Going to church for Rosh Hashana Tradition: During the high holidays, Jewish groups lacking synagogues have turned to using churches, movie theaters and school auditoriums. At one service the Torah was kept in a voting booth.

Sun Journal

September 24, 1998|By Dawn Fallik | Dawn Fallik,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

COLUMBIA, Mo. -- In this college town there are 13 churches for Southern Baptists, seven for Lutherans and three for Jehovah's Witnesses. Almost three pages in the phone book offer this city of 70,000 multiple places of worship for Christian Scientists, Pentecostals and Presbyterians.

But look up "synagogue" and there is one listing, between "Swimming Pools--Public" and "T-Shirts--Retail."

"We're pretty much the only game in town," says Rabbi Yossi Feintuch, religious leader of Congregation Beth Shalom. Affiliated with the Jewish Reform movement, the congregation offers services to 150 families as well as the Jewish students who attend the University of Missouri.

So what happens when the only Jewish game in town decides to hold some Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur services in a Baptist Church? It's a position many Jews have faced across the nation, as synagogues try to handle cost, space and interfaith issues in one fell swoop.

"There are people who would say it's inappropriate but they would be on the most Conservative end," says Rabbi Jerome M. Epstein, executive vice president of the United Synagogues of Conservative Judaism. The New York group represents more than 800 synagogues nationally and does not have a specific policy regarding holding services in churches.

"A synagogue is a synagogue because Jews pray there. Some people pray in schools and other places and it's fine," Epstein says. "Churches are just another place of worship. We simply advise to cover up ritual objects that may not be appropriate."

For small groups, like the Havurah group in Middlebury, Vt., it's a matter of simply finding a place for the Jewish community to be together, says David Weinstock, a leader of the non-affiliated group. "One year we held services at the community hall, and we needed a place to put the Torah and we used a voting booth as the ark."

The group now meets at Middlebury College in cooperation with the Hillel Foundation for Jewish Campus Life. But, Weinstock says, the group has held services in Methodist churches and he probably wouldn't be bothered by a Roman Catholic church, either.

"A crucifix would be pretty heavy to deal with, but it's a cross I could probably bear," he jokes.

For other Jews who live in larger communities, the location of services can be a factor in joining one synagogue or another.

Lorna Cohen grew up in a Conservative Jewish household going to services at a nearby synagogue in a Chicago suburb. During high holidays, services were held at a local movie theater or a school auditorium. When she married a Reform Jew last year, the couple tried to find a compromise in styles and looked to the Jewish Reconstructionist movement. Services were at the First Methodist Church in Evanston, Ill.

"They covered up all the Christ figures and brought in some of the temple's things," Cohen says. "They covered up the crucifix but it was still there. And we sat in pews, and that was weird. But it was also a Reconstructionist service and that was different for me, too." She decided to look for another temple this year -- one that would hold its services in a nondenominational place if not a synagogue proper. "We just have to find a happy medium," she says.

At Missouri's Congregation Beth Shalom, the issue was ignored for many years. The congregation does not have its own temple, choosing instead to share space in the building of the campus' Hillel chapter. While the building's sanctuary offers enough space for Friday night and Saturday morning sabbath audiences, the popular high holidays of Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur require more space.

In the past the temple simply offered back-to-back two-hour services on the most popular nights -- the first sunsets of Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur. To handle the different demands of the Jewish population, the 6: 30 service would offer a more

"liberal" approach and the later one would have a more "traditional" feel, with a different prayer book.

When Feintuch came to Beth Shalom last year, just before the high holidays, he was disturbed. "It wasn't just the extra effort involved in developing two different services and two different sermons," the rabbi says. "I saw a community split into two kinds of Jews."

This year he found a prayer book he thought would be acceptable to both traditional and Reform styles and then turned his attention to finding a place large enough to hold about 400 people. The theater at nearby Stephens College and an auditorium at the university were deemed acceptable, but the price was high.

When the rabbi mentioned the possibility of using a church this year, there were a few hesitations, says Bill Yelon, chairman of the congregation's religion committee. But when the committee looked at the Baptist church, they felt it was worth a shot.

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