‘This was a God thing’

‘This was a God thing’

Beth Israel synagogue in Washington, Pa., is now home to two congregations-one Jewish, one Christian.
Beth Israel synagogue in Washington, Pa., is now home to two congregations-one Jewish, one Christian.

Members of Beth Israel Congregation in Washington, Pa., might say that the Living Stone Community Church (LSCC) is a godsend.

Just last year, Beth Israel, a congregation of fewer than 50 families, was looking into selling its building because of financial troubles. Although the congregation ultimately voted not to sell its cherished synagogue, upkeep was challenging, and its membership was aging and dwindling.

“Infrastructure problems were cropping up and it was very expensive to maintain the building,” said Beth Israel President Marilyn Posner.

To help pay its bills, the congregation had leased part of its ample space to various organizations in the past, including a dance studio at one point, and Weight Watchers, but it lost its previous tenant in early 2012.

Meanwhile, the nondenominational LSCC had outgrown the space it had been renting nearby, and was primed to close on some land on which it was planning to build a church. When a title search uncovered liens on the property, that deal fell through.

This is where, according to Pastor Paul Harrington of LSCC, God comes in.

“This was a God thing,” said Harrington. “God was good.”

Through several congregational connections, a shiddach (match) was made, and the two spiritual groups began discussions leading to Beth Israel leasing its unused lower level to LSCC.

“We’ve had a lot of tenants,” said Posner, “but none like this.”

Since LSCC moved into its new space in the lower level of the building last September, the church has helped Beth Israel not only through its rental payments, but also by sharing in the cost of utilities, refurbishing rooms, landscaping, painting, roof repair, snow removal, and maintenance. The church even installed Internet service that is now available in Beth Israel’s secretary’s office.

“The building needed these repairs, but we could not have afforded them,” Posner said.

Beth Israel was founded in 1891. In the mid-1950s, its present building, a large, two-level synagogue was built and became the center of Jewish life in Washington.

Once a thriving Jewish community, its numbers have since declined, and most of those who remain are senior citizens. The congregation now uses its small chapel for Shabbat services, and only uses its large main sanctuary for the High Holy Days or other special events.

But now, along with the building’s improvements, Posner said the congregation is infused with a new energy:

• Last year, the Beth Israel board had a hard time getting a quorum; now, the number of attendees has doubled;

• More than 70 people turned out for the congregation’s Chanuka lunch in December, up from 30 the previous year;

• Beth Israel has reopened its Hebrew school, tuition-free, and run by two students from the Hillel at Washington & Jefferson College, Zoe Levenson and Jacqueline Radin, both from Pittsburgh. The school already has five students.

“One of the things we really wanted to look at was how to revitalize the synagogue,” said Kathy Shapell, a member of Beth Israel who also helps oversee the religious school. “And of course, you do that with young people. So, we got in touch with Hillel, and they were thinking the same thing. Now, we are seeing a new energy in the shul that we haven’t seen in a couple years.”

The rental arrangement is also working out well for LSCC, a “Conservative Christian church that follows Baptist doctrine,” according to Harrington.

“We were at a place where we couldn’t grow,” he said. “When this opportunity arose, we were thrilled. It’s been very good.”

The church, which averages a congregation of between 100 and 120 people each Sunday, also holds Sunday school and a Wednesday night prayer service. In its previous space, the church only had use of the building on Sundays and Wednesdays, but now, at Beth Israel, it is free to add additional programming during the week.

The relationship between the two congregations has been without conflict, Harrington said.

“From a spiritual standpoint, our church is one that supports Israel and the Jewish people,” he said. “We realized they could help us, and we could be a blessing to them. That’s what it’s all about. Rabbi (David) Novitsky is a terrific man, and we have had a good relationship and a good dialogue as well. It’s been good.”

Novitsky agreed.

“I get along very well with the church and the pastor,” he said. “They are very good people, and they work very hard. We have similar positions on Israel, and we share a lot of conservative values. Our congregation is older, and so they are more conservative in their values, and the church is also pretty conservative.”

The two congregations are hoping to join together for a picnic this summer, and the members of LSCC have been invited to Beth Israel’s Passover seder.

While several small kehillot across the country rent space from churches, it is less common for a Jewish congregation to lease space to a church group; a handful do that, sometimes with unexpected results.

In Anaheim, Calif., Temple Beth Emet, a Conservative congregation, began leasing space to a Christian congregation, then eventually sold its building to the church. Now, Beth Emet rents space in that same building.

“The synagogue was more or less in dire straits,” said Rabbi Joel Berman, spiritual leader of Beth Emet, who came on board after the leasing arrangements were in place. “I don’t know how the idea came up for the church to buy the land, but I get the sense it wasn’t exactly a smooth ride, that the deal wasn’t made in heaven, so to speak.”

From seeing firsthand the challenges that can be posed by two congregations of different faiths sharing space, Berman offered a few caveats.

“Take your time to draw up the agreement so there are no ambiguities,” he said. “And make sure everyone knows what they have to live up to. If you set impossible standards, it can lead to conflicts. Take your time and make sure that all the details are clear before you sign anything. And make sure you calendar things.

“It works as long as you have mutual respect,” he said.

(Toby Tabachnick can be reached at tobyt@thejewishchronicle.net.)

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