The heads of both congregations had concerns about the roiling of interfaith waters by two actions of last summer’s 216th General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.).
One action spoke to Israeli-Palestinian relations and called for an end to Israel’s erection of a territorial barrier. It authorized “exploration of a selective divestment of church funds from those companies whose business in Israel is found to be causing harm or suffering to innocent people, Palestinian or Israeli,” as Stated Clerk Clifton Kirkpatrick describes it. Contrary to some reports, he says, the action did not call for a blanket divestment from companies doing business in Israel.
The other issue related to Avodat Yisrael, a new church development in Philadelphia identifying itself as “ a setting to explore Messianic faith and life for Jews, non-Jews and intermarried couples.”… Assembly delegates voted down a proposal to suspend limited national funding for any other such projects. In addition, however, delegates ordered a study made. It is aimed, Kirkpatrick says, at discerning whether this form of outreach contradicts Presbyterians’ theological understanding of Christian-Jewish relationship, “or violates our intention to do evangelism in a spirit of respect, openness and honesty.”
On that November Friday, the Jewish Sabbath, Temple Beth Or families assembled at the synagogue to hear Art Ross. Their “whys” ranged from anxiety to puzzlement to anger. Still, they knew their guest speaker as friend and encourager, and came looking for affirmation of the trust and friendship the Jewish and Presbyterian congregations had spent more than eight years building up. For Rabbi Dinner, “amazing” was the one word characterizing the relationship at that point.
The fashioning of special bonds dated back to 1997 when Temple Beth Or, a Reform congregation of 520 families— about 1,500 persons—entered the first stages of a new building project. Finding itself without an adequate or safe sanctuary for holy day services that mark the Jewish New Year, the temple looked for alternative space. A contact between two friends, Susie Lydde of Beth Or and Gwen Whiteman of White Memorial led to conversations between Lucy Dinner and Art Ross. Soon, the 4,000-plus-member church extended a welcoming hand to the temple.
For three years, then, beginning in 1998, Beth Or members gathered in the White Memorial sanctuary to observe Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur. They brought their own prayer books and religious symbols for these special services of repentance and reflection. Looking back, Dinner calls it “the most gracious learning experience our congregation ever had.” In that first year, the rabbi says, they were greeted and directed to parking lots and the sanctuary by church volunteers, many on their days off, the arriving Beth Or members felt an immediate welcome. There were others, some having lost relatives or friends of their family in the Holocaust, who felt unprepared to offer their penitential prayers and life requests in the non-Jewish setting. Instead, they met in space available at the temple, a choice that leaders of both congregations understood. Yet, by the time of the third year of White Memorial’s hosting, the number of holy day worshippers at the temple had gone down until, finally, no such separate request was made.
Liaison with Brenda Halbrooks, who is White Memorial’s associate pastor for outreach, helped things go smoothly at first and in all later contacts. The first year on Yom Kippur, the Jewish Day of Atonement, in his welcoming remarks, Art Ross struck a responsive note with an apology. “He asked our forgiveness,” Dinner recalls, “for sins that Christians committed against Jews in the Holocaust.”
The congregations found ways to continue the dialogue and friendship when Beth Or no longer needed the sanctuary at the church.
As a growing and learning experience, they hit upon the idea of sharing a Seder, the traditional Passover meal commemorating God’s deliverance of the Jews from Egypt and an observance that held distinctive meaning for Jesus as well. There were Seder sign-ups to capacity over three years, one event being held at White Memorial, the others at Temple Beth Or. Gathered at faithcombined family tables of 10 or 12, with the telling of Passover stories and traditions and much personal sharing and interaction, Jews and Christians broke and ate unleavened bread together.
Other inter-congregational activity kept the relationship moving and alive. After the StepUP ministry at White Memorial grew to community-wide proportions, Temple Beth Or quickly volunteered as a partner congregation. Ten other Raleigh churches joined in financial support of StepUP service to low-income or disadvantaged families and individuals. Beth Or members have shown a special affinity for provision of transitional housing, counseling, and educational and job opportunities.
The relationship, accordingly, was firmly anchored even on that November Friday as Art Ross prepared to speak to the temple’s members. But the waves of controversy that had gone out from the summer’s General Assembly were still rocking the boat. Whatever the intent of the resolutions, protestations of the preliminary nature of the actions, nuances of their language or evidence of historic Jewish-Presbyterian unity appeared to draw little patience from critics. One action was broadly viewed as anti-Israel and the other as striking at the heart, Rabbi Dinner says, “of what it means to be Jews.” Beyond that, she says, to the extent that “proselytizing” is implied, the second action “is antithetical to everything that our congregations (Beth Or and White Memorial) had built with each other.”
Art Ross began his remarks by “affirming our unity.” He reminded his listeners that “Jewish faith is the very root of Christian faith” and that Presbyterians historically have affirmed as much. He said the Temple Beth Or holy days’ worship had been a blessing for White Memorial. He spoke of a new awareness “of our need to learn, to be informed, and to reach out to friends whose convictions are different from ours.” From his view as a friend, he offered some perspective about Presbyterian governance and what the Assembly had done.
The pastor shared a concern that most delegates had not carefully thought through the implications of their actions on the divestment issue nor were fully informed on Israeli- Palestinian negotiations. Yet, he said the action came out of concerns about violence and suffering for both Palestinians and Israelis and not, in his opinion, out of “anti-Semitism or even anti- Zionism.”
Continuing, he said support for the messianic Christian congregation was more difficult to address. He cited an early Christian commitment to evangelism, at the same time deploring many despicable actions taken in the name of the Christian faith. “As for me,” he said, “I long to share the Christian story with anyone who wants to hear it; I refuse to force that story on anyone who does not want to hear it.”
Today, ironically, this church-and temple bond in Raleigh not only holds, it looks to be stronger. Controversy was not entirely absent in the receipt of Art Ross’s remarks, the Beth Or rabbi says: “But there is such respect for Art and White Memorial we are to a point when we can agree on some issues on which we disagree. And the relationship is stronger because we have more people who have renewed that investment.”
Earlier this year, Brenda Halbrooks and Lucy Dinner led a four-week discussion for members of both congregations based on “Open Doors, Open Minds,” a curriculum the Union for Reform Judaism provided. The sessions brought out the similarities as well as the differences in how the two groups approach religion. There was little discussion, for example, of things like the divestment issue. Yet, distinctly different Jewish and Christian views of the Holy Land were, in Dinner’s words, “eye-opening and enlightening.”
Even so, she says, “The gracious outpouring of love” in White Memorial’s opening of its doors for Jewish holy days and in other ways, “taught a lesson about how all Christians and Jews should be living. And it represents hope for our world.”
DAVID E. GILLESPIE is a retired newspaper editor. Ordained as an elder in 1951 in Gastonia, N.C., he has served on sessions in Shelby, Charlotte and Raleigh.
Send your comment on this report to The Outlook
Please include your full name, hometown and state.