Rabbi Aryeh Azriel & Rev. Eric Elnes at the Circle of Peace 9/11 Remembrance event in 2016. (Photo: Scott Griessel)
Rabbi Aryeh Azriel & Rev. Eric Elnes at the Circle of Peace 9/11 Remembrance event in 2016. (Photo: Scott Griessel)

Fifteen years later, last September, hundreds of members of the Tri-Faith community gathered on their fledgling campus to celebrate, in solidarity, their commitment to the fight against the negative perceptions and stereotypes of Muslims brought forth after the events of 9/11. Here, then, they sang together, listened to poetry together, and formed another circle, a Circle of Peace. Together they held red, white, and blue ribbons up to the sky—materials that were later made into a tapestry that is currently on display in CCC’s Common Ground coffee house. Elnes called the Circle of Peace “a humble act of mass construction.”


Elnes, who has served as senior pastor at CCC for nine years, told me that pluralism is one of the issues he’s most interested in championing. His office is accented with religious accessories—except his are not primarily Christian. Above his desk, for example, are five tiles he picked up from Pike Place Market in Seattle, each representing five of the world’s major religions: Buddhism, Hinduism, Islam, Judaism, and Christianity.

Another issue Elnes is passionate about is LGBT equality. He helped found a group in 2002 of Christian clergy in the Phoenix area, called No Longer Silent: Clergy for Justice. They created the Phoenix Declaration, affirming their collective belief that “homosexuality is not a sickness, not a choice, and not a sin.” It calls for an end to LGBT discrimination, and for LGBT inclusion in the Christian faith. It was signed by 160 Arizona clergy, has been through two iterations, and has “become the theological backbone for progressive Christianity in the U.S.,” said Elnes. “The tradition I come from never wrestled with that idea of going to hell. It’s never taken root in our denomination.”

In 2006, Elnes, 53, and a handful of fellow clergy walked 2,500 miles (with the aid of a support vehicle), from Phoenix to Washington, D.C., “to help people realize there’s more than one way to be Christian”—and inspired in large part from the 12 affirmations of the Phoenix Declaration. “We were pretty angry about the way that Christianity was moving the country,” said Elnes, whose journey to promote progressive Christianity took four-and-a-half-months and resulted in a book and documentary called The Asphalt Gospel.

At the time, two affirmations, in particular, proved most controversial. The first is the portion that supports LGBT equality within the faith: “Engaging people authentically, as Jesus did, treating all as creations made in God’s very image, regardless of race, gender, sexual orientation, age, physical or mental ability, nationality, or economic class.”

The second affirmation—and the one that proved even more controversial, even with “moderate Christians,” than the one arguing for LGBT inclusion—was the very first one, which argues for pluralism, the notion that there are other paths to God outside of Christianity: “Walking fully in the path of Jesus, without denying the legitimacy of other paths God may provide humanity.”

“We wanted to make sure it’s clear that we weren’t the only game in town,” said Elnes.


Like Elnes, Stoller sees clarity in Scripture that exhibits the notion that there are many paths to God, regardless of religion. Deep into our conversation he shot up, inspired, and pulled the Jewish prayer of the shelf, opening it directly to Ma Tovu, a prayer that often begins a service. “Ma tovu ohalekha Ya’akov, mishk’notekha Yisrael,” recited Stoller, a passage, he said, that speaks to him about learning to live in both private and public spaces simultaneously. The opening line of the poetic Ma Tovu translates to: “How fair are your tents, O Jacob, your dwellings, O Israel!”

Ohel is our temple, mishkan is this [Tri-Faith] neighborhood,” said Stoller. “We have to learn as a community how to live with integrity and openness in both spaces. My mission as rabbi of the congregation is to help our community learn how to live Jewishly both in the tent (ohel) and in the mishkan. We’re both, we’ve got both here. What you have in the synagogue is beautiful and what you have in Tri-Faith neighborhood goes beyond the synagogue walls.”

A primary path toward understanding at Tri-Faith is education. There is, for instance, a course in which Stoller, Elnes, and Daoudi will lecture on heroes and personalities within each other’s faiths. Daoudi will speak about Hagar and her son, Ishmael, from the Quran; Elnes will teach about Jesus and Paul from the Christian perspective and how those stories intersect with Judaism: “We are slowly developing programs, lectures, activities to get together,” Elnes said.

Daoudi’s views on pluralism, and on the flexibility of Islam, began in Damascus. His sheik, the late grand mufti of Syria, Ahmad Kuftaro, under whom he studied, “worked all his life to bring his religion around one table,” said Daoudi. He added that when he was living in Damascus, cardinals were visiting with the mufti and with his community all the time. “I grew up very well acquainted with seeing the other [clergy], meeting with others, working with others.” It’s a design he sees reflected in Tri-Faith—a project whose vision seeks to understand and ameliorate any history of Muslim-Christian strife, such as during the Crusades. “We are one family, we all belong to Adam and Eve,” said Daoudi.

“We are all created in God’s image,” echoed Azriel, who believes that the most important passage in the Bible, at least as it relates to Tri-Faith, describes when Isaac and Ishmael came together to bury Abraham. “Why would the Bible tell us that the two sons that were supposed to be enemies forever—how come they came together to bury their father? We can come together. We can create a different reality.”


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Jonathan Zalman is a writer and teacher based in Brooklyn.