Synagogue-church partnership marks 20 years

By David Baugher, Special to the Jewish Light

When Central Reform Congregation was still young, Rabbi Susan Talve believed being an urban synagogue meant building bridges – and some of those spans have truly stood the test of time.

“When we were starting to grow and were serious about being a Jewish presence in the city of St. Louis, we knew we needed to make relationships with people who shared our values,” she said.

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One of those relationships celebrated its 20th anniversary Saturday night with a special service in honor of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s birthday. Held in conjunction with Cote Brilliante Presbyterian Church, a predominantly African-American house of worship on Labadie Avenue, the event marked yet another milestone in the partnership between the two congregations. This unusual linkage has spawned not just friendships but also social service projects from Habitat for Humanity home building to cemetery clean ups.

“It’s important, not only from the standpoint of sharing and having a relationship with another congregation from another faith,” said Ivory Johnson, an elder with the church, “but also just doing things for the community to ensure that people who need things the most are being served.”

By far the most substantial example of service is a youth mentoring project that the congregations initiated at nearby Cote Brilliante Elementary. After roughly a decade, the model became so popular, it helped inspire the methodology of a wider-ranging Mentor St. Louis program now done at various public schools in the city. 

It let both congregations make greater inroads in the community at large as well.

“Once we were working with the kids, it also allowed us to expand and work with their families,” said Johnson, who has been a member of the church since 1957, the year after it opened.

“What was unique about that was not just doing mentoring in a school but doing it together so that the student had the benefit of someone from each congregation working with them,” said Philip Deitch, a congregant at CRC who now co-coordinates the partnership between the institutions. “That also meant the people from the two different congregations got to know each other.”

Since the mentoring program is now being provided elsewhere, the congregations no longer do it; however, other social service projects have continued. The group has helped clean up Washington Park Cemetery for two years now.

Rev. Dr. Mary Newbern-Williams, Cote Brilliante’s pastor, said that it was appropriate that the institutions were celebrating their anniversary in honor of the birthday of such a great civil rights leader.

“I really am excited because these two congregations have really modeled what Dr. King preached and marched about and what he lived, about justice, education, people living together, loving one another, just for who they are,” she said. “That’s what our congregations are modeling for the world.”

Still, like any meaningful relationship, it hasn’t all been handshakes and happy talk. Serious, even uncomfortable, discussions have often been on the menu as well.

“We’ve been able to go to places in conversation, because of those 20 years, that we wouldn’t have otherwise gone to in a surface friendship,” said Rabbi Randy Fleisher. “This is a real, deep friendship and it’s been a journey for us.”

Rabbi Susan Talve agrees.

“There have been some messy times, some really hard times, times when we’ve unintentionally hurt each other’s feelings and we’ve had to learn from that, face it and ask forgiveness so we could grow from that,” she said.

Deitch said that difficult dialogues on stressful issues are possible when people know and trust one another.

“That’s one of the beauties, I think, of this whole joint venture,” he said. “We don’t all have to agree on everything all of the time, as communities or as individuals within our own community. I think that’s one of the problems in the larger world right now. People divide themselves into categories or groups and they think one group has to feel one way and another group has to feel another. What we’ve learned is to look beyond the labels and see each other as individuals.”

Jesse C. Swanigan, a founding congregant at Cote Brilliante, said his favorite part of the partnership was the King observances. He felt that they helped individuals from both houses of worship to find commonalities.

“To me, it’s been a very rewarding experience because I’ve had the opportunity of working with an African-American group and with a Jewish group, seeing them come together and work through problems, gel and become one group,” said Swanigan, who is Deitch’s co-coordinator.

For Fleisher, his involvement with the joint venture actually predates his rabbinate. A part of CRC in the early 1990s, one of his first memories of the congregation was sitting in on a planning meeting regarding an upcoming King observance.

“The fact that this synagogue really took it upon themselves to make that happen was one of the reasons that I love [CRC],” he said.

He also felt that the connection had helped Central Reform to better understand the needs and concerns of Jews of color who worship at the temple.

“I think these congregations have changed one another,” he said. “We’re a different congregation because of Cote Brilliante and I think Cote Brilliante is a different congregation because of their relationship with us.”

Talve noted that CRC was completely Caucasian at its inception, but today it is much more racially diverse. She credits the partnership for some of that change.

“I’m not sure we would have gotten there,” she said. “I think our relationship has changed us in that it’s changed the way we look as a community. We are black and white and brown at CRC now as Jews.”

Swanigan said he feels the partnership is making its mark on both the congregations and the wider community they serve.

“We’ve been able to reach a lot of people and hopefully change a lot of minds on the whole issue of Jewish people and African-Americans working together,” he said.