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Crossing the Threshold: How a Presbyterian Church and an Independent Synagogue Share Space

by Simon Hyoun

In a new book coauthored with her husband, Steve, Washington journalist Cokie Roberts recalls the moment at a highway rest stop when, over an angrily eaten pastry, she forced a choice upon her then-boyfriend: marry me now, or I’m moving to California. "I said this is the time. If you want this girl, this is the time."1 The two had been dating seriously, considering marriage but worried about, among other things, the possibility that her Catholic and his Jewish beliefs would be incompatible.

In May of 2001, married for over 30 years, the couple gave witness to the blessings of interfaith union at the dedication ceremony of a worship space designed, funded, administered, and used together by Christians and Jews—probably the first structure of its kind in the United States. Covenant Hall, in Bethesda, Maryland, is the culmination of a 30- year partnership between the 700-member Bradley Hills Presbyterian Church and its cohabitant, the 300-member Bethesda Jewish Congregation.

Both congregations have extensive plans to use the building as a site of faith dialogues, concerts, and other intercongregational events, some of which have already been successfully implemented. In fact, the presence of the Robertses may have echoed a thought crossing the minds of some members and visitors—that the dedication was also a kind of marriage ceremony, recognizing the intent of two sometimes-disparate peoples to reach past their differences toward physical and spiritual partnership.

Breaking Ground Together

The relationship between the two congregations began in 1967, when a practicing group of liberal Jews (under the leadership of Rabbi Edwin Friedman) approached Bradley Hills Presbyterian Church (then led by Rev. Dr. Arthur Hall), looking to rent worship space. Although Bradley Hills was already providing space to two Christian congregations, it agreed to lease to Bethesda Jewish as well, since the weekly Jewish services would occur on days when the church was free. The resulting contract determined Bethesda Jewish’s financial contributions based on the days and hours it used the building space. With time, Bethesda Jewish became Bradley Hills’ only renter, and as the two congregations continued to arrange for cooperative use of the building, they developed a friendship.

When in 1997 Bradley Hills began considering plans to renovate its complex and develop its outreach program, Bethesda Jewish was offered a part in the endeavor—as a participant in the project’s financial obligations, with representation on the finance and design committees. Plans for renovation soon expanded to a vision of new joint space, and by the time the groundbreaking ceremony was held five years later, the project had required three designers and grown from a $1.75 million to a $3 million commitment.2

The spiritual stakes had risen as well. During those five years, the leadership of the Jewish congregation had changed. Both communities had experienced growth in their memberships and, more tellingly, in their faith identities. What had begun in a general attitude of tolerance and an uninitiated trust in the virtues of collaboration now rose undeniably before them, with six walls, no locks, and a view to the west: Covenant Hall.

Commonalities and Differences

The space has been thoughtfully named, bringing to mind the promise God made to the people of Israel:

But this is the covenant that I will make with the house of Israel after those days, says the LORD: I will put my law within them, and I will write it on their hearts; and I will be their God, and they shall be my people. (Jer. 31:33)

The name also resonates in the present, signifying not only the commitment made by Bethesda Jewish and Bradley Hills in building the space together but also the covenant signed between the congregations in 1992. Displayed prominently within the building, it reads in part, "We wish to acknowledge and celebrate commonalities and differences. We see this relationship as a living example of understanding and respect among people of different heritage."

There is meaning behind the architecture of Covenant Hall as well. Washington, D.C. designer Stephen Muse of Muse Architects gave Covenant Hall a hexagonal shape, both to accommodate the surrounding structures and to introduce a Judaic theme. A Star of David pattern, formed by the diametrically connected vertices, is echoed in the angles of the roof. Since the church, in traditional cruciform shape, is nearby, a bird’s-eye view shows the star and the cross side by side.

"If all they wanted was more room, we wouldn’t have taken the job," says Muse, who spoke at the dedication. He wanted the building to capture the unique partnership between the congregations and to contribute materially to their vision: "From a design perspective, that’s the challenge of building a worship space. Even when the project is done, it should leave you with a sense of something beginning."

Cross-Training

Institutionalizing inclusive language and learning to negotiate each other’s symbols were essential early steps for both these congregations. Bradley Hills learned to be more judicious about where crosses were shown and to use less Christ-centered language when participating in joint events. Bethesda Jewish implemented only subtle displays of Jewish icons, and always conferred with Bradley Hills about "must have" items.

One such item was the mezuza placed at the entrance to Covenant Hall. This symbolic object, which by Jewish custom must be fixed on all exterior doorjambs, consists of a small tube or box containing an inscribed paper scroll. To someone who has never seen one, it could appear as an oddly placed thermostat or night-light. Printed on the scroll of all mezuzas is a verse from Deuteronomy 6 called the Great Shema: "Thou shalt love the Lord thy God with all thy heart, and with all thy soul, and with all thy mind and with all thy strength" (v. 5). This is the same Jewish teaching that Jesus proclaims (Matt. 22:38) as the first and great commandment, and it seems a good one for a church and a synagogue so intimately engaged.

Another negotiated object can be found in the main sanctuary of the complex: a large banner featuring a Star of David that—on Jewish High Holy Days and occasions when the congregations worship in the sanctuary together—descends to obscure the stationary cross located over the altar. The decision-making process that led to its implementation was a noticeable moment of growth for the congregations, and of hard-and-fast learning for the members.

What is the cross to me, a Christian, or to me, a Jew? Why do I want to see it? Why do I want to cover it? Once opened, questions like these required guided unpacking. During one education session, members of each congregation were asked to write down the first words that came to mind when they encountered a cross. The Presbyterians answered with hopeful, generative words: love, forgiveness, grace, mercy, sacrifice. Shocked, the Jews revealed their responses: prejudice, suffering, death, cruelty, torture, hatred.

Both congregations had answered the question innocently—and from each faith tradition’s point of view, truthfully. For Christians, the suffering Christ is the cornerstone trope of the salvation narrative, a last suffering, borne by Christ on behalf of others. By contrast the Jews, who have received no such deliverance, believe that suffering is anathema to God’s plan. Undoubtedly, the fact that those of the cross sometimes perpetrated acts of suffering upon the Jews further informs the latter’s response to it.

Imagine the heavy silence the members must have felt, recognizing their different positions in history and sensing that the pain of both causing and surviving suffering runs long and should sometimes be paid the respect of distance. Realizing, in other words, that those who share space with others also need space for themselves. And that, to a degree, faith is trained by managing its habits.

The congregations affirm this wisdom in mundane ways by having a calen-daring session every two months. One recently adopted house rule states that Bethesda Jewish has first preference to Covenant Hall on Fridays and Saturdays until 2:00 p.m. for Shabbat services. On Good Friday, the congregations use the separate entrances to the main sanctuary and the new building, which are unconnected. Bar and Bat Mitzvah practices are now on Thursdays in Covenant Hall, when Bradley Hills does not need the space. A once-a-month Sunday morning informal service for Bradley Hills takes place in Covenant Hall, with removable banners and crosses that can be cleared away in time for Bethesda Jewish members to occupy the hall in the afternoon.

Leading, Not Compromising

Besides struggles within the congregations, there have been painful experiences with those on the outside: with an Orthodox rabbi, for example, who, at the last minute, reneged on a speaking engagement at the location, flatly refusing to enter any building with a cross on its roof. On another occasion, Reverend Susan Andrews—who became pastor of Bradley Hills in 1989—was cited by conservative groups within the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) as a source of spiritual crisis within the denomination. In response to questions posed by a reporter for the Christian Broadcasting Network (then run by the Reverend Pat Robertson) about why in the world Christians would want to share space with the very people they were supposed to convert, she had said that she did not believe Christ was the only way to God.

"What I meant was that I believe God is radically free to save whomever God wants, in a manner we cannot fathom," she tells me, her voice descending a step in register. "At the same time, we as Christians know that Jesus is the way, the truth, and the life." I’m about to point out that this is a paradox, but she happily beats me to it, telling me about three other times when her faith was questioned and, in the end, refined. Besides being Bradley Hills’ leader, Rev. Andrews turns out to be a chronicler of anecdotes and lengthier memories, which she relates with animation. During our conversation, which runs well past the scheduled half-hour, she develops a habit of ending each story by revealing her role in it: "I’m glad I dealt with that directly," or "I didn’t handle that one very well."

Her counterpart in Bethesda Jewish, Hazzan Sunny Schnitzer, took over as spiritual director in October 2001. He came into ministry as a third career, happening each time into situations that took him closer toward the clergy. Now that he is there, he seems to have assumed his role with the cheerful rigor of a skilled servant with a soft-handed faith. Telling the story of the Orthodox rabbi who refused to enter their building, he remains respectful of the difficulty some people have with the arrangement between congregations. At the same time, he understands that Bethesda Jewish still holds traditions and tenets essential to a Jewish identity.

Indeed, neither congregation has had to compromise the core doctrines of its faith tradition—a fact that must have been crucial to the continued success of the partnership. As with any congregation, there have been upsets (membership fluctuations, financial anxieties, concerns from laity about one or the other congregation’s vision), but these did not arise from foundational incompatibility. Both clergy admit that Bethesda’s liberal social climate and considerable Jewish population have been agreeable to their endeavor. But in speaking with both leaders, I sense there also has been subtle leadership, a leading by watching, by gauging what aspects of their religion people are willing to open to interpretation.

Better Than Magic

When does a space become sacred and suitable for worship? "When people are transformed within it," says Rev. Andrews, quickly adding, "but nobody ever gets there, not fully." In other words, the space that you enter, marked by crosses, stained glass, or an eternal light, has a measurable effect on the quality of your life. Your thoughts grow quieter. Your body slows and moves with more care. But ultimately, what makes a space sacred is not the experience of the people within it.

In fact, the most sacred of spaces mentioned in the Bible are consistently those that disallow entry, or are somehow compromised by human use. Think of the healing pool at Bethesda. My Bible calls the waters "disturbed" by an angel, first of all meaning that they were agitated or trodden upon, but also implying a momentary disordering of a boundary between earthly and heavenly space that produces the miraculous effect. To enter the pool is to be cured of illness, but only once, since touching the water settles it again. Even the bodies of the faithful are unnatural in heavenly spaces. But Christ is in this story as well, offering the other cure: refuse separations, don’t desire miracles. "This is the time" means the same as "It’s up to you" or "Dost thou want to get well?" (John 5:6).

The key to the present story of Bradley Hills and Bethesda Jewish seems to lie in the profound lack of miracles in the history of their relationship and the absence of disturbing forces intervening to make their company exceptional—the opposite of what one yearns to hear when told that a church and a synagogue decided, somehow, to come together. I listened eagerly for that other story but did not hear it.

So here’s what I think. It has been through their immediate encounter with the physical space of Covenant Hall that the members of these congregations have most been changed. In May of this year, Bradley Hills and Bethesda Jewish will celebrate the one-year anniversary of Covenant Hall. By then, most of their members will have learned to take for granted all that the new space allows: a place for worship and community, a predictable measure of the week, a place to form the habits of faith. And as in a marriage—where the many differences that can exist between people gather and exhaust themselves against love and they learn to share their pastries without being asked—it may be in the common places that we best learn God’s most basic lessons: partnership, surrender, acceptance, peace, joy.

Simon Hyoun is a staff writer and editor for the Alban Institute.

Notes

1. Cokie Roberts and Steve Roberts, From This Day Forward (New York: Perennial, 2001), 22.

2. One third of the $3 million went to pay for Covenant Hall, the ownership of which remains entirely with the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.). (Bethesda Jewish Congregation, an independent synagogue, has no official representation with Bradley Hills or the PC (U.S.A.).) The rest of the money has funded renovations, an endowment to support future missions, and community outreach programs.

CONGREGATIONS
Spring 2003
Copyright © 2003 by The Alban Institute