On the Other Hand: Ten Minutes of Torah: Three United Faiths, One Divine Presence - parashat Vayak’heil-P’kudei

In Vayak’heil-P’kudei, we see that God was so pleased with the Israelites’ sacred space (the Tabernacle) that God’s own presence descended upon them as they wandered through the desert. This week, Rabbi Rick Jacobs is joined by Rabbi Aryeh Azriel of the Tri-Faith Initiative in Omaha, NE who discusses how the Initiative came to be, how he co-created this “sacred space” with local Muslim and Christian leaders, and how our Reform congregations can do the same with other local faith communities.

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[URJ Intro] Welcome back to On the Other Hand, Ten Minutes of Torah, a podcast presented by reformjudaism.org. Each week, Rabbi Rick Jacobs, the president of the Union for Reform Judaism, teaches a little bit about the Torah portion in just about 10 minutes or less. This week, Rabbi Jacobs was joined by Rabbi Ari Israel, the emeritus rabbi at Temple Israel of Omaha, Nebraska, and one of the founders of the Faith Initiative. The two of them talk about what it really means to walk together with others.

[Rabbi Rick Jacobs] This week, we focus our attention on the last two parshiyot of the Book of Exodus Vaya'heil Pekudei. And we have in these two Torah portions the conclusion of the whole section of Exodus that is about building the first praying place that our ancestors built and carried through the desert wanderings, and it really becomes the template for what sacred space is in the Jewish tradition till this very day. And we have on the podcast today one of our most inspired visionaries of what synagogues could be today, what they physically could look like, and even more importantly, programmatically. The rabbi emeritus of Temple Israel in Omaha, Nebraska, Rabbi Aryeh Azriel, who is just one of the great people. Aryeh, welcome to the podcast.

[Rabbi Aryeh Azriel] Shalom Mah-yim May-od. Thank you. Thank you.

[Rabbi Rick Jacobs] So you know that parshiyot and how intricate the details are for all of the sacred objects, the materials that are used, the dimensions of what is built, and it continues to inspire us. But what you have envisioned and now have realized in Omaha, Nebraska, is this remarkable Tri-Faith Initiative with a synagogue, a church, and a mosque, all together sharing one campus, sharing programs. Could you talk about that initiative? Where did it come from? And describe it as if it were a commentary on these Torah portions about how do we build sacred community as we build sacred space.

[Rabbi Aryeh Azriel] Thank you. It started with September 11, actually. On September 11, I took members of our temple, Temple Israel, to cross the street and enter into another sacred place, which was the mosque, the gathering of the Muslim community in Omaha, Nebraska. And we took them because we knew something extraordinary happened that day, and we wanted actually to provide protection and support and assistance to the members of the Muslim community at the mosque. And that's how it started, from just something that came without lots of thinking, but this just feeling inside.

And maybe this comes also from the fact that I was born in Israel, and this is something that was burning inside my soul for a long, long time to be able to negotiate this complicated, difficult relationship that the state of Israel provided for those of us who took the Declaration of Independence seriously. And as a result, that opened a door for incredible relationship of programmatic materials that we exchange and in total a lot of conversations-- conversations that took place in public libraries, at Temple Israel, at the mosque for a long time. And there was also an idea, what about one day-- because we wanted to move to a new location-- we found out that also the Muslim community wanted to move to another location. And then, as a result, we engaged first Episcopalians and then the countryside church to try to build something together.

Actually, now, we have a fourth building that was not ready there a year ago, which is the welcoming center to the rest of the community in Omaha. So similar to the details of the building the Ark and the temple table and the aron hakodesh, the intricate details-- there were a lot of details that we needed to take care.

I'm shocked by it. That's why it lasted 12 years with different leaders of different congregations still committed to each other, committed to the conversation to the depth of the event that took place. None of us wanted to walk away from that table.

And finally, we have now three congregations. Architecturally, they look fabulous, beautiful. Different architects constructed each of their buildings, and all of them are b'zelem elohim in the shadow of God. And they created a wonderful invitation to believers, to people who are seeking faith and connections and depth to be able to be together next to each other.

[Rabbi Rick Jacobs] I love it. I love it. So thank you. I mean, the inspiration coming from a moment of incredible solidarity of Temple Israel and the Muslim community. What a beautiful, kind of foundational story.

Can you describe for those who've not seen images, there's one 35-acre campus, if I'm not mistaken. And each of the faith community has its own building. It's not as if it's one attached facility. But are there as well shared things that you are doing? Obviously, Jews pray primarily on Saturday and Christians on Sunday and Muslims on Friday.

Are there things that you're doing to share the space, to share your faith with one another? And just tell us kind of physically the way it's laid out because I think it's inspirational when I've seen the images. And I'm looking forward to visiting in the not-so-distant future.

You're coming soon.


[Rabbi Aryeh Azriel] Actually, the issue is not only the buildings. You need to have vayak'heil. You need to bring the kehila, the community, the congregations into existence with each other, being able to in the middle.

We finished a bridge. Now we have a bridge with lights at night, so God can find us a lot easier-- bridge that connects older buildings, and bridge is on a stream of water, which was called once upon a time the water of hell because it was in the midst of a golf course. And a lot of balls fell into that water.

We are going to keep the hell name. I think it's good because, sometimes, you need to be able to build things that are not completely secure and solid because there is a lot more need for a conversation and for encountering each other. So, for example, we have an opera theater. None of the other two buildings have an office theater.

So if there are events that the church or the mosque want to do, they can come to us, and they can use the amphitheater. The church has a day school, so a kindergarten school. So we have now some Jewish families that are involved in sending their kids to the facility.

The mosque has a little bit of a soccer field, and so we are planning this summer to have some soccer games and soccer tournament between the people. So and then, of course, we have the amazing event that takes place a few times a year where we have a taste of Tri-Faith, which means that 400-500 people assemble, each of them bringing a dish-- the best baba ganoush in the world. And we share each other recipes and tradition and celebration of holidays. We also open the events and services for each other to come and visit.

So we have Christians coming to temple and attend Friday night. We have Muslims coming to the church. We have Jews going to the mosque for the end of Ramadan, participating in the meal together. So we are constantly thinking about how to get the people outside of the building and some inside the building, but definitely the buildings are not in for themselves.

[Rabbi Rick Jacobs] Fantastic, fantastic-- so we live in a world where religious commune so often are cloistered one from the other. And for so many in the world who don't have faith, they think the world of religion is a force that somehow weakens us. You have created with your colleagues something that is so inspirational. It shows the possibility of faith joining together to create something more powerful, more compelling, more inclusive, and frankly, more of a beacon of light in a world that is so often consumed by darkness.

I know you're a modest rabbi because you're a rabbi, but one of the things that's so powerful about particularly the second of two-part shield and pick a day. Is that somehow what our ancestors built in the desert was so pleasing to God that the Holy One descended? There was God's presence, kavod adonai. The presence of God descended on that first praying place.

I don't know anything for sure, Aryeh, but I know for sure that the Holy One is so incredibly moved, as all of us are, that you created something that could also be a vessel for the Holy One. However, we name the Holy One. Obviously, Muslims do it, in a particular way, Christians and Jews.

But what you've created is a whole new sense of possibility of what religious community could be and to architecturally design only the space, but the intersection of our communities. It's unbelievably powerful. Just maybe pull out an example in the last few years where you have just felt so confirmed by this vision of what it's done little ones and their parents and grandparents and the whole community.

[Rabbi Aryeh Azriel] Yeah, there is such a level of safety that is happening on the campus. We can walk from place to place. We can worship or eat or attend adult education, and it just feels different, feels different because you turn around. And you have a Muslim brother next to you. You turn to the other side, and you have Christian members of the church.

This was not just by me. We have seven magnificent clergy around that we are constantly meeting. Tomorrow, we have the meeting, for example, at 12:00. And we constantly think about how to create more opportunities for people to find each other.

One of the examples is that I can tell from the Jews in their enterprise their level of adult education, the need for education on the part of the members of the Jewish community, for example, increase tenfold as a result of feeling-- some of them feeling not prepared enough. It's time sometimes to grow away from the infantile stories when we are five or six into more sophisticated explanation with [NON-ENGLISH SPEECH] material, talomdic material to be able to explain who we are.

And so there is more adult learning that is taking place. And Rabbi Stoller, who is the rabbi at Temple Israel now, is definitely incredible, doing incredible work in creating those opportunities for learning. But people are learning because they want to be able to explain as adults what is it about being a Jew that is so important. So definitely the level of adult education in all three facilities has increased because of the feeling of people not being adequately trained to be able to respond to a Jew or a Muslim or a Christian.

[Rabbi Rick Jacobs] Fantastic. So we obviously see the way it's deepened each of the faith communities as it's deepened the connections between the faith communities, which is so beautiful and maybe not entirely predicted. But it's certainly a mitzvah goreret mitzvah, one good thing is a catalyst for more good things.

I have to imagine that there is a group of people not only listening to the podcast, but also who've learned. We honored Temple Israel and the Tri-Faith Initiative at our recent biennial in Chicago, and I would say the excitement and the pride and the imagination that it was creating is palpable.

And I have to believe a lot of our commutes would say, can we do our own Tri-Faith? Could we do this? So my final question is, if we were writing vayah'keil pekudei today, my guess is we might describe something of the Tri-Faith Initiative. How could we make God present and manifest in our world by showing the sense of solidarity, the sense of the intersection of our faiths, as opposed to the separateness? Obviously, keeping them each distinct-- this is not about syncretism.

[Rabbi Aryeh Azriel] Absolutely not.

[Rabbi Rick Jacobs] But if you could, kind of with your colleagues, write a template, write a plan, a sacred program for how we could do this in many other cities, and maybe even in the Middle East. The idea, this is so unbelievably difficult to imagine. But if we come and visit in Omaha, we can see and feel how powerful this is. This could be a model of what a faith community could look like--

[Rabbi Aryeh Azriel] Actually, thank you. I actually am looking for other golf courses that are not used anymore. Those golf courses that we establish in the church because no one allowed us to play golf in other golf courses. It's time to move away from there and do something that is inspiring and productive for the sake of [NON-ENGLISH SPEECH] for the sake of God.

[Rabbi Rick Jacobs] Thanks, Rabbi Aryeh Azriel, to you, to the team of people who came together and created something truly inspirational. God's presence dwells in our midst in certain places and certain moments. And I am confident that the holy presence dwells upon the Tri-Faith Initiative and Temple Israel. And thank you for your inspired vision. Thank you for changing what it means to be a religious community in the 21st century, and thank you for inspiring a host of others to want to follow in your footsteps Kol ha kavod.

[Rabbi Aryeh Azriel] I am one of you.

[Rabbi Rick Jacobs] God bless you.

[URJ Outro] Thanks for joining us on this week's episode of On the Other Hand, Ten Minutes of Torah. Want more? You could download a new episode each Monday on Apple Podcasts or Google Play or Stitcher or wherever you get your podcasts. And if you like what you hear, write us a review or share the podcast with a friend.

For daily ongoing conversations about Jewish holidays, pop culture, rituals, current events, and more, visit ReformJudaism.org and follow us on Twitter, Facebook, Instagram, and Pinterest. You can also follow Rabbi Jacobs on @urjpresident. On the Other Hand, Ten Minutes of Torah, is a project of the Union for Reform Judaism, a leading voice in the discussion of modern Jewish life. And until next week, l'hitraot.