‘What if the world looked a little more like this?’
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‘What if the world looked a little more like this?’

Local shuls join other institutions to give burned church’s parishioners worship space

“We are so grateful and touched by this outpouring. It’s been absolutely amazing and our hearts are filled with gratitude.” – Rev. Richard Hong
“We are so grateful and touched by this outpouring. It’s been absolutely amazing and our hearts are filled with gratitude.” – Rev. Richard Hong

Worshipers looked on in grief and horror as a three-alarm fire destroyed the sanctuary of the 146-year-old First Presbyterian Church of Englewood on the night of March 22, less than a week before Easter.

The fire was first reported to 911 by a neighbor whose family belongs to Congregation Ahavath Torah, and it wasn’t long before that synagogue’s Rabbi Shmuel Goldin started getting calls at home from congregants urging him to offer the shul’s help, which he did in emails that were gratefully acknowledged by the church’s pastors.

Similar offers came flooding in from Jewish individuals and synagogues in Englewood and vicinity.

“Our church happens to be in an area with a large concentration of Jewish families — it sits inside an eruv,” the Rev. Richard Hong, First Presbyterian’s senior pastor, said. (An eruv is the stringed boundary that creates a legal fiction that allows Sabbath-observant Jews to carry items within the demarcated area on Shabbat.)

“Even while the church was burning, a lot of our neighbors said they’d talk to their rabbis about how to help,” he continued. “We are so grateful and touched by this outpouring. It’s been absolutely amazing and our hearts are filled with gratitude.”

The Rev. Hong’s friend, Rev. Ann Kansfield, pastor of Greenpoint Reformed Church in Brooklyn, came to Englewood as soon as she learned of the fire. “Over the course of the night, it seemed like just about every rabbi in a 10-mile radius of the church had offered them space for their Holy Week services. The instinct was to help, to show love, to care,” she posted on Facebook the following morning.

The flames that engulfed the sanctuary melted the largest pipe organ in Bergen County, reduced wooden pews to ashes, and shattered Tiffany stained-glass windows. The entire interior must be rebuilt, and it will be about six weeks until water and smoke damage can be cleared from the church’s gym so that services can be held there.

Easter services were hosted at Bergen Performing Arts Center in Englewood, and next Sunday the church’s worshipers will meet in a school. On April 10, 17, and 24, First Presbyterian’s 450 members are invited to use the worship space at Temple Sinai of Bergen County in Tenafly, just north of the border with Englewood.

“Our decision to accept offers from a school and a temple was predicated on not disrupting lives as we would in a church, and also this is an opportunity to make a statement to the world about what interfaith relations look like,” Rev. Hong said.

Rabbi Jordan Millstein of Temple Sinai, who also chairs the Intergroup Relations Committee for the Jewish Community Relations Council of the Jewish Federation of Northern New Jersey, said that he was horrified to hear about the devastation and immediately asked the synagogue’s president, Ilana Matteson, for permission to offer the church a temporary home during Holy Week. The morning after the fire he finally was able to reach Rev. Kellie Anderson-Picallo, director of mission strategy at First Presbyterian.

06-2-V-ChurchSign“We had a wonderful meeting on Friday, and I wish I could put into words how upbeat and positive she was,” Rabbi Millstein said. “She told me they had arrangements for Easter but needed space after that. Ordinarily on Sundays there is a lot going on here, but there is a school vacation coming up in Tenafly, during which we don’t have religious school, so April 10 and 17 were available. And the 24th is the second day of Passover; as a Reform congregation we don’t have services then but we also don’t have religious school, so we can house them that Sunday as well.”

Rabbi Millstein noted that relations between Jews and the Presbyterian Church USA have been strained because of the church’s stance on boycott and divestment from Israel. “On a local level that shouldn’t get in the way of having relationships that people of faith should have,” he said. “We feel privileged to be able to host the members of the First Presbyterian Church in Englewood. As Jews, we have to be especially aware and sensitive to people in need, and reach out to them, because sometimes we are viewed as insular. I hope this will lead to a deeper relationship with the church.”

Rabbi Fred Elias of the Conservative Congregation Kol HaNeshamah — which is housed in St. Paul’s Episcopal Church of Englewood — was among those who got in touch with the pastors right away.

“We have collaborated with them in serving the community over the last several years, feeding and serving the homeless who for three weeks each year stay at First Presbyterian through the Family Promise program and in addition have shared town-wide Thanksgiving commemorations together,” Rabbi Elias said.

On Purim night, 80 Kol HaNeshamah congregants signed a letter of solidarity and support for First Presbyterian, which Rabbi Elias hand-delivered to Rev. Hong. He accepted the senior pastor’s invitation to attend the church’s Easter service at Bergen PAC a few days later.

In an email to his congregants afterward, Rabbi Elias noted “being in awe of the perseverance and grit of the community and its clergy,” and appreciating their efforts to make him feel welcome.

“I hope you will think about commemorating Passover with a consciousness of the greater community among us,” he wrote. “In a time where the human values of kindness, compassion, and religious freedom are being challenged by senseless hate and xenophobia, this season is a time to rid ourselves of old suspicions and to establish better comprehension and fellowship among all religions (and denominations within them) who dedicate themselves to the important ideals of peace, freedom, and righteousness.”

Rabbi Akiva Block of Kehilat Kesher/Community Synagogue of Tenafly & Englewood said he and Rev. Anderson-Picallo also have been in touch by email.

“Many members of our community have reached out to me to say they’d like to help, and we’re willing to help wherever we can,” Rabbi Block said. “We will keep the community informed of ways in which we might be able to be of assistance.”

The Revs. Hong and Anderson-Picallo wrote in a message of thanks to supporters: “Our world is full of hard stories right now — but here in Bergen County something special has happened. Islamic centers, synagogues, civic groups and churches have all been in touch with us. What if the world looked a little more like this?

“We’ve learned the moments that have melted us have been the touching and meaningful emails that each of you sent to us with your thoughts, love and prayers. The emails began with words like ‘How can I help?’ or ‘Can we move our schedule to make room for anything you need?’ or ‘I remember when a fire hit us and we are here for anything you need.’ We are so appreciative of the outreach and bridge building.”

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