By Cindy Mindell
GREENWICH – A couple of years after the Berlin Wall had been smashed to bits, another wall was coming down, much smaller and outside the media spotlight, but still significant.
That was the physical barrier between Temple Sholom and Christ Church, adjacent houses of worship on East Putnam Avenue in Greenwich. And since that day in the early ‘90s, the connection and cooperation between the two have continued to grow, taking congregants from communal celebrations to the top of Masada and the Mount of Beatitudes.
The two leaders behind the interfaith initiative known as the Sholom Center are Rabbi Mitchell Hurvitz and the Rev’d. Dr. James Lemler. Both have made this aspect of their work a high priority.
Though Hurvitz’s formal engagement in interfaith activity only began with his arrival at Temple Sholom in 1995, his personal experience runs deep. A native of pre-Silicon Valley Palo Alto, Calif., Hurvitz grew up in a small Jewish community and had mostly non-Jewish friends. He took guitar lessons from Sister Mary in a Catholic church in his neighborhood. When his Bubbe, who had never entered a church, didn’t want to go to Hurvitz’s recital in the sanctuary, the nun moved the performance to the social hall and the two women became friends. “The first song I played was “Hatikvah,” Hurvitz recalls.
Hurvitz came to Temple Sholom in 1995 as assistant rabbi to Hillel Silverman (now rabbi emeritus) and was surprised to discover that there was more interfaith collaboration in the community than he had seen in New York or L.A., mostly through the Greenwich Fellowship of Clergy. Silverman had developed a personal relationship with Jack Bishop, then-rector of Christ Church. As a result of their association, the stone wall that separated the two institutions was taken down at a special ceremony in the early ‘90s.
Hurvitz succeeded Silverman as senior rabbi in 2001 and became more involved in the Greenwich Fellowship of Clergy, serving as president and developing a friendship with Lemler, who became rector of Christ Church in 2007.
Lemler came to Greenwich after serving as the Episcopal Church’s director of mission and, prior to that, as dean and president of the Evanston, Ill.-based Seabury-Western Theological Seminary. In both positions, ecumenical and interfaith affairs took center stage. “From the early part of the 20th century, the Episcopal Church has put a real impetus and effort in the areas of ecumenical and interfaith life,” he says. “It’s a big part of our heritage: we were one of the founders of the World Council of Churches and the National Council of Churches in the U.S. As a denomination, we have been part of many interfaith efforts and interfaith reconciliation.”
Hurvitz and Lemler strengthened their rapport through the Greenwich Fellowship of Clergy until finally, in 2010, they decided to formalize the relationship, creating the Sholom Center for Interfaith Learning and Fellowship. “Interfaith programming allows for a broader view of religion and spirituality and is meant to be a service to the whole community,” Lemler says. “It’s a way for people to see the connections between faith traditions and the importance of solidarity around ecumenical issues.”
Hurvitz and Lemler co-founded the Sholom Center with the intention to further strengthen the relationship between their adjacent houses of worship, but also with the specific aim of involving other community partners. In addition to other local churches, Sholom Center programming is often co-sponsored with the Interfaith Council of Southwestern Connecticut, where Hurvitz served as chair of the Congregational Life Committee, and the AJC Westchester Regional Office, among other area organizations.
“My closest friends are priests and ministers,” Hurvitz says. “When I had the ability to expand my friendships with them in a formal way, it was very exciting.”
Programs include pulpit exchanges, educational events with speakers and scholars-in-residence, and communal celebrations and commemorations including Passover, Kristallnacht, and Chanukah. As part of the annual Greenwich Reads Together, the Sholom Center hosted several group book discussions. As a result, Hurvitz launched the Spirituality Project last fall, an informal monthly forum for small-group interfaith conversation co-facilitated by Assistant Rabbi David Saiger of Temple Sholom and the Rev’d. Jennifer Owen, curate and youth minister of Christ Church.
The Sholom Center has hosted two interfaith trips to Israel, with a third planned for next February. Hurvitz and Lemler each led a recent trip for their respective congregations, and both returned with the same reaction: the interfaith experience is a richer one.
“When Jews and Christians go and visit holy sites together, they see each other’s faith traditions up close,” says Hurvitz. “When Jews see a Christian offering a prayer from the heart, in the vernacular, they think,
‘Shouldn’t I do that too?’ It’s powerful and really empowering.”
Lemler adds, “There is a sense of respect because, for the Christians, most of whom have not been in Israel before, it is the first time they’ve been able to experience both the tradition of Judaism and the political realities of Israel. For the Jewish pilgrims, it’s the first time they’ve been able to engage in the church in that way and be at holy sites for Christians, with Christians.”
Not everyone is comfortable with interfaith encounters, on either side of the table, both spiritual leaders say. “People feel the scars of history, and there is still anger toward the church,” Hurvitz says. “I still have people who feel nervous about kids going into a church or being exposed to the religion. But my experience is that, especially for Jews, the exposure they have to Christians who take their religion seriously helps them bolster their own commitment to Judaism.”
While there are Christian denominations that do not seek interfaith interaction, Lemler says for the Episcopal Church, “interfaith conversation broadens and deepens our understanding of God and that understanding would be much less without it,” he says.
The only option is to keep working toward reconciliation, Lemler says. “In the misunderstanding that has happened … which has resulted in blatant antisemitism in the past and real misunderstanding between Jewish and Christian communities, the reconciliation done in these interfaith efforts is remarkable and people have a deeper understanding of our faith traditions and our walk in holiness. There’s still a lot of work to do because we’re not there yet – we don’t represent the kind of shalom that is the purpose God has for humanity.”
On May 16 and 18, the Sholom Center, St. Catherine of Siena Church in Greenwich, and the Interfaith Council of Southwestern CT will host Rabbis Charles and Erez Sherman, authors of the newly published book, The Broken and the Whole: Discovering Joy after Heartbreak – Lessons from a Life of Faith. For more information: templesholom.com / (203) 869-7191.