Church and a synagogue share building

It’s not unheard of that a Christian church and a synagogue would move in together and share one building.

The Rev. Gary Witte, of the Woodmont United Church of Christ, recently welcomed Rabbi Dana Z. Bogatz and her Congregation Sinai into his church building at 1000 New Haven Avenue. Witte and Bogatz said this kind of sharing has been done before.

Bogatz said a roof collapsed at B’Nai Jeshurun in Manhattan in the 1980s, and the congregation moved in with an Episcopal church for four years while their building was rebuilt.

The congregation grew so much that even after the synagogue was rebuilt, it stayed with its Episcopal friends, and maintained two buildings for their services.

Witte said he’s heard of similar building shares in Columbus, Ohio, where he lived for many years.

Congregation Sinai had been located in an office building on Old Gate Lane for five years, after selling and moving out of its temple building in West Haven. The synagogue moved from its building in West Haven, which was costly to maintain, for economic reasons. The recent move is another matter of economics.

“We just couldn’t afford it,” Bogatz said, adding that the energy focused on keeping the Old Gate Lane building was taking time away from focusing on the true mission of the synagogue.

The congregational church knew of the financial struggles and offered space. The synagogue had actually used space at the Woodmont UCC for five months as it was waiting for the Old Gate Lane building to be finished five years ago, Bogatz said. So it wasn’t unfamiliar territory.

“It was the right thing to do,” Witte said about agreeing to give the synagogue not only office space, but room for meetings, wall space for art and religious symbols, and use of the sanctuary. “When you have a group of folks looking for space to do worship, it’s the right thing to do.”

There is adequate space, both religious leaders said, noting that the Milford Cooperative Preschool is also located in the building.

“The church not only let us occupy the unused part of the building, they shifted lots of things around to accommodate us, which was really very generous,” Bogatz said.

It isn’t a problem sharing the sanctuary because Shabbat services are Friday and Saturday, and the Congregational church services are Sunday.

This year, the synagogue will mark its high holy days on weekdays, so that’s not a problem either. In future years, if the high holy days fall on weekends, there may need to be some shuffling around.

The shared sanctuary contains symbols of both religions, such as a picture of Christ, which is clearly a Christian symbol, and the huge wooden Ark, which contains the synagogue’s Torah scrolls.

Bogatz said she was worried at first that her congregation might feel “they were sleeping on a couch,” metaphorically speaking. But Witte responded, saying, “No, you will have your own bedroom. It just won’t be the master bedroom.”

The synagogue has about 90 members, and the church about 120. They describe the arrangement as “cost sharing.” The synagogue will give the church a donation to cover its expenses.

“Money isn’t our motive,” Witte said, “but it helps. We’re on the edge like a lot of religious organizations these days.”

Christian churches, historically, have mistreated the Jews, Witte said, and so there is a little tension in the air in some respects. The religious symbols of the Christian church can be offensive to those of the Jewish religion. That’s why Bar Mitzvahs and special ceremonies probably won’t take place at the shared religious building: Bogatz said her congregation has said they will likely rent outside space for those most sacred of ceremonies.

But overall, addressing the past wrongs is the right thing to do, and that’s why sharing the building seems so right, Witte said.

“The right thing to do is to make an example for our children that we can peacefully co-exist,” Witte said.