Congregations join effort to raise funds for churches hit by arson

By David Baugher, Special to the Jewish Light

In the wake of apparent arsons at several predominantly black churches in the South, Jewish houses of worship are among those hoping to lend a hand.

“How could we not help?” said Rabbi Noah Arnow. “It is an easy ask. It speaks to all of our hearts. Jews know too well what it is like to have sacred spaces destroyed, both in ancient times and way too recently.”

Arnow’s congregation, Kol Rinah, is among several area synagogues participating in the “Rebuild the Churches Fund,” a charitable effort spearheaded by the Christ Church Cathedral in St. Louis. Though the Episcopal group is based in the Gateway City, its initiative has attracted dozens of houses of worship from Vermont to California, which hope to collect cash to assist the four churches struck by fires. 

Participating organizations are expected to hold special collections this month with proceeds initially set to benefit College Hill Seventh Day Adventist Church in Tennessee, Briar Creek Baptist Church in North Carolina and God’s Power Church of Christ in Georgia, all of which were thought to be caused by arson as well as Glover Grove Baptist Church in South Carolina where the cause remains undetermined.


As of Tuesday morning, the list had been expanded to include a church that burned in an electrical fire caused by a downed tree and another which was struck by lightning, according to an email announcement from Rev. Mike Kinman of the cathedral.

After easily surpassing its initial $250,000 goal, the campaign reset its aim to a quarter million dollars with about $178,000 already raised.

According to the email, the decision to broaden the list of recipients was made by a four-person advisory team, which included Rabbi Susan Talve of Central Reform Congregation. 

At Kol Rinah, Arnow said some are donating directly to the fund through its website while others are giving at the synagogue making it difficult for the congregation to know how much has been raised or how many have made gifts.

 “A couple people have called the office but most people just donate online,” he said.

Arnow said the congregation has worked to publicize the effort in its bulletin, on its website and through mentions during services.

“People appreciate and love seeing their synagogue and their Jewish community involved with things that tug at their heartstrings around the country and the world,” he said, noting that last year’s events in Ferguson helped bring racial issues to the forefront in the St. Louis area. “We have an obligation as a Jewish community not just towards our own but to the greater community and the communities around us.”

Arnow said he is glad to see that churches, synagogues and the Islamic Community Center in town are all participating. 

“I think that says something very powerful about the faith community here in St. Louis,” he said.

Rabbi Andrea Goldstein of Congregation Shaare Emeth said her temple felt that participation spoke strongly to its values.

“Our community really wanted to be a part of that effort so we put it out to our members,” she said. “People have been able on their own through the website to make donations directly.”

She said Shaare Emeth was using some collections from its tzedakah boxes as well as encouraging individual gifts.

“The crimes that were committed against those churches were especially heinous to us as a place of worship,” said Goldstein. “They’ve been called acts of terror, which they are.”

She noted that if such an act happened to a local synagogue, support from the community would be vital.

“We’d feel empowered to know that we did not face that threat of hate alone. We’d gain so much strength,” she said. “It is not just a dollar amount but knowing that other places of worship stood with us would mean so much to us. We want to be there for others who are facing this type of injustice.”

Rori Picker Neiss, maharat at Bais Abraham Congregation (and a Trustee of the Jewish Light), said that her shul wanted to do all it could to assist.

“Any time someone needs to rebuild, it is a time to step forward but I think it is even more so in the situation here where they are talking specifically about institutions that were attacked because of racism and hatred,” she said.

She compared it to the idea of the Temple being destroyed in Biblical times.

“I think it is our responsibility as a Jewish people to respond with love, caring and unconditional generosity,” she added.

Rabbi Hyim Shafner at Bais Abe said synagogue leadership did have to consider the matter.

“There can be criticism of ‘Why are you putting this much effort to help a church in South Carolina? What about needs closer to home?’” he said. “But I think this is about more than just a building.”

He said that Judaism mandates helping others regardless of religious differences and that there are many roads to spirituality.

“We are commanded in the Torah to see every person as made in the image of God,” he said.

Jen Bernstein of CRC said her temple is also a part of the initiative.

“It’s really been an effort in just helping to spread the word,” she said. “We need to work together to end these hateful activities. If we don’t stand up when it happens, who else will? That’s why we are getting involved.”

She said that in addition to the temple’s participation, Jen Fishering, an assistant to CRC’s rabbis, had reached out to personally contact the affected churches and converse with their leadership.

“They’ve been so wonderful and so grateful,” she said.