More than 20 years ago, Jews and Christians in Burke and Springfield came together to worship and give thanks. They shared a goal for peace, recognizing in each other the importance of working together and building a lasting relationship.
The Burke Presbyterian Church and the Congregation Adat Reyim became partners. At first, the church opened its doors to the Jewish congregation when they lacked their own synagogue for worship. They began offering joint Thanksgiving services, which soon included St. Mary’s Catholic Church in Burke.
“There are no theological blocks,” said Elizabeth Braxton, pastor and head of staff at Burke Presbyterian Church. “We all give thanks to God.”
When the Adat Reyim synagogue opened in 1990, the Thanksgiving services continued, alternating the host venues each year between the worship places of the Presbyterians, the Catholics and the Jews. Bruce Aft, rabbi at the Congregation Adat Reyim, said he remembers interviewing for his position there and quickly realizing how important the Thanksgiving interfaith service had become. To put the significance of the Thanksgiving service into perspective, he compared it to the holiest Jewish holiday, Yom Kippur.
“I could probably miss Yom Kippur and be O.K.,” said Aft. “If I were to miss the Thanksgiving service, I’d probably lose my job.”
On Sept. 11, 2001, Braxton helped organize a last-minute evening service to pray for the victims of the terrorist attacks. Aft called her that day about setting up a service for Sept. 12. She told him they needed to “have a prayer service tonight.” They did, and the room was packed with people looking for a place to pray.
“It was just a very powerful experience,” said Braxton. “After 9/11, we said ‘we really need to be in touch with our Muslim brothers and sisters.’”
Larry Kugler, the past president of Adat Reyim and the lead singer and guitar player in the Adat Reyim Folk Group, agrees that peace is what unites the faiths. While a lot of evil has been done in the name of religion, said Braxton, the beliefs of the non-fundamentalists are central. She said the question is either “do you love the good more, or do you hate the evil more.”
“If you hate the evil more, you become the evil that you hate,” she said. “Good overcomes evil, and when we practice that, we see the fruits of that.”
Adat Reyim and the Burke Presbyterian Church’s long-lasting relationship was interrupted in the summer of 2004. The Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.), along with several other U.S. Protestant churches, voted in its general assembly to divest in multinational companies doing business in Israel. They concluded the country’s occupation of Palestinian territories threatened the existence of both sides, therefore companies doing business there should be cut off from Protestant investments. American Jews spoke out against the national church, and a dialogue between Adat Reyim and the Burke Presbyterian Church began.
“That tested our relationship the most,” said Aft. “I think if we’re ever going to build peace, it’s going to be by talking to each other.
“It brought us together,” said Kugler.
Instead of turning on each other, the church and synagogue avoided a conflict. They decided to research organizations that explicitly supported both Israelis and Palestinians. They agreed on two, the Parents Circle-Families Forum (PCFF) and The Middle East Children’s Association (MECA). The congregation and the church had a potluck dinner and educational fund raiser at the church, Saturday, Oct. 21, entitled Peace by Piece.
“We wanted to make sure that whatever we support in the Middle East had Israelis and Palestinians coming together,” said Braxton.
This year, on the fifth anniversary of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, Braxton said a five-year anniversary service for peace was necessary. They invited Muslims to join in, and they prayed together and read scripture from all three faiths.
“Maybe in our own small way we’ll be instrumental in making the world a little more peaceful,” said Aft.