At the Beth Israel Synagogue on North Avenue in Washington, it’s a tale of two testaments.
Downstairs, it’s the New Testament.
Upstairs, it’s the Old Testament.
A relatively new, non-denominational Christian church and a venerable Jewish congregation sharing the same building would, at first glance, seem to be an “odd couple” pairing on a par with Felix and Oscar. Christianity and Judaism have had an often uneasy history over the last couple of millennia, with philosopher Martin Buber once musing that the difference between the two faiths is “a gulf which no human power can bridge.”
At Beth Israel, however, the gulf seems to have been bridged with no superhuman strength required. Faced with the upkeep of a building that was constructed when Washington had a much more sizable Jewish population, the synagogue opened its doors in October and allowed the Living Stone Community Church to set up shop in its basement. The church, established in 2004, had been worshipping at the Youth for Christ building on Allison Avenue, but is now having its services and classes at the synagogue.
It’s an arrangement that, so far, has worked well for both congregations.
“We became aware of the fact that they were looking to lease the downstairs and thought that would be a great idea,” said Pastor Paul Harrington of Living Stone.
Once the pact was signed, Living Stone planted a sign in the front yard at Beth Israel. The congregation draws about 100 people to its informal Sunday morning service, which has musicians playing contemporary Christian music and video screens that show the lyrics to songs and, on Dec. 9, an Abbott and Costello-style skit with a Biblical twist.
“It’s been a great relationship,” said Barb Ward, a member of Living Stone. “It’s been a wonderful blessing for us and for them.”
Though Jewish and Christian congregations sharing a building seems unusual, it’s not unprecedented. Like elderly residents of large, depopulated houses looking for boarders, other older congregations in this region and around the country have welcomed upstart congregations into their quarters in order to pay the light and heating bills.
Some established churches also put out the welcome mat for other congregations as a way to increase their presence in the community, according to the Rev. Donald Dawson of Pittsburgh Theological Seminary.
“Immigrant congregations have less resources than older churches,” Dawson explained. “And the church that hosts them look at it as outreach to the community.”
At Beth Israel, the two congregations occupy different space and meet at different times – Jewish services are on Friday night and Saturday morning, while Living Stone has a service in the gym on Sunday morning. The Christian church also has classes downstairs at Beth Israel. As part of the one-year lease agreement, kosher rules continue to be followed in Beth Israel’s kitchen.
“We have the freedom to do what we do, and they have the freedom to do what they do,” Harrington said.
Marilyn Posner, the president of the Beth Israel congregation, said the synagogue has provided space to other groups and other faiths before, but this is the first time that another church has planted a stake in the building on a 24/7 basis. “They’ve made it their home,” she said. “So far, everyone’s been very respectful.”
To underscore the point, David Novitsky, Beth Israel’s rabbi, cites a passage from the Book of Isaiah: “For my house shall be called a house of prayer for all peoples.”