In a church off Bethesda’s (Md.) Bradley Boulevard, some Christians and Jews have quietly accomplished something unheard of in modern society coexisting in the same worship space for 35 years.
The suspended cross that adorns the sanctuary for services at Bradley Hills Presbyterian Church is covered for the Jewish High Holy Days using a banner and pulley system. The Bethesda Jewish Congregation wheels the Torah in and out as needed.
It’s been a cramped and bumpy experience at times they don’t agree on matters in the Middle East, for instance but the partnership is largely cordial, educational and mutually beneficial. Now it is about to get better.
Construction on a new Covenant Hall is scheduled to begin in a couple of weeks, and by next year there will be enough room to accommodate both services, along with concerts and receptions.
The fact that the two congregations have worked together to raise the multimillion-dollar tab has leaders patting themselves on the back. They say no other Christian and Jewish congregations have ever partnered in a such a way.
“We are putting our money where our mouths are. We’re not only talking about respecting one another… . We’re doing it,” said Dick Fogel, a member of the Bethesda Jewish Congregation, an independent congregation that characterizes itself as “liberal.”
When completed, the old sanctuary, in the shape of a cross, will sit adjacent to an addition in the shape of the Star of David.
“I am inspired by the entire occasion,” Rep. Constance A. Morella, Maryland Republican, said during the recent groundbreaking ceremony.
“Covenant comes from the French verb convenir, which means coming together. And this is exactly what this new facility is about.”
The Bethesda Jewish Congregation at the time a rabbi and about 20 families began renting space at Bradley Hills Presbyterian Church in 1966. The Jewish group believes any money used to build a synagogue would be better spent on mission work.
Through the years, both faiths have alternated their use of the facility, and they have come together for joint seminars, mission projects and Thanksgiving services. Each faith has a church school.
During Lent, both sides will participate in a discussion about suffering.
“We leave the disagreements in the air,” said Pastor Susan Andrews. “We honor and respect each other’s religion without trying to convert.”
The Jewish worshippers now about 200 families conduct the Sabbath in the hospitality lounge, and the Presbyterians use the sanctuary. For special occasions, sanctuary space is shared with the 450 Presbyterian families.
About three years ago, the Bradley Hills Presbyterian Church approached the Bethesda Jewish Congregation about joining together to repair and expand the facility.
The Presbyterians needed an open gathering space next to their sanctuary, and the Jewish congregation needed a private worship area and a permanent place for their Torah.
They formed a Capital Campaign Cabinet with the goal of raising $3 million.
Not all of the money is to be funneled to Covenant Hall. Some will be used for maintenance and repairs of the existing church and $250,000 will be given to the nearby Baptist Home for Children to build a computer learning center.
So far the joint committee has raised $2.85 million and taken out a loan.
The joint fund raising has been an interesting experience, said Miss Andrews. While the Presbyterians are used to pledging money, the Jewish congregation is accustomed to raising money through dues.
Both sides have agreed to pledge above and beyond their usual religious donations to raise money for the campaign.
When completed, Covenant Hall will seat 150 for worshipping and up to 250 for receptions. Glass will surround visitors on several sides, offering a view of a nearby wooded area.
“The idea of sharing our space is so logical and practical that I can see our partnership becoming a recognized role model for the successful coexistence and connection of two faiths,” said church member Susan McVay.
“It’s a wonderful relationship,” said Church Weir, chairman of the fund-raising committee. “We hope it will grow over the years.”