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The City's Highly Unusual Christian-Jewish Partnership (1994)

We congregants of Saint Clare’s Church and Temple Beth Emeth recognize that even today, we enjoy a unique arrangement. Yet today, few of us think of our partnership as all that novel, let alone visionary.


It’s easy to forget how “highly unusual” our “Christian-Jewish partnership” partnership was seen by the public, even two decades after our founding. In 1994, when we were building our new sanctuary, the Ann Arbor Observer published this article about us, chronicling some of our rich past from the vantage point of one stop along our journey. It recalls the idealism of our “first ever in the universe” partnership, which Genesis founding Rabbi Bruce Washall described as “one act of sanity in a sea of xenophobia.”


The article reveals much about our struggles along the way, about building our partnership in the context of “old and deep” tensions between Christianity and Judaism, discussed in a manner that would likely be put more delicately today, if raised at all. That this sort of discussion now seems quaint only demonstrates how far we’ve come and highlights how much pride we deserve to take in our commitment to each other and to our vision.


Genesis of Ann Arbor

With the opening of a new sanctuary this month, the city's highly unusual Christian-Jewish partnership is being renewed and expanded.

by Peter Ephross

September 1994

ANN ARBOR OBSERVER


Minutes after Saturday morning services at Temple Beth Emeth, Teil Marcus goes to work. Marcus, an employee of the Packard Road congregation, closes the Ark behind wooden doors and pulls the cross from behind the wall. He moves the eternal flame to the side and takes all the chairs off the raised platform in front of the Ark. He replaces the blue-and-white Israeli flag with the red-white-and-blue flag of the Episcopal Church.

 

Later that afternoon, Cory Allender, president of the altar guild of St. Clare’s Episcopal Church, continues the transformation. Along with her husband and her mother, Allender encircles the steps to the altar with rails and long kneeling pads and puts a large prayer book and covered silver plate and goblets holding the wafers and the wine for the rectors’ communion on top of white linens on the altar table. Then they put plates and pitchers for the congregation’s communion on tables in the front and back of the sanctuary.

 

By the time worshipers arrive for the Episcopal communion service on Sunday morning, there is no hint that Jewish Sabbath services were held the day before. “We made an agreement a long time ago that when it’s the church it’s the church and when it’s the synagogue it’s the synagogue,” says St. Clare’s rector, the Reverend Doug Evett.

 

It’s not unusual for a Jewish congregation—particularly one in its infancy—to rent space temporarily from a Christian church.

“The idea of sharing with a church while one of them is small and is growing and is trying to build up enough capital to move out on its own is kind of an old hallowed tradition,” says Beth Emeth rabbi Bob Levy.

But the relationship between Beth Emeth and St. Clare’s goes far beyond that. Since 1974, the two congregations have been legally joined in Genesis of Ann Arbor, a limited partnership that owns the building both occupy at 2301 Packard Road. Genesis is “one act of sanity in a sea of xenophobia,” says Bruce Warshal, the rabbi at Beth Emeth when the partnership began.

 

Ann Arbor’s Christian-Jewish partnership was “the first ever in the universe,” says Bob Levy. Even today, it’s exceedingly rare. No national organization keeps track, but estimates range from five others nationwide to none.

 

The relationship is not without its problems. Cory Allender recalls that St. Clare’s members once left a Christmas tree up, not realizing it would bother Beth Emeth, and that the shuffling about of people waiting to set up for a 1 p.m. Jewish wedding one Sunday annoyed the church worshipers. Allender compares the relationship to “being in a family with eight or nine kids, where the younger kids say, ‘How come they get to stay up late past midnight and we don’t?’ and the older kids look at the younger kids say, ‘How come they get presents and we don’t?’”

 

But it’s a relationship both sides are committed to. This month, barring last-minute construction delays, Beth Emeth’s members will celebrate Rosh Hashanah and observe Yom Kippur, the most sacred days on the Jewish calendar, in a brand-new sanctuary. It is the centerpiece of a $3 million dollar building project that has renewed and extended this brave ecumenical experiment.

 

The tensions between Christianity and Judaism are old and deep. Although the two religions share many traditions and beliefs, according to Ralph Williams, a U-M English professor and a specialist in the Bible and Christian-Jewish relations, one difference has been emphasized since Christianity’s early days: Jews do not believe in the divinity of Jesus of Nazareth. Ever since Christian theology developed the view that those who did not accept Jesus “were doing so at the peril of their own souls,” says Williams, “that view has haunted Christian-Jewish relations.”

 

The tensions do not end there. While the New Testament teaches Christians that Jews are God’s chosen people, it also has taught them that Jews were in some way responsible for Jesus’s crucifixion. (This despite the fact, Williams emphasizes, that crucifixion was not a Jewish but a Roman method of execution.) “The explanation came that he was not killed by the Romans, but that he was killed by the Romans at the instigation of the leaders of the Jews, or what the texts simply call the Jews,” explains Williams.

 

Since Christians understood Jews to have rejected God, “at times of social stress, of times of plagues, at times of disorder, altogether too frequently it became easy to blame the Jews,” explains Williams. Such scapegoating led to outbreaks of anti-Semitic violence—bloody attacks “clad in the sanctity of religious understanding.”


In the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, the relationship between Christians and Jews followed two contradictory paths: although in many countries Jews were finally granted equal rights under the law, the twentieth century also saw the most extreme and grotesque anti-Jewish violence—the murder of approximately ‘six million Jews in the Holocaust. The combined historical weight of these events had an effect on many Christians.

 

Doug Evett, who came to Ann Arbor in 1972 to be St. Clare’s rector, was one of those. Evett grew up in a small town in central Michigan where there were few Jews and attended an Episcopalian college in southern Tennessee. “I had almost no previous exposure to Jewish people,” he says. But the contemporary highs and lows of Jewish history—the tragedy of the Holocaust and the establishment of the State of Israel—profoundly affected him.

 

Like many activist clergy who came of age in the 1960’s, Evett also had interests beyond a clergyman’s traditional role. “I have a lot more interest in the Christian faith than in the Christian institution,” he says. At St. Clare’s, a unique set of circumstances allowed Evett to establish a local partnership that ran counter to the centuries of mistrust.

 

In the mid-1960’s, a group of Ann Arbor Jews formed Beth Emeth (in Hebrew, “house of truth”), a congregation based around the precepts of Reform Judaism. According to the Encyclopaedia Britannica, the Reform movement arose in the nineteenth century, motivated by a desire to establish “a non-national Judaism similar in form to Protestantism and adapted to the surrounding culture.” Reform Judaism uses limited Hebrew in services, for example, and doesn’t require observance of many of the traditional practices, such as dietary laws. (Some of Beth Emeth’s founders had previously attended Beth Israel, the local Conservative Jewish congregation, which has existed since 1916.)

 

The new Beth Emeth met in the First Congregational Church on State at William on August 19, 1966, at the invitation of the church’s minister, Terry Smith. Smith’s congregants did not share his enthusiasm for the arrangement, however, and after two services Beth Emeth was looking for a new home. It turned to the First Unitarian Universalist church on Washtenaw.

 

Although several longtime Unitarians remember the relationship as being generally positive, Beth Emeth member Linda Vanek says that over the next few years, “the Unitarians became very uncomfortable with having us there.” As Beth Emeth’s religious education director, Vanek fielded petty complaints such as crayons being left on the classroom floor.

 

An incident in 1970 brought the problems between Beth Emeth and First Unitarian to a head. A group of African-American activists, members of the Black Economic Development League, began staging protests at local churches. Charles Thomas, the activists’ leader, would interrupt worship services to read the Black Manifesto, a list of grievances suffered by blacks and a demand that U.S. churches raise approximately $500 million to buy land for blacks in the South and to support a black university and several black publishing houses.

 

Articles in the Ann Arbor News of the time recount that after Thomas and his fellow activists interrupted services and organized sit-ins, many local churches agreed to give them money. But not Bruce Warshal, then Beth Emeth’s rabbi.

 

Warshal, now the publisher for a chain of Jewish newspapers in South Florida, remembers that Thomas called him up on a Friday to say that he would be coming to read the Black Manifesto at services that evening. Warshal told Thomas that there already was a speaker for that evening’s services and offered him time the following week. When Thomas refused to wait, Warshal threatened him with a legal injunction. “I’m on your side, but I’m a tougher son of a bitch than you are,” he recalls telling Thomas. Warshal, who had been a civil rights lawyer for CORE (the Congress of Racial Equality) “was a wonderfully aggressive guy,” says Doug Evett.

 

Warshal followed through on his threat. According to the January 10, 1970 Ann Arbor News, when Thomas arrived, he was shown the preliminary injunction granted earlier that day by Circuit Court Judge Ross W. Campbell. According to the News, Thomas left, saying, “I don’t want to spend the night in [then-sheriff Doug] Harvey’s hotel so I’ll leave.”

 

Although a few other congregations followed Warshal’s example, the episode further soured relations between First Unitarian and Beth Emeth. Looking for a new home, they found what they wanted at St. Clare’s.


Church services were first held on the Packard Road property in the 1940's, in a small private chapel built by an extraordinary physician, Dr. Inez Wisdom. After graduating from the U-M medical school in 1923 and working in Philadelphia and in Sturgis, Michigan, Wisdom returned to Ann Arbor in 1937 to set up a family practice on North University. With Gertrude Griffith—described by Susan Wineberg and Marjorie Reade in Historic Buildings of Ann Arbor, Michigan, as the doctor’s “longtime tenant and companion”—she moved into a historic Greek Revival house on Packard.

1948: Dr. Inez Wisdom at her chapel
1948: Dr. Inez Wisdom at her chapel

A devout woman who had lived abroad. Wisdom decided, in the English tradition, to build a chapel at her home. A 1941 Ann Arbor News article speculated that her motivation came from reading “so many English books (especially murders) and there’s always a chapel lurking around in those books.”

 

Architect Aare Lahti designed the brick “Wisdom Chapel,” which is still used by St. Clare’s for small services. It has stained-glass windows and a fresco on the wall behind the altar that mixes the sacred and the everyday: behind the main subject—the transfiguration of Jesus—and pictures of Peter, Elijah, and Moses, are the U-M Hospital, Wisdom’s house, and the chapel itself.

 

Wisdom and her friends, many of them U-M faculty and their spouses, held services in the chapel whenever they could get a minister to officiate. By the early 1950’s, the number attending was beginning to outgrow the small building. In 1953, Wisdom donated the chapel and the land south of the house to the Episcopal diocese. A small church, named St. Clare’s, was built on the donated property in 1955. In 1965, Wisdom died and Griffith moved to Pennsylvania. The remainder of the property reverted to St. Clare’s, which had grown into a sizable congregation. It had about 150 families by 1969, when the building that until this month served as its sanctuary was built for $175,000.

 

In 1970, when Beth Emeth needed a new home, St. Clare’s was ready. Longtime member Judy Avery says that the spirit of the times favored such an ecumenical move. “I think it seemed possible to do some things that previously hadn’t been possible to do,” she says. St. Clare’s, Doug Evett adds, “has never been a congregation that has understood itself in an exclusionary way.”

 

Beginning in the summer of 1970, Beth Emeth used St. Clare’s building for Friday night services, and St. Clare’s used it on Sundays. From Beth Emeth’s point of view, St. Clare’s new, modem, brick-and-glass sanctuary was more comfortable than a traditional Christian church. “One saving grace for a Jewish community is that our room has almost no Christian symbols besides the cross and the altar,” says Evett. There were other things that, on the heels of the tense relationship with First Unitarian, made Beth Emeth’s members feel welcome. Linda Vanek recalls how happy she was when the St. Clare’s altar guild embroidered a cover for the pulpit table with a Star of David.

 

In those first few years, the rental agreement was thought of as temporary, “All the time their expectation was that they’d build their own place somewhere in ; town,” recalls Evett. With approximately 150 families by the early 1970’s, Beth Emeth was “growing to the point where we were going to have to build,” recalls Bruce Warshal. But Doug Evett had other ideas.

 

“I was talking to Bruce Warshal right here in this office, and I said, ‘Why don’t: you stay?’” Evett remembers. Warshal was receptive. The two had a common attitude toward spirituality, says Warshal. “We were both questers.” Newspaper photos of the time show two earnest, friendly looking young men, Warshal with side-bums and Evett with lots of wavy hair.

 

Throughout 1974, the two congregations’ boards met together. The agreement that created Genesis was signed at the end of that year, and the dedication ceremony—covered by NBC News—took place the following May.

 

As part of the agreement, Beth Emeth agreed to take over two small mortgages from St. Clare’s and to build additional space for an educational wing. Four members from each congregation sit on the board of Genesis, which taxes the two congregations equally for the upkeep of the property. While the agreement is full of legalese, a certain idealism shines through: “Although the world has always been torn by distrust, suspicion, waste, . prejudice, and the threat of economic upheaval and war, its citizens are today becoming more aware of the absolute need to trust, conserve, believe, give and love if we and our heirs are to survive as the children of God,” reads one passage.

 

There was some reluctance and opposition among the congregations. About 10 to 20 percent of Beth Emeth members, Bruce Warshal remembers, hesitated, saying “it was one thing to rent [from Christians], but it was another thing to share a building.” But Warshal doesn’t recall any Beth Emeth congregants quitting because of the partnership agreement.

 

“I lost six families,” says Doug Evett. A Syrian family left immediately after the agreement was reached. They didn’t mind worshiping in the same sanctuary as Jews, Evett recalls, but said their family back home would disown them if they learned of it. A few others—whom Evett dismisses as “anti-Semites who didn’t know it”— also left the congregation.

 

Since that time, both congregations have thrived. By the early 1990’s, they had grown so much that they had to decide whether to expand or abandon their collaboration. For different reasons, both congregations needed more space. “Churches outgrow sanctuaries, synagogues outgrow schools,” comments E*€it St. Clare’s, despite what Evett calls “the generalized decline of mainline Christian churches,” had grown to 200 “units” (a unit is anything from a single individual to a large family). Attendance at the 10 a.m. Sunday service often overflowed the 200 seats in the sanctuary. Beth Emeth’s membership was even larger, about 350 units. While regular weekly services at Beth Emeth were rarely crowded, the temple needed more room for High Holiday services—Yom Kippur and Rosh Hashanah—which draw several hundred more people. And because the temple had outgrown the educational wing built in the 1970’s, it had had to strike deals with the Jewish Community Center for space to hold some of its classes.

 

Some members in both congregations resisted expansion. Many St. Clarians, including Doug Evett, who come out of what he calls “this liberal, save-the-world tradition,” had to overcome their belief “that you don’t put money into buildings if you want to save the poor. We had to make an enormous theological and psychological adjustment to the fact that we might consider investing a great deal of money into building.”

 

Some of Beth Emeth’s congregants hesitated, too. “When we said we were going to share this building with Christians, people didn’t run and want to buy a ticket. People had to struggle with it,” explains Bob Levy. Some Beth Emeth members “felt ‘Why don’t we do it on our own?’” says Linda Vanek. Part of the opposition within Beth Emeth arose from the Jewish struggle for identity and survival in a Christian world. “The whole world is Christian—schools have Christmas trees; the malls have Santa Claus. We want a place that doesn’t have those things,” says Levy, describing the attitude of some Beth Emeth members. The constant hostility and sporadic violence Jews have faced over 2,000 years has given them a strong survival instinct, adds Ralph Williams.

 

Levy and Evett agree that St Clare’s has more of its identity invested in the relationship than Beth Emeth has. “The church sees Genesis as part of its mission. We see Genesis as part of our identity, but our mission is to serve the Jewish community of Washtenaw County,” Levy explains.

 

This wariness about the agreement increased when Beth Emeth learned that the planned new building would not meet all the space needs of its religious school. But surveys of the members of both congregations showed large majorities in favor of the project. After countless meetings—“joint ownership slows things down,” Evett says—the two congregations agreed to continue the relationship and expand the building together. Ultimately, the Genesis board decided to accept bids for an all-new sanctuary.

 

Designed by John Hilberry and Associates, the new building will eventually cost approximately $3 million, $1 million more than was first budgeted. (The cost is being borne proportionately according to membership, two-thirds by Beth Emeth and one-third by St. Clare’s.)

 

The two congregations will worship in a high-ceilinged octagonal sanctuary with plenty of windows that stands between Inez Wisdom’s house and the Wisdom Chapel. Only the 100 movable chairs in the center of the sanctuary will be illuminated during small services; for bigger turnouts, 200 more people can sit in pews behind the chairs, and still more seating on the sides increases the capacity to at least 500.

 

A small Jewish chapel—“an exclusively Jewish space,” Beth Emeth members emphasize repeatedly—and a gift shop connect the old and the new sanctuaries. New office space and classrooms have also been added, though the temple will still have to rent rooms from the JCC for its religious school. The old sanctuary will be available to both congregations and to the community at large. “Part of the traditions of both congregations is that we are a community resource,” says building committee co-chair Alan Cotzin.

 

Perhaps the best symbol of this unique partnership is the design of the religious symbols at the front of the altar in the new sanctuary. When the middle two of four wooden doors are opened, the Torah is exposed. When St Clare’s uses the sanctuary, those two middle doors are closed. When the two outermost doors are folded toward the center, the cross appears in relief.


1995: Construction of the current sanctuary. Bob Levy and Doug Evett oversee a partnership that’s been called “one act of sanity in a sea of xenophobia.”

On December 31 of this year, Genesis of Ann Arbor will celebrate its twentieth anniversary. What makes the relationship work? Perhaps the simplest explanation is the town itself. “There are a significant number of people in Ann Arbor who, when visitors come from somewhere else, will drive them by here in an effort to explain Ann Arbor,” says Doug Evett. “They don’t know anything about us; they don’t worship here. They come by and say, ‘This is the kind of town Ann Arbor is, where two people that historically have been at each other’s throats could live together.’"

 

Bob Levy, while proud of the relationship, is skeptical that Ann Arbor’s liberalism is the catalyst. He argues that the similarities between the liberal versions of the two faiths have more to do with it. Many Beth Emeth congregants, he believes, look at St. Clare’s members and think, “Except for the fact that they’re Christians, they’re like us.” The two congregations also have a similar age makeup: baby boomers in their twenties when Genesis was formed, they are now in their forties.

 

On a practical level, it helps that the two congregations have distinct boundaries. “It’s not a very sentimental thing. It’s more of a business thing,” says Evett. While many intermarried families call looking for combined Christian-Jewish services, the two congregations never worship together, save at a Thanksgiving service once a year and a joint seder in celebration of Passover.

 

This separation is made easier by the fact that both sides have distinct beliefs— tenets more specific than those of, say, the Unitarians. “They’re more Christian. Frankly, that’s what makes it work better,” says Linda Vanek. “They don’t have any worries about where they might stand on an issue.”

 

While the congregations remain distinct, some of their members have developed an unusual closeness. Linda Vanek was pleasantly surprised that people from St. Clare’s showed up at the dedication of the Ann Arbor Holocaust Memorial in March. “It was just an overwhelming feeling that they would want to be there for support,” says Vanek.

 

Bob Levy, who once a year gives a sermon on the New Testament at St. Clare’s, says that “at St. Clare’s if I want to say something about the tortured road that Jews and Christians have sometimes walked together, I would have no trouble saying that.”

 

There have been a few attempts at similar co-ownership around the country. Efforts in suburban Washington, D.C., and in Long Island haven’t gotten very far. Over the past year, two congregations in Waterloo, Ontario, that are considering joint ownership have contacted Genesis for information.

 

But the relationship remains rare—and relatively uncelebrated. Local representatives of both religions are supportive, say members of both congregations. But at a national Episcopalian conference in Detroit a few years ago, Doug Evett couldn’t convince anyone to drive over to Ann Arbor to take a look at his unique set-up. A call to the national Reform movement in New York failed to find anyone who knew anything about joint Jewish-Christian building ownership.

 

It’s not surprising, says Ralph Williams, that very few if any congregations have managed to copy the Ann Arbor model. That St. Clare’s and Beth Emeth have managed it, he says, “is a tribute to both of them.”


 reprinted here with the permission of the author


1994-09 Genesis - Ann Arbor Observer
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