By J.D. Moor
The Church of the Atonement and Congregation Beth Tefillah sit nearly side by side on High Point Road. For years, they’ve been friendly, but had little interaction.
That’s about to change.
“The joke around here now is that we just wanted to know our neighbors at the synagogue a little better, and I invited them to come live with us,” Rev. Chris Starr said.
The Episcopal church has cleared its parking lot to make room for seven temporary trailers that will house Jewish preschoolers from Beth Tefillah for a year.
“In certain respects, they’re doing more for us than we’re doing for them, because we’re finally getting to know them,” Starr said. “They‘ve already been such honorable, good people.”
Isser New, rabbi at Beth Tefillah, said things have been going smoothly between the two congregations.
“It may be more than they bargained for, but they’ve been very supportive, wonderful and top-notch neighbors,” he said.
Beth Tefillah’s Chaya Mushka Children’s House has grown from two teachers and nine students in 1989 to 19 teachers and 119 students today. In 2011, Children’s House became the only Jewish Montessori school in the southeastern United States.
“The quality of our education is revolutionary. We’ve had to turn young families and their children away because we just don’t have the space in our current building. The only thing missing is a beautiful facility,” New said.
Fundraising for a new 13,700-square-foot complex has yielded $3.2 million in pledges since last fall, just shy of the $3.8 million goal, he said.
When the construction is complete, the school will nearly triple in size and will include a youth and adult education center. It will provide space for expanded after-school programming, winter and summer camps, a rabbinical college, community events and the preschool. Plans also include a new 2,000-square-foot women’s mikveh (ceremonial bath) and green space.
“I’m really looking forward to having the outdoor terrace, playground and basketball court too,” the rabbi said.
New said he hopes demolition of the old building will begin either late in August or early October, as soon as the bank gives the green light.
During construction, which is expected to last a year, the synagogue will pay a nominal monthly fee of $1,000 to the church for the use of its parking lot. The synagogue also has offered to repave the church lot and donate all playground apparatus when they leave the temporary site.
In 32 years as a priest, Starr hasn’t seen this type of win-win. “I’m just thrilled to death,” he said. “A deeper understanding is what I want our church to be about — to reach out and discover that we all have more in common with people of other religions than what separates us.”
New sees the preschool’s temporary trailers as an improvement over what they’ve outgrown on their own campus.
“Sometimes you have to take one step back to take two steps forward, but we’re taking one step forward to take 10 steps forward. In some ways, the trailers are an upgrade from our past,” he said.