Merger with Hispanic Evangelical church is lifeline for Smithtown Conservative congregation.
If it’s a sign of the times, boy, is it a doozy.
The sign at the entrance to Temple Beth Shalom of Smithtown, at first glance, seems standard-issue; it stands about six feet high, with white letters (announcing the times of services) on a black background inside a glass frame.
But look again, and the bottom part of the sign holds a revelation, so to speak. “JCL,” the sign announces in bright colors, an orange flame inside the curve of the C — Jesus Christ Lives. And underneath that the Spanish version: Ministerio Jesuchristo Vive, a fast-growing Evangelical Christian church.
Welcome to one of the more unique mergers in Jewish congregation life, one that has saved (if we can use that word) a dying Conservative synagogue in Suffolk County and created, at least for the moment, a powerful symbol of interfaith cooperation.
In a bid to stay alive and boost its flagging fortunes, Temple Beth Sholom, a 57-year-old Conservative congregation, is selling its building to the nondenominational Ministerio Jesucristo Vive, home to hundreds of Spanish-speaking families. Under the arrangement, the temple will continue to use the building rent-free for at least the next five years and none of its religious items or memorial plaques will be disturbed.
Indeed, the church pastor, Raymond Jaquez, insisted that everything remain intact and even asked that a lock and alarm be placed on the ark to ensure the safety of the Torah scrolls inside.
As he entered the synagogue’s front doors one day last week, Pastor Jaquez’s eyes lit up when he saw the Tree of Life and Hebrew inscriptions on the walls, the stained glass windows with a Star of David, and a saved-from-the Holocaust Torah in a case outside the sanctuary.
“We believe God is bringing us here to work together with our brother Jews,” he said. “Our goal is to help the growth of the Jewish community. We are not here to convert them.”
Pastor Jaquez then walked down the steps to the lower level of the building, where there were scores of empty classrooms. During Temple Beth Sholom’s heyday when it is said to have had a membership of 500 families, those classrooms had been filled with students. But declining membership and a financial crisis forced the Hebrew school, with just a handful of students, to close last year when it couldn’t pay the teachers. To avert foreclosure, a congregant assumed the mortgage.
“We want Jewish children to come to this synagogue again,” Pastor Jaquez said. “I attended one of the Saturday morning services, and it was so powerful.”
Temple Beth Sholom’s spiritual leader for the past three years, Rabbi Jonathan Waxman, said the building’s sale to the church “gives the congregation a lifeline.”
“There is a clause in the contract that says that for several years this current arrangement continues,” he said. “During this time, the congregation can figure out how to revive itself. It now has breathing space and money in the bank, because the selling price will more than pay the debts, including the mortgage.”
The sale price of the building is $1.775 million, according to several congregants.
Rabbi Waxman pointed out that the congregation had been struggling financially for several years and had “about a dozen suitors who had looked at the building, including several church groups, a Muslim group and Chabad.”
But Pastor Jaquez’s offer was not only higher than the others; it allowed the congregation to keep the rabbi’s parsonage and some property around it, and gave the congregation free use of the building for Shabbat and holiday services.
In fact, Pastor Jaquez said he moved his normal Friday night service to Wednesday night to permit Temple Beth Sholom to continue with its Friday night and Saturday morning services.
“There are all sorts of possibilities down the road,” Rabbi Waxman said. “For the next few years, a core group will keep things going rent-free.”
He said the sale would allow him to keep his office, the synagogue’s main office, storage space and a classroom for meetings. Although the church will now have the synagogue’s catering hall and kitchen, the synagogue is to keep the small kitchen that had been used by the Hebrew school in order to continue having a kosher kitchen.
Richard Skolnik, president of United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism, said he believes that synagogues forced to downsize “will continue to explore different alternatives.”
“We have many variations of this happening,” he said in an e-mail. “Conservative synagogues are merging with Reform synagogues and moving into other types of houses of worship such as a church, which is nothing new. B’nai Jeshurun in New York City has been [holding worship services] in a church for many years. Change is upon us, and as the need exists for smarter facilities, arrangements will be made by the leadership of the kehillot [communities].”
Rabbi Steven Wernick, United Synagogue’s executive vice president and CEO, said it is “too early to tell” whether this sort of church outreach to faltering synagogues might be a paradigm for the future. But he said it resembles what he has found on some college campuses: an interfaith chapel.
“The campuses have a flourishing religious life, and people learn how to get along,” he said. “They do programs that are synergetic and separate when separate is necessary for expression of the faith. It is a paradigm that works on some college campuses; whether it can make the transition remains to be seen. But I do know that real estate is less important today than relationships.”
Glenda Smith, a past president of Beth Shalom, said the congregation attracted about 78 families for the High Holy Days last year. Annual dues are $500 per family, and she would like to see dues remain at that amount next year. Before the recession of 2008, dues had been $1,800.
“The plan is that High Holy Day services will again be held in the sanctuary, and we are encouraging members to stick with us and bring their friends,” Smith said.
Another longtime congregant, Laurie Passalaqua, said Pastor Jaquez “has been beyond gracious to try to keep us in his facility. He even asked me to provide the next five years of dates — Shabbat and holidays — when the temple would want to use the sanctuary so that he would not do something that would interfere with them.”
She noted that on March 4 the congregation voted 64-1 in favor of the sale to Pastor Jaquez’s church, “because if this did not happen, we would have ended up with nothing.”
Unlike others who were interested in buying the building, Passalaqua explained, “the church is giving us a chance to grow and is not closing us down.”
Temple Beth Sholom will remain affiliated with the United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism, she said.
Pastor Jaquez held his first service at the building last month. Passalaqua said she attended and that the sanctuary was filled with about 550 parishioners. The following week, she said, she passed by the building and “the lot was filled and cars were parked on the side streets, which was more than the first week. So it’s growing rapidly, and that’s wonderful.”
Pastor Jaquez said his congregation, which was founded eight years ago, has a membership of between 600 and 800 families. About 75 percent are from the U.S. — including Puerto Rico — and the rest are immigrants from Central and South America.
Since its founding, Pastor Jaquez said his congregation has had to relocate “more than five times” to accommodate his growing number of followers.
Looking at the outside of the synagogue, he marveled at its size.
“We’re now in a building with 22,300 square feet in Central Islip,” Pastor Jaquez said. “This is 78,000 square feet.”
“I see a lot of synagogues closing, and God said to me, ‘Reach out to them and preserve their synagogue,’” he said minutes later. “We believe so much in the Bible — the Old and New Testament — and believe the promise that God gave to Abraham in which he said that whoever blesses you will be blessed. Our background comes from Israel — we believe in only one God — the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob.”
He said that although he also believes that Jesus Christ was the messiah, his church does not focus on the cross. Thus, the only cross evident at its service is one in a corner of a flag the church brings to the stage — opposite the Israeli flag Temple Beth Sholom has kept there. The church flag is removed when the service is completed.
“We will not touch anything [of theirs],” Pastor Jaquez emphasized. “We understand the sacrifice the founders of this synagogue made. They put all their faith into this investment, and we appreciate what they did and want to preserve it.
“Our goal is to promote Judaism and to try to bring Jewish families to their service. We don’t want to buy out synagogues, but rather help them pay their bills. … We want to be sure to preserve the synagogue so they can teach their children for the next generation. We don’t want them to leave — we want them to stay here forever, not pay us anything and bless them.”