Remembering Our Roots

Coming to you from the Jewish Federation of North America (JFNA) National Women's Philanthropy Board meetings in lovely downtown Jersey City, here is this week's blog.

I went to church this past Sunday. Actually, I went to two synagogues and then to church. My congregation, Oheb Shalom Congregation in South Orange, New Jersey, is celebrating its 150th anniversary. As a part of this celebration, we have created a wonderful connection with the congregation that currently occupies Oheb Shalom's last home in Newark, the Wells Baptist Cathedral of Church in Christ. We have been to their Sunday morning service, they have been to a Shabbat morning service at Oheb Shalom and Sunday was designated as the "Walk of Ages: A Fundraising Event 150 Years in the Making." The Walk started at our former Prince Street location, now the home of the Greater Newark Conservancy (www.citybloom.org) and went through the streets of Newark to what Oheb Shalom "old-timers" still refer to as the "High Street shul," the magnificent building on Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Boulevard, next-door to the old YMHA. The members of Oheb Shalom and Wells Cathedral raised funds as walkers for three wonderful organizations associated with the three buildings of Oheb Shalom: the Greater Newark Conservancy, housed in our first building, the Lighthouse Community Services, which provides a multitude of services to the homeless and is a favorite cause of Wells Cathedral, and the Community Food Bank, which Oheb Shalom has supported and participated in for several decades since moving to South Orange. You can read all about the Walk of Ages, our amazing team of volunteers, clergy and staff that made the day possible at www.oheb150.org.

The Walk of Ages alone was an inspiring moment, but the interfaith service at Wells Cathedral that followed was one of the highlights of my time as a member of Oheb Shalom Congregation. When I served as president of Oheb Shalom, our historian and past president (and descendant of our founding rabbi Isaac Schwarz) David Schechner made sure I got to Wells Cathedral. I had heard about the beautiful stained glass windows in our "High Street" home for as long as I could remember and I was eager to see them. Upon walking into the sanctuary, I actually gasped. Not just because the windows are so unusual and breathtaking, which they certainly are, but because the sanctuary felt like home. Our main sanctuary on Scotland Road is almost the same size and shape as the one at Wells Cathedral, and I felt as if I had been in the room many times. The Wells Cathedral has lovingly preserved and cared for this building –  the Jewish stars are still on the ends of the pews and in the decorative friezes over what was once the bima and is now the altar. The stained glass windows, with their depictions of menorahs, the Ten Commandments and the hands of the priestly blessing still glow.

But when I saw it the first time, the sanctuary was empty, devoid of the human spirit that makes a house of worship a home. On Sunday, it was full, with the life and joy of two congregations coming together to share what we have in common, a devotion to repairing the world in the name of God. We were welcomed so warmly and with such gracious hospitality that I felt we were meeting old friends. We sang - two congregational choirs coming together in an amazing and joyful sound that had all of us on our feet. Rabbi Mark Cooper and Pastor Hersey Taylor spoke meaningfully about the nature of faith in action. To hear words of Torah sung again from a lectern where they had rung out for years moved me to tears. For me, it was the last song that said it all. We sang "I Need You to Survive." The words "I need you, you need me, I pray for you, you pray for me, I need you to survive" echoed over and over in the sanctuary. We sang them joyfully to each other and to our new friends. And it's true. We need more reliance on each other, we need to care about each other, and we simply need more people of good will and strong action to make the world a better place in these challenging times.

MetroWest's roots in Newark continue to inform more than just Oheb Shalom Congregation. There is a Newark Advisory Council, run by our UJC Community Relations Committee that works to address the issues, challenges and triumphs of Newark. The other two congregations that trace their historic roots to Newark (and who have already celebrated their 150th anniversaries), Temple B'nai Jeshurun and Temple B'nai Abraham, are also committed, like Oheb Shalom, to social action programs that aid Newark's current residents. The Weequahic roots that bind together many MetroWest friends and families still make us a strong and vibrant community. I have no idea what the founders of Oheb Shalom would have made of last Sunday, but I envision an ongoing relationship between my congregation and Wells Cathedral that will help move us forward into the next 150 years.

Here's to remembering our roots and those that gave us wings.

Leslie

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