PW refers to Emmanuel Church’s relationship with Boston Jewish Spirit (BJS) as similar to an interfaith family. There is an increasing amount of what I think of as cross-fertilization between the two communities. Members of Emmanuel frequently attend BJS services, Torah study, and special events, and vice versa. There is also a growing number of interfaith couples who belong to both congregations.
Our communities often combine forces to put on events. For example, tomorrow we begin the third season of the Art and Spirituality talkback series at Speakeasy Stage, what PW calls “The rabbi and the priest go to the theater.” Usually a dozen or so people from each congregation attend the play together, and then the entire audience is invited to stay afterwards to participate in a discussion led by PW and Rabbi Howard Berman. This series has grown in popularity and at the end of last season, there were usually 40-50 people staying afterwards for the talkbacks. Sunday’s play is Sarah Ruhl’s latest work, “In the Next Room (or the vibrator play).” I can’t wait to hear what spiritual themes Rabbi Berman and PW discover in this one!
This past Sunday, Emmanuel Church began the celebration of its sesquicentennial. In a planning committee meeting this summer, I suggested that our sesquicentennial slogan could be “150 Years of Trouble,” since the church archives reveal that it’s been an edgy — even outrageous — place from the get-go. In celebration of making it this far, I engaged some graphic artists in the congregation to develop some new door signs, with a far better slogan that PW created.
At the beginning of the celebratory luncheon after Sunday’s service, PW explained the slogan on the signs: “Emmanuel: 150 Years. WHO would believe it? Yes!” As she said in both her remarks on Sunday, and in an upcoming church newsletter article, “According to the Zohar, the 13th century foundational document of Jewish mystical tradition, ‘Who’ is a name for God. The Zohar says that when you gaze up to the stars in awe and wonder, ‘Who created these?’ (the question asked in Isaiah 40:26), in that very moment you will discover the answer: ‘Who created these!’ It’s a little like the old Abbot & Costello routine. Who is one of the many names for the Holy One. So the answer to ‘Who created these?’ is ‘YES!’ ‘Who did??’ ‘YES! Who did!'”
PW continued, “Who would believe that Emmanuel Church is 150 years old? YES! OF COURSE! We are inheritors of a collection of Holy Scripture, in the Hebrew Bible and in the Christian Testament, that testifies again and again that it is God, Who, believes in people, no matter how unbelievable we are. So, Who would believe it. Who does believe it!”
In keeping with the Emmanuel-BJS cross-pollination, the president of BJS attended Sunday’s church service and the celebratory luncheon that followed, where she offered a congratulatory message from BJS. To illustrate the uniqueness and power of the growing partnership between our two communities, she shared this story.
A couple of weeks ago, BJS built a sukkah outside one of the church doors, in celebration of the Jewish festival of Sukkot. This is the second year in a row that BJS has built what we’re pretty sure is the only sukkah in the Back Bay neighborhood of Boston. It’s definitely the only sukkah in the swanky shopping district of Newbury Street.
As they were working on the sukkah, an Israeli Jewish woman stopped to take in what they were doing. After a period of stunned silence, the woman asked, incredulously, “You’re building a sukkah in front of a CHURCH??” The BJS folks responded, “Yes!” During the long silence that followed, the woman considered this paradigm-shattering information. She asked a follow-up question, “Do they KNOW that you’re doing this?” The BJS folks laughed and said, “Yes!” More silence before the final follow-up, “And they’re OKAY with this???” “YES!” [I don’t know whether the woman walked off in her cloud of unfathoming, or whether she stayed to get an explanation. I hope it was the latter.] The president of the synagogue concluded the story with a toast to 150 more years of ground-breaking collaboration between the two congregations.
WHO would believe a sukkah in the churchyard? Yes! L’Chaim!