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Middle Church to begin meeting in synagogue on Easter as it awaits restored building

The Rev. Jacqui Lewis said East End Temple displays ‘an incredible act of generosity and trust to make space in their community for us to tabernacle with them.’

Firefighters work to extinguish a fire that erupted from the building next to Middle Collegiate Church on Dec. 5, 2020, in New York. The historic 19th-century church in lower Manhattan was gutted by a massive fire that sent flames shooting through the roof. (AP Photo/Yuki Iwamura)

(RNS) — When Middle Collegiate Church was devastated by fire in December 2020, the rabbi of a Manhattan Reform synagogue 10 short blocks away responded, along with many others.

“I was heartbroken and I reached out to the Rev. Dr. Jacqui Lewis and I said: Anything you need, we will provide it,” Rabbi Joshua Stanton of East End Temple recalled in a recent interview. “Your loss is felt well beyond your community. Your heartbreak, we share in. And we’re here for you, however possible.”

Lewis remembered those words as she considered the best location for her church’s hybrid worship to continue this spring.

Now, on Easter Sunday, Stanton intends to share a special blessing from his synagogue’s podium as their congregations embark on a one-year pilot relationship the two faith leaders hope will last until Middle Church is rebuilt. Lewis expects that could occur in about three years and said plans will be shared on Easter, a fitting announcement for the day Christians celebrate their belief in Jesus’ resurrection.

The multiethnic church met for a few months in late 2020 at the site of an Episcopal parish before a COVID-19 spike put Middle Collegiate back into an all-online mode.

“We had a collegial relationship with East End and it just felt like a revolutionary thing to do, to partner with our Jewish colleagues in this way,” Lewis said in a Wednesday (April 6) interview.

RELATED: After Middle Church fire, advice from houses of worship that have survived disaster

Stanton said the synagogue dropped two-thirds of its usual rental price for the arrangement and then a donor paid most of the third that was left. Lewis said that amounts to about $16,000 for the first year, “so basically it’s a gift.”

“It is an incredible act of generosity and trust to make space in their community for us to tabernacle with them,” she said, noting their worship services being on different weekend days “makes it easier just to share space.”

Rabbi Joshua Stanton, left, and the Rev. Jacqui Lewis on Sept. 10, 2017, at Middle Collegiate Church in Manhattan. Photo courtesy of Joshua Stanton

Rabbi Joshua Stanton, left, and the Rev. Jacqui Lewis on Sept. 10, 2017, after Stanton was a guest preacher at Middle Collegiate Church in Manhattan. Photo courtesy of Joshua Stanton

She and Stanton, who have swapped pulpits in the past, are discussing possible ways to share more than a building, including children’s programs, adult education and a racial justice trip to the South with youth from both congregations.

“The dreams we have are his community and my community working on an anti-racist
justice agenda together that helps dismantle antisemitism and anti-Asian, anti-Black racism in our nation,” she said.

Stanton, likewise, said he looks forward to new opportunities, starting with the unusual sharing of space with a Christian congregation and continuing, perhaps, with cooperating in volunteer programs that pack meals for hungry people in their city.

“I think we’re going to march together, we’re going to pray together, we’re going to learn together, we’re going to do community service together,” he predicted. “We’re going to live out our values together even as communities that have different histories, different paths of belief and different ways of prayer.”

Lewis also is looking forward to Stanton’s offer of his office, where she said she intends to sit on his antique couch and use the space he plans to clear for her on his bookshelf.

The congregations agree on COVID-19 protocols, which require those who attend in person to be masked and to have proof of vaccination.

The pastor said her congregation has received a $21 million insurance payout from the Collegiate Churches of New York and $2 million from her congregation and the community. She said the rebuilding project will likely cost $25 million. Lewis expects fundraising will provide the remaining money needed for the building — whose facade is still standing — as well as for the church’s “Freedom Rising” programs focused on justice issues.

The two clergy of the progressive congregations that will soon share the same building have previously been engaged in interfaith efforts and dialogue. Lewis has appeared on TV and at conferences with Muslim and Jewish leaders, and Stanton’s synagogue hosted the religious school of Cordoba House, a Muslim organization, for five years. Stanton was one of the founding co-editors of the Journal of Interreligious Dialogue, now the Journal of  Interreligious Studies.

East End Temple logo. Courtesy image

East End Temple logo. Courtesy image

He has participated in Middle Collegiate’s annual Revolutionary Love Conference, and Lewis also appeared in East End’s pulpit in what Stanton said demonstrated “solidarity with the Jewish community” after the 2017 Unite the Right rally by white nationalists in Charlottesville, Virginia.

There is precedent, if not widespread, for houses of worship to pool resources across faiths during times of crisis or in other circumstances when sharing space allowed congregations to thrive.

Central Synagogue, another Reform synagogue in Manhattan, hosted St. Peter’s Lutheran Church in the 1970s when the Christian congregation replaced its 1905 building. Later, after the synagogue suffered a fire in 1998, its congregants met in nearby churches until its restored building opened three years later.

A Maryland Reconstructionist synagogue meets in an Episcopal church and a Florida Reform Jewish congregation gathers in a United Church of Christ building, interfaith experts noted.

“We see many examples of congregations of two different faiths sharing a space,” said Amy Asin, vice president of congregational engagement and leadership experiences for the Union for Reform Judaism, in a statement to Religion News Service. “We also find that interfaith partners are among the first to offer assistance in times of difficulty. We saw multiple congregations offer their spaces to other faiths in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, the hostage taking in Colleyville TX and other incidents.”

Lewis views cooperation with East End as an important new level of connection between their houses of worship, especially at a time when antisemitism has been on the rise.

“This community is dancing, dancing with my community, loving on my community, looking for all the ways that we have something in common, despite the fact that the church writ large has too often been unfriendly, unwelcoming, unkind to our Jewish siblings,” she said.

“I honor that we have a shared base of faith in the one God who loves us all. And I’m just thrilled they are not only open to, but delighted to, open their doors for us.”

RELATED: Historic Middle Collegiate Church in New York City destroyed in six-alarm fire

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