On Easter, the holiest of holy days for Christians, a historic downtown Lutheran congregation will be worshiping not in a church but in a synagogue.
At 8 a.m. and again at 11 a.m., members of St. Matthew’s Lutheran Church will gather in Kahal Kadosh Beth Elohim’s historic synagogue during Passover to celebrate what Christians believe is the resurrection of the long-promised Jewish Messiah, Jesus Christ.
It’s not the first time the members of KKBE have loaned their sanctuary at 90 Hasell St. to Christians. And it probably won’t be the last.
“We’re just trying to be good neighbors,” said Rabbi Stephanie Alexander. “We’re not using this space on Sunday and they need it.”
The ecumenical hospitality got its start on Christmas Day in 2011, when members of Grace Episcopal Church at 98 Wentworth St., which had been damaged by shock waves from an August 2011 earthquake in Virginia, held their Christmas services at the synagogue. According to the Rev. Canon J. Michael A. Wright, Grace’s rector, the idea originated with the members of KKBE.
Grace also worshiped in the synagogue for Easter 2012 before it was able to get back in its own building in September 2012.
Meanwhile, St. Matthew’s Lutheran Church at 405 King St., had to close its sanctuary for extensive repairs after water was found to have been seeping in through the roof. It held its last service in the sanctuary in June 2013, said Darryl Johnson, chairman of the worship ministry board. While repairs are underway, worship services have been held in the church’s auditorium, Johnson said.
Last year, they thought about trying to find a larger venue for Easter.
“We remembered that Grace had used KKBE and we called them up and asked them if we could use it, too,” Johnson said. He finds it remarkable that a Jewish congregation would open its doors to Lutherans.
“The official name of our church is St. Matthew’s German Evangelical Lutheran Church,” Johnson said. He said it saddens him to think about what Germans did to Jews during World War II and it makes it all the more special that KKBE has been so welcoming to St. Matthew’s, which also held its Easter service in the synagogue last year.
Johnson said when he first talked with the rabbi, she said, “Well, Jesus was a Jew.”
So St. Matthew’s held its Easter services on April 20, 2014, at KKBE.
“One of the things we did, out of respect for them and their traditions, is that the Bible led the procession instead of a cross,” Johnson said. “We tried very hard to be sensitive to them.”
The KKBE sanctuary was largely untouched. The doors to the Ark, a large wooden cabinet at the front of the sanctuary in which the congregation’s Torahs are stored, were kept closed during the Easter services. The Israeli flag remained.
The Rev. William Trexler, interim pastor at St. Matthew’s, said KKBE’s hospitality has been amazing. “They allowed us to use the table they put the Torah on as our altar,” Trexler said.
None of the members of St. Matthew’s have complained about having a service at KKBE, Trexler said. “I was very pleased at the number of our people who were able to switch in their minds and go to that building for an Easter service,” he said.
Members of St. Matthew’s will begin setting up for the Easter services on Saturday afternoon. The congregation’s usual Easter custom is to hold an Easter breakfast between their two morning services, but there will be no such event this year.
KKBE is the fourth oldest Jewish congregation in the United States. Its synagogue on Hasell Street is the second oldest synagogue building in the continental United States and the oldest in continuous use. It was designated a National Historic Landmark in 1980 and is the birthplace of Reform Judaism in the United States.
Tamar BenArdout, executive assistant at KKBE, said the congregation has grown so much it has begun holding its High Holy Day services, for Rosh Hoshana and for Yom Kippur, at Memminger Auditorium so as to be able to accommodate more people.
St. Matthew’s expects to be back in its sanctuary in June, Trexler said. There will be a special dedication service at 10 a.m. June 28.
And the folks at KKBE have a standing invitation to use St. Matthew’s sanctuary whenever they need it, Trexler said.