This Christmas, members of Holy Innocents’ Episcopal Church will celebrate the birth of their savior at Temple Sinai, a Jewish synagogue that’s literally Holy Innocents’ next door neighbor.
On the surface, it’s a simple act of friendship, a neighborly returning of favors. But one expert suggests the temple and the church’s friendship has a deeper significance than many of the worshipers might guess.
Elena G. Procario-Foley, associate professor of religious studies at Iona College, New Rochelle, N.Y., said the gesture symbolizes decades of efforts by members of both faiths to quash anti-Semitism. Procario-Foley recently served as president of Council of Centers on Jewish- Christian Relations and said there are numerous examples around the country where the two faiths have studied together and cooperated on other projects.
“I think it’s wonderfully symbolic of the healing of the Jewish-Christian relationship that the Episcopal Church and the synagogue have offered each other long-term hospitality in a time of need,” Procario-Foley said.
The members of the church and the synagogue think of it as good neighbors doing right by each other.
In 2004, Holy Innocents’ hosted Temple Sinai’s Friday Shabbat for nearly a year when the synagogue underwent extensive renovations. Holy Innocents’ is in the middle of its own renovations and expects 700 to 800 worshipers for each of the upcoming Christmas Eve and Christmas Day services. Its makeshift space can only accommodate around 300, according to Rector Michael Sullivan.
Sullivan said when Holy Innocents’ asked if it could hold services at the synagogue, Temple Sinai didn’t plan to simply hand their Episcopal neighbors the keys and leave town for a couple of days. Temple Sinai members are helping the church plan for one of Christianity’s holiest days. Temple members are moving out furniture Holy Innocents’ doesn’t need to make way for an altar, vestments flowers and an Advent Wreath.
Jan Stewart, a parishioner in charge of the floral decorations for Holy Innocents’, said the worship space will be decorated with lots of white and green. She said red is more symbolic of the commercial side of Christmas and white is more symbolic of “the light of Christ.”
“Our faith is so similar in a lot of ways,” Stewart said. “Some would ask, ‘How can Episcopalians worship in a Jewish synagogue?’ It’s not really about the space. We’re going for the celebration and we can celebrate Christmas wherever we are.”
Stewart and Sullivan said Temple Sinai members have been gracious and accommodating.
“They have been the most loving, compassionate, hospitable people,” Sullivan said. “Everything they can do for us, they’re there for us.”
Rabbi Ron Segal and Sullivan are also good friends, and Temple Sinai has sent speakers over for Holy Innocents’ Sunday school classes. Segal said Temple Sinai members are excited about hosting their neighbors as they celebrate Jesus’ birthday. The rabbi said Temple members recognize the day is important to Holy Innocents’ members. He said it reminds him of the words of the prophet Isaiah, who said, “My house shall be called a house of prayer for all peoples.”
“Certainly the message is to cherish and celebrate what we have in common rather than focus on the few things that divide us,” Segal said. “Celebrating people’s goodness and Godliness is something that we all prioritize.”
Temple member Jan Epstein said she’s glad the Temple can help.
“Holy Innocents was extremely kind and welcoming during our time of transition during our renovation, which was far more than just one weekend, so it is our pleasure and honor to be able to return the favor in this small way,” Epstein said.
Holy Innocents’ member Mike Ernst said he is proud his church was there for its neighbors seven years ago.
“I think it’s a wonderful example of true interfaith cooperation that seems to be all too rare in today’s society,” Ernst said. “We are a Christian Episcopalian congregation. They are a Jewish congregation. Yet there was not a moment’s hesitation in their offering their space to host a celebration of a very special and sacred time for us.”
Temple Sinai member Sari Earl said the event is bringing out the best in both congregations.
“I think it’s a beautiful reflection of the respect and neighborly relationship that the institutions have for each other,” Earl said.
Procario-Foley said the upcoming Christmas service is reminiscent of a 2009 document written by the International Council of Christians and Jews called, “A Time for Recommitment: The Twelve Points of Berlin.” The document recounts and reaffirms the efforts at understanding between the two communities that began after the Holocaust. Among other requests, it calls on both peoples to “[highlight] the connection between Jewish and Christian liturgy.”
“These two congregations engaged in this relationship may not know it, but they’re actually enacting aspects of this Berlin document passed in 2009,” Procario-Foley said.
Sullivan, the rector at Holy Innocents’, said the world can learn from the example set by the two congregations.
“At this time of year, when Christians are turning toward the birth of the Savior, it is an amazing image of God’s love and understanding that our Jewish brothers and sisters open their place of worship to us so our worship can be complete,” he said.