B’nai Jeshurun and St. Paul & St. Andrew’s Church
In the middle of the night on May 23, 1991, the roof of the B’nai Jeshurun synagogue on West 88th Street collapsed. Miraculously, it was after Friday night Shabbat and before the Saturday morning services. No one was hurt, but the sanctuary was piled with rubble from the ceiling of the 77-year-old synagogue. And the sizable Jewish congregation was left homeless.
Before coming home to New York, American born Rabbi Marshall Meyer had been a dynamic presence in the Jewish community in Buenos Aires, Argentina for twenty-five years. He had established the Seminario Rabinico, the only Jewish seminary in Latin America. His Buenos Aires synagogue was packed with 1200 people on Friday evenings and sponsored a day school enrolling some 800 students. He built it all, virtually from scratch. And he had worked vigorously for social change—supporting, for example, the Mothers of the Plaza de Mayo, whose sons and daughters were the “disappeared,” the victims of the military junta.
When Meyer returned to the United States and arrived at B’nai Jeshurun in 1985, he found a dying synagogue. He had two card tables and a pay telephone for an office. It is said that he arrived every day for work with ten dollars in quarters. New York Jews had a very different class of the “disappeared,” those who had been alienated from their tradition and had not set foot in a synagogue in years. B’nai Jeshurun had only 40 membership units—individuals, couples, or families. “Our primary outreach is to Jews who have fallen out of Judaism and Jews who have been alienated,” said Meyer in a September 30, 1993 interview in Manhattan Spirit.
Within a few years, Meyer and his younger assistant, Rabbi Rolando Matalon, had transformed the congregation to a growing, even booming community. With more than 1000 membership units, or 3000 people. B’nai Jeshurun was said to be the fastest growing Conservative synagogue in the country. When the roof caved in, they had already outgrown the 850-seat sanctuary of the synagogue.
After the disaster, the United Methodist Church of St. Paul and St. Andrew, two blocks away on 86th Street and West End Avenue, quickly offered its help, its friendship, and its space. The Methodist church, led by the Reverend Edward Horne, was a small congregation of about 200 members, struggling to maintain a huge century-old historic church building on the corner of West End Avenue and 88th Street. Its 1600-seat sanctuary, neared capacity on holidays, and was certainly not in use on Friday night and Saturday morning, the times of Jewish congregational Shabbat services. So B’nai Jeshurun moved in with the Methodists. The two congregations had already entered into programs of joint study, exchange, and dialogue. The collapse of B’nai Jeshurun’s ceiling transformed an already budding relationship into an active partnership.
Just before the High Holidays the two congregations made a huge twenty-by-thirty-foot banner and hung it at the front of the sanctuary they would now share. The words of Psalm 133 were stitched boldly in place: “How good it is when brothers and sisters dwell together in harmony.”
“To dwell in harmony doesn’t mean that we are singing the notes in the same way,” said the Methodist Associate Pastor James Karpen. “It means we can hear each other and sing together, and hopefully something beautiful comes out.” When Congregation B’nai Jeshurun gathers for Shabbat services, they carry into the sanctuary an ark containing the scrolls of the Torah, and when the United Methodist congregation gathers on Sundays, they carry a great wooden cross in. There is no syncretism, no joining of distinctive symbols and ways, but there is harmony.
Even before their new life as neighbors, both congregations were very committed to urban ministry, and to the problems and opportunities of the city. Both ran shelters for the homeless, which, today, are run and staffed together. Both were concerned about religious prejudice and violence, both were already involved in interreligious dialogue. Today, they live out that concern as public witnesses to interfaith cooperation. They have worked together to produce a wide range of interfaith programs, based on mutual commitment to social justice and action, theological education, culture and arts. They have established a joint chapter of Amnesty International, they have a joint working group on ecological concerns, and jointly chartered a bus to visit the Holocaust Museum. As Katherine Kurs, a member of the B’nai Jeshurun Congregation, put it, “Together we advocate and pray for peace and social justice, learn about each other’s traditions, work side by side in the shelter, welcome scholars and speakers, sit down at table, sing together and, each in our own way, give thanks for this relationship.”
This Christian-Jewish partnership has also led to a relationship with a Muslim community, the Mosque of Islamic Brotherhood in Harlem. For more than a year, twelve members of each community met regularly to study sacred texts together, look directly at their common historical and theological traditions, and better understand both their common roots and their differences. According to New York Times reporter Dennis Havesi, Imam Talib Abdur Rashid said, “We don’t want to just be polite and dance around our differences. We want to get into them and gain better understanding of each other.”
This group of Jews, Christians, and Muslims also spent time discussing some of the ethical and social problems of their city. Their vision of eventually establishing an interreligious center has been kindled by the realization of how much more they can accomplish by intensive cooperation. As Imam Talib Abdur Rashid put it, “The best chance for achieving this marriage, if you will, between congregations of the three faiths is for the relationship to be based on social activism, rather than religious rhetoric.” Indeed, the three congregations have begun just that, planning shared programs of education and action. In January of 1996 they jointly sponsored an evening for Peace in the Middle East, with Israel’s Consul General, the P.L.O representative, and representatives of the U.S. State Department.
What began as a temporary arrangement of space-sharing at a time of crisis has evolved into a permanent choice to continue to live together. B’nai Jeshurun completed the restoration of its old historic synagogue on West 88th Street and began holding services there again in December of 1996. But the congregation is far too large to fit in the old synagogue, so the largest services on Friday night and Saturday morning are still held at St. Paul and St. Andrew’s. The two congregations continue to plan programs together and to plan jointly for their future in a “campus” that now includes both a church and a synagogue. The ties that have bound these communities together have proven to be lifelines of vitality and strength.
Congregation B’nai Jeshurun
100 A West 89th Street
New York, New York 10024
Tel. (212) 787-7600 Fax: (212) 496-7600
United Methodist Church of St. Paul and St. Andrew
263 West 86th Street
New York, New York 10024
Tel. (212) 362-3179