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Joining Black, Jewish Voices

January 12, 2012 By:
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Members of the Unity Choir rehearse for an upcoming concert. Photo by Greg Bezanis

Between raising two young boys in Merion Station and working as an organizational consultant, Lisa Kollisch Gottesman said she never had time to keep up her former involvement in choral singing.

But at a friend's urging, last week she joined the Unity Choir, an annual collaboration of Zion Baptist Church, Main Line Reform Temple-Beth Elohim and Beth Am Israel.

Just the first rehearsal "reignited my passion for singing," said Gottesman, 52.

"There was something really terrific about the fact that we are different but we're sharing this thing that we both love to do," said Gottesman.

The choir, which has grown to more than 70 members in recent years, is one of the most visible signs of the long-standing relationship among the Main Line congregations.

It's now, in the days leading up to the annual commemoration of the life and work of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., that such fellowships become a focal point. At least a handful of synagogues have made a concerted effort to maintain ties to the black community and, in particular, to nearby churches.

The Jewish connection to Zion Baptist Church in Ardmore dates back to the early 1990s, when the Rev. James Pollard met Rabbi Max Hausen, the former head of Main Line Reform in Wynnewood. Initially, Pollard said, the idea was to celebrate what King had meant to both groups. Pollard came to speak at a Shabbat service at Main Line Reform, bringing congregants with him, and Hausen did the same that Sunday.

The exchange grew year by year, Pollard said. Their singers formed the Unity Choir to accompany the services. Members of Beth Am Israel, a Conservative congregation, joined in as well.

"Soon there's not going to be a place to hold it," joked Carolyn Hatcher, 50, who directs the Zion Baptist choir. "Everyone just seems to get along and they love it."

As 24-year-old Allison Watman described, "It was kind of like we were singing about the same thing. Even though we were coming from different religions, we were all spiritual people who were thankful for what we have." Watman, a vocal performance graduate of Muhlenberg College now studying juggling, said she'd always wanted to sing gospel music but never had the opportunity.

"It really raises you up and lifts your spirits, which is a change from stereotypical Jewish music, which is often in minor keys," said Watman, a member of Beth Am Israel.

Not only has the interfaith exchange been socially edifying, Pollard said, "it's a yearly spiritual renewal for our congregations."

"It's like what we call a revival service," he said, remembering one year when the combined congregations were having such a good time that you could "hear the collective 'awww' " when it was time to wrap up.

Hoping to build connections beyond a once-a-year gathering, the religious leaders have hosted additional events outside of Martin Luther King Day, from youth programs to interfaith Bible studies.

Over the past decade, Beth Am Chazzan Harold Messinger and Pollard's son, James Jr., experimented with a "Freedom seder" and then a related concert that included pop, reggae, spirituals and traditional Passover music set to gospel and blues. Drawing from that repertoire and additional songs they wrote together, the two musicians last year gathered Unity Choir members to record a CD. The album, "These Songs of Freedom," has already sold 600 copies, Messinger said. This year, the choir will again unite beyond the January services to perform at a middle school and HIAS' annual fundraising gala in the spring.

A few of their Jewish gospel creations have even been incorporated into regular services at Beth Am, Messinger said, which has resonated with members looking for a musical way to deepen their spiritual journey.

Similar to the collaboration on the Main Line, congregants at Rodeph Shalom in Center City this weekend will honor King with a Shabbat service featuring a sermon from the reverend of Bright Hope Baptist Church. They've been doing this since 2008, and before that for several years with another church. Last January, about 30 members of the Bright Hope choir joined them on the bimah, singing "Hinei Ma Tov" to the melody of "Amazing Grace," among other tunes. This year, only a handful of singers are expected due to a time change.

Aside from the church visit, the two congregations have held joint youth community service programs, and Rabbi William Kuhn has brought members of the Hebrew school confirmation class when he delivered a sermon at a springtime Bright Hope service. "Some may call their God 'Yahweh' and others may call their God 'Jesus' but when you look at the tenets of the faith, they are the same," said the Rev. Kevin Johnson of Bright Hope Baptist in North Philly. "And if they are the same we should find a way to work together."

On top of the inspiring musical exchange, Rabbi Eli Freedman recounted striking up a friendship with Bright Hope's youth minister at last year's service. Freedman later invited him for dinner and to speak at an upcoming adult education session on interfaith dialogue in mid-February.

Perhaps continuing events like these will "rekindle that spirit of the 60s when there was real camaraderie and the spirit of brotherhood between the two communities," Freedman said.

Along with this year's service, the synagogue will host two dinners -- one specifically for young adults, in partnership with the Idea Coalition.

"There hasn't been a huge focus on dialogue, and we believe that's something missing in the broader society," explained Center City attorney Kory Grushka, 32, who founded the Idea Coalition in winter 2009 to convene blacks and Jews via social networking events and small group dialogues. "There's a natural fit between the two communities because a lot of our values are surprisingly similar."

Since June, the coalition has hosted a monthly series of black-Jewish dialogues with a variety of organizations, such as the Urban League and the Jewish Community Relations Council. Grushka said he's also planning to engage Temple University students in March when the Coalition's traveling art exhibit of about 40 pieces on slavery and the Holocaust will be displayed at the Hillel building.

Out in the suburbs, the relationship between Beth Or, a Reform congregation in Maple Glen, and the nearby Bethlehem Baptist Church spans more than 20 years, according to Rabbi Craig Axler.

Aside from interfaith services for MLK Day and Thanksgiving, congregants have met up for luncheons, youth programs, adult education courses and even a trip to the Frederick Douglass house and the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, D.C.

The connection is predicated on a feeling "of being responsible for one another and the idea that when we do well, it's because everyone's doing well," Axler said. "It's helped each of us grow both in terms of our internal mission and in our relationship to the outside community. They are on speed dial and I'm pretty sure we're on theirs."

They were in such constant collaboration that six years ago, when Beth Or was constructing a larger synagogue, leaders offered Bethlehem Baptist the first chance to buy their existing building in Spring House. The church accepted, and even agreed to let Beth Or continue renting the space after the sale went through when construction delays pushed back the opening of the synagogue, Axler said.

A few years after that, the religious leaders teamed up to organize a group of "Faith Builders" to handle everything from fundraising to constructing a Habitat for Humanity home. Best of all, Axler said, the future homeowners working alongside them were longtime members of the church. Last spring, the two congregations shared a bus to the city to participate in the Anti-Defamation League's "Walk Against Hate."

"Our people have grown to truly love one another," Axler said. "When we see each other in the community, they walk up to me and say, 'Hello rabbi,' and I look at them and I can tell just from the way they approach me that this is a Bethlehem Baptist person."

While several formalized relationships have disintegrated -- the activist Black Jewish Coalition, for example -- others have cropped up focusing on the younger generation. Aside from Grushka's Idea Coalition, the Interfaith Center of Greater Philadelphia, which opened in 2004, has brought together teens from Beth Or, Germantown Jewish Centre and several other synagogues for "Walking the Walk" interfaith dialogue and community service programs. And Operation Understanding is still going strong, entering its 27th year of bringing black and Jewish high school students together for diversity training and summer travel.

Speaking for Lower Merion, religious leaders said the connection they'd forged had definitely made a tangible impact.

"When there are issues that confront our communities, it's not a stranger on the other end of the phone that I can pick up and call," Main Line Reform Rabbi David Straus said, noting that his congregation participates in ongoing dialogues with nearby churches. "While on one hand we think that issues of race and ethnicity have been resolved, the truth is that they're just below the surface of everything we see and do. People of different races and ethnicities can look at the exact same thing, understand it in radically different ways and be absolutely dumfounded that they would see it completely differently."

Pollard pointed to his wife's election to the Lower Merion school board -- the first black person on the board in a quarter of a century -- as a sign of success. "It's big time," he said, and it wouldn't have happened without the support of the Jewish community.

"The very fact that, hey, I can hug you and you can hug me and we can fellowship, it just makes a different place," Pollard said. "If there was a need and crisis as there was in the 1960s, I'm sure that you would see quite an alliance out here in Lower Merion. I feel that deep in my heart, I really do." 

 

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