Inter-Faith Experiment Passes Crucial Test: JOSH TAPPER
Place of Worship Shared by Christians & Jews
Waterloo, Ontario, Canada
When Rev. Mary Savage leads Sunday services inside Waterloo’s Westminster United Church, she sees stacks of Jewish prayer books and rows of empty pews facing eastward toward Jerusalem.
On Saturdays, those empty pews are filled by Temple Shalom congregants and the west-facing Christian portion of the sanctuary, where a New Testament-inspired image of a boat with billowing sails decorates the wall behind Savage’s pulpit, is silent.
Synagogue one day, church the next.
The unique arrangement, which would sound strange to even the most broad-minded interfaith campaigner, has been put to the test as relations between the United Church of Canada, the country’s largest Protestant denomination, and Jewish community leaders frayed in the wake of a United Church decision last month to encourage a boycott of Israeli goods produced in the West Bank settlements.
But the move has hardly affected the cosy relationship between Westminster and Temple Shalom, says synagogue president Lisa Raine.
The small congregations have shared the suburban Cedar Worship Centre since 1996. While it’s not unheard of for synagogues to rent church basements for worship or churches borrowing social halls, Westminster and Temple Shalom co-own the centre, share a prayer space and form a joint management committee. Church and synagogue members swear there is nothing like it in Canada.
The congregations are so intertwined that for Savage, well, Westminster is not Westminster without Temple Shalom.
“We would define ourselves as the United Church in Waterloo that shares space with Temple Shalom, we really would,” says Savage, straddling the invisible partition between the two sunlit sanctuaries during an interview last week.
After the boycott motion -- and a resolution naming the settlements as a primary challenge to a two-state solution in the Middle East -- passed at the United Church’s triennial General Council, reports surfaced of cancelled interfaith gatherings. Heated rebukes from church members and Jews fanned discontent: Shimon Fogel, CEO of the Centre for Israel and Jewish Affairs, said the Jewish community’s reaction was “one of unbridled outrage.”
Before the General Council, Westminster recommended several toned-down changes to the church’s Israel/Palestine motions. It didn’t ask that the boycott be removed.
While Raine says a few Temple Shalom congregants were offended by the boycott, the majority simply brushed off the United Church's criticism of Israel. Any possible tension was swiftly diffused days after the council’s decision. The story of grassroots coexistence between the two congregations was nearly two decades old, so why let bluster get in the way?
“We have been given the unique opportunity to be an example of what is possible in a community on a personal level,” Temple Shalom’s rabbi, Lori Cohen, wrote in an email to Savage and Raine days after the boycott was announced.
Indeed, the partnership works seamlessly. Temple Shalom’s practice of liberal-minded Reform Judaism and Westminster’s affiliation with the equally liberal United Church has smoothed the enterprise over the years. “It’s all about respect and tolerance,” Raine says.
Fortunately (or, perhaps, miraculously), a movable wall intended to separate the two sanctuaries is broken, leaving no physical barrier. The stone-walled room is respectfully lacking religious symbols -- no Stars of David, no menorahs, no crosses -- and the Jewish ark, when closed, blends inconspicuously into a beige wall.
Savage says that when Westminster plans its worship schedule, the church consults the Jewish calendar to avoid double-bookings. The two communities host joint socials and invite each other to religious events. With Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish New Year, starting Sunday night, the church will turns its pews east after its morning service to create more seating space for Temple Shalom.
And while it remains unclear just how the boycott will take effect -- church hierarchy has issued no directives -- Savage insists Cedars is a prime illustration of how Jews and United Church members can continue to coexist.
“We live out something and we work at it on a grassroots level,” she says. “We’re a microcosm.”
[Courtesy: Toronto Star. Edited for sikhchic.com]
September 17, 2012