Practicality May Outlast Debate On Islamic Center

Sharif el-Gamal is the developer of the proposed Islamic center in lower Manhattan.

hide captionSharif el-Gamal is the developer of the planned Cordoba House and mosque in lower Manhattan. 

Frank Franklin II/AP

The imam behind the proposed Islamic cultural center two blocks from ground zero has returned to New York after two months abroad. The trip was partly a tour sponsored by the U.S. State Department. In an opinion piece in Wednesday's New York Times, Faisal Abdul Rauf says the center will include prayer spaces for people of all faiths. He says that if proponents back away from the plan, "we cede the discourse and, essentially, our future to radicals on both sides."

Amid all the pontificating, politicking and media coverage surrounding the center, one question has not been widely addressed: What does it actually take to create such a center?

Many people have focused on the concern over distance from ground zero. New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg rhetorically asked: "How big should the no-mosque zone be around the World Trade Center site?"

But what people don't think about when it comes to the proposed Islamic center is time. Widely seen as a model for the center is the Jewish Community Center in Manhattan, which is a lot like a YMCA, with everything from swimming lessons to cultural programs.

The JCC As Inspiration

Debby Hirshman, founding executive director of the JCC, was there during its creation from start to finish.

"I started in 1990 in a room of about 200 square feet and a secretary and eight volunteers. You know, in 2001 we opened a 137,000-square-foot ... $95 million building," she says.

The JCC took 11 years to complete. If the proposed Islamic center takes that amount of time, it will be 20 years after the Sept. 11 attacks when it opens its doors. Who knows how people will feel?

Rauf is the spiritual leader of the Islamic cultural center. But the business force behind the project is Sharif el-Gamal, the chairman and CEO of the real estate firm Soho Properties. It's a fairly small company by New York standards. El-Gamal is in his late 30s. He has a Catholic mother, an Egyptian father and a Christian wife. He is also a member of the JCC, where he takes his kids to swim. As he told CBS News, "That's New York."

"The JCC has inspired me [in] so many different ways, with their pluralism, with their outreach, with their very robust and unique programming," el-Gamal says.

Now, full disclosure: I live on the Upper West Side, and the JCC is my neighborhood gym.

A lot of people only use the center for secular purposes: day care, jewelry making, the pool.

Making It Happen

Historically, cultural centers have been tied to religious groups. For example, two churches in Manhattan, Judson and Riverside, started as small Baptist congregations but ended up being large ecumenical centers.

So if this is the model, and it's something that Christians and Jews have done historically, how do you get it to happen?

A large nonprofit operation like the proposed Islamic center will need the right location, says Nancy Raybin, the managing partner of Raybin Associates, a fundraising and management consulting firm based in New York City. It also will need a range of programs, a budget, a building design, a board that can raise money and govern the organization, and a business plan. And its backers need to talk about the project in a way that people can believe it, she says.

"And you need staff," Raybin says. "You need staff who can run the organization, and you need staff who can organize the fundraising, and you need staff who can market the organization and staff who work with volunteers. You need a CEO, and then finally you need donors, at all levels."

That means having people who will give anywhere from $100 to several million dollars. The organization will have to be transparent, because people have to believe its story is authentic.

Hirshman, the JCC founder, says besides all of that, something else is crucial: From day one, people were at the center of the JCC's conversations.

"In people's homes, to talk about, to think about, to hear what was being thought about, comment upon it challenge it," she says.

Given the amount of shouting over the Islamic project so far, it's hard to imagine that kind of useful, people-centered conversation.

Hirshman says there's an art and a science to getting different groups to work together and to work out the tensions between them. In her case, the Orthodox rabbis weren't happy with some things, and the secular people were unhappy with others. And, yes, there was a Jewish identity, but Hirshman says "it would never make a person who wasn't Jewish or who wasn't interested in their 'Jewish identity' feel uncomfortable being there because it was never going to demand a particular form of behavior."

'In The Process'

Will secular people be comfortable in the Islamic center? It's impossible to know yet.

Hirshman says if it takes backers 10 years to raise the money, get everything in place and create community, it will be time well spent. El-Gamal says it will take no more than five years.

"We are in the process of thinking about our board, thinking about all the different advisory groups — believe it or not, we have a very mature business plan," he says.

But the organizers are just beginning to fundraise. He says they will take nothing from Iran or Hamas, but he doesn't talk much about the rest.

And it's still too early to know how truly transparent, communitarian and savvy the Islamic center project will be, or, given the politics surrounding it, how much more difficult it will be, compared with creating the JCC.

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