Rabbi Applauds Inter Faith Idea, But Practice Is No Blessing

Cohen Believes More Than 'Plumbing' Must Be Shared

August 11, 1991|By James M. Coram | James M. Coram,Staff writer

Quick-witted, erudite and possessed of a self-parodying sense of humor -- "I never got religion, I've always had it" -- Rabbi Kenneth L. Cohen chooses his words precisely.

So when he offers an aside in aconversation about his Beth Shalom congregation leaving the Owen Brown Interfaith Center in Columbia to build its own synagogue, it's notreally an aside. It's a broadside.

"I don't have anything but the most congenial attitude toward interfaith dialogue," he says. "But the interfaith dialogue (in Columbia) is not on a high level. The clergy don't meet or dialogue with the same intensity or depth as other communities. The only thing we do isshare the same plumbing. I would hope we have more in common than that."

Among some Columbian settlers, such criticism is tantamount to heresy -- a jostling of the so-called "Columbia concept" itself. Although never written down, the concept was for Columbia to become a place where all races, religions and income groups would live and worktogether in harmony.

Nowhere was the concept to be more fully realized than in the interfaith centers. By sharing a common building, congregations would not have to worry about maintaining one themselves. They could give more time and money to the community while buildinginterfaith relations.

"A bold new idea," is what the Columbia Cooperative Ministry called it -- "different religious expressions working together where possible and having independent integrity when needed."

What congregations discovered is that independent integrity was very much a priority. Over the years, congregations got bigger andmore institutional, says Rabbi Martin Siegel, whose Columbia Jewish Congregation has worshiped at the Oakland Mills Meeting House for 19 years.

The "downside" of institutional growth is that "sometimes there is little interfaith interaction," says Steve McNeely, pastor ofthe Columbia Baptist Fellowship, one of six congregations that worship at the Oakland Mills Meeting House.

People have very hectic schedules, he says, and their first commitment is to their congregation.Joint services and common social functions still occur at times, butnot as frequently as in the early years.

Cohen appreciates the need for uniqueness. One of the reasons for leaving the interfaith center, he says, is to allow his congregation to "rediscover Judaism -- have the ambience of a synagogue 24 hours a day, seven days a week."

He wants a synagogue that looks like a synagogue, not a "religious shopping center," and he wants a permanent home for the congregation's ark and scroll. At the interfaith center, these sacred religious objects are kept in closets, brought out only when the congregation assembles for worship.

Although Siegel finds the Meeting House adequate for his 600-family synagogue, the rapid rise in Jewish population here -- from 4,000 in 1985 to 7,200 in 1989 -- may lead to the need for "identifiable Jewish space" along the lines of a neighborhood center.

The interfaith centers were born in the 1960s, when there was "some embarrassment at the difference" in religions and "a wish that they could be modified," Cohen says. Still, he would have stayed at the Owen Brown center if he could have maintained the congregation's separate identity.

Distinct religious identity is what other congregations at the interfaith centers seem to be aiming toward also.

At Owen Brown,there is an altar, pulpit and hanging banners to give the room used by Christ United Methodist Church a distinctly Christian ambience. The pulpit and altar are removed and the banners folded over when other faiths use the space.

At Wilde Lake and Oakland Mills, the worship areas used by St. John the Evangelist Roman Catholic Church are being refurbished to make the rooms "more conducive" to worship in a liturgical setting, says the Rev. Richard H. Tillman, pastorof the church for the past 10 years.

At Long Reach, where only one congregation -- the Long Reach Church of God -- uses the center, the ambience is distinctly Christian. Stained-glass windows, permanent pews and a huge cross dominate the sanctuary.

Although he was not here when the interfaith centers were begun, Tillman does not think the intention was to have all faiths meet together in some grand gathering.

"I can't speak for others, but when I came I realized I was coming to Columbia to serve a particular congregation," Tillman said."I did not feel I was joining an overall staff working in an overallreligious fashion."

The interfaith "atmosphere is more a matter of geography," he says. "As you are participating in the Eucharist, you know that one or two doors away, another congregation is worshipingwith you. The place you are worshiping now is the same place others worship."

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