MELISSA BLOCK, host:
From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. Im Melissa Block.
The imam behind the proposed Islamic cultural center in Lower Manhattan is speaking out for the first time since the controversy erupted. Imam Faisal Abdul Rauf returned to New York after two months abroad, partly on a tour sponsored by the State Department. He writes in todays New York Times, quote, We are proceeding with the community center. And he promises that he will identify all of the projects financial backers.
NPRs Margot Adler has this story on what it will take to turn the Islamic cultural center into a reality.
MARGOT ADLER: When New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg said...
Mayor MICHAEL BLOOMBERG (New York City): How big should the no-mosque zone be around the World Trade Center site?
ADLER: He, like most people, was talking about distance. But what people dont think about when it comes to the proposed Islamic center is time. 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.
Here is Debby Hirshman, founding executive director of the JCC, who was there during its creation from start to finish.
Ms. DEBBY HIRSHMAN (Founding Executive Director, Jewish Community Center): 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, you know, $95 million building.
ADLER: From start to finish, the JCC took 11 years. If the proposed Islamic center takes that amount of time, it will be 20 years since 9/11 when it opens its doors. Who knows how people will feel?
The spiritual leader of the Islamic center is Imam Faisal Abdul Rauf. But the business force behind the center is Sharif El-Gamal, the chairman and CEO of the real estate firm Soho Properties. Its a fairly small company by New York standards. El-Gamal is in his late 30s. He has a Catholic mother, an Egyptian father, a Christian wife. As he told CBS News: Hey, its New York. And El-Gamal is a member of the JCC where he takes his kids to swim.
Mr. SHARIF EL-GAMAL (Chairman/CEO, Soho Properties): The JCC has inspired me in so many different ways; with their pluralism, with their outreach, with their very robust and unique programming.
ADLER: So how about a Muslim version of the Jewish Community Center?
Now, full disclosure: I live on the Upper West Side and the JCC is my neighborhood gym.
Ms. LIZ BARKAN (Advanced Instructor, Myofascial Energetic Length Technique): I say if you dont feel it, put a little more resistance into your dynaband. And 10 more, nine...
ADLER: A lot of people taking Liz Barkans exercise class only use the center for secular purposes; daycare, jewelry-making, the pool.
Historically, cultural centers have been tied to religious groups. For example, two churches here, Judson and Riverside, started as small Baptist congregations but ended up being large ecumenical centers.
So if this is the model, and its something that Christians and Jews have done historically, how do you get it to happen?
Nancy Raybin is the managing director of Raybin Associates, a fundraising and management consulting firm based in New York City. For a large nonprofit, like the purposed Islamic center, they will need the right location, she says, a range of programs, a budget, a building design, a board that can raise money and govern the organization, a business plan. And they need to talk about the project in a way people can believe it.
Ms. NANCY RAYBIN (Managing Director, Raybin Associates): And you need staff. You need staff who can run the organization, you need staff who can organize the fundraising, and you need staff who can market the organization. You need staff who can work with volunteers. You need a CEO. And then, finally, you need donors at all levels.
ADLER: From $100 to several million.
Debby Hirshman, who founded the Jewish Community Center, says besides all that, theres something else thats crucial: From day one, people were at the center of their conversations.
Ms. HIRSHMAN: In peoples homes, to talk about, to think about, to hear what was being thought about, comment upon it, challenge it.
ADLER: Given the amount of shouting over the project so far, its hard to imagine that kind of useful, people-centered conversation.
And Hirshman says theres 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 werent happy with some things, the secular people were unhappy with others. And, yes, there was a Jewish identity, but...
Ms. HIRSHMAN: It would never make a person who wasnt Jewish or who wasnt interested in, quote, their Jewish identity feel uncomfortable being there, because it was never going to demand a particular form of behavior.
ADLER: Will secular people be comfortable in the Islamic center? Impossible to know yet.
Hirshman says if it takes them 10 years to raise the money and get everything in place and create community, it will be time well spent.
El-Gamal says it will take no more than five years.
Mr. EL-GAMAL: 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.
ADLER: But theyre just beginning to fundraise. He says they will take nothing from Iran or Hamas, but he doesnt talk much about the rest. Were still very embryonic, he says.
But its way too early to know how truly transparent, communitarian and savvy the Islamic cultural center project will be. Nor, given the politics surrounding it, how much more difficult it will be than creating the Jewish Community Center.
Margot Adler, NPR News, New York.