When Michael Fel was growing up in Miami, he took for granted meeting people from all kinds of backgrounds. But as rabbinic intern at Oheb Shalom Congregation in suburban South Orange, he senses that isn’t the case for the teens he supervises.
So Fel, who leads the synagogue’s Etgar group for students in eighth-12th grade, welcomes the growing bond forming between the youths from the Conservative synagogue and those from Franklin-St. John’s United Methodist Church in Newark.
In the last year, volunteers from the church and the synagogue have come together to plan joint community service projects, including collecting food for the church’s Thanksgiving turkey drive, a school supplies drive, and an “African-American/Jewish Freedom Seder” held at the synagogue.
In preparation for Thanksgiving, on Nov. 18 Fel, Rabbi Mark Cooper, and other adults from Oheb Shalom took 28 Etgar members to the church. There they joined church members in packing big Ikea bags full of trimmings for a feast.
In short order, the combined team had almost 150 bags packed with gravy, corn, chicken broth, lemon pie filling, stuffing, and instant mashed potatoes, all collected by synagogue members. The church members were to provide turkeys to go with them.
After that labor, they got to rest, listening to brief addresses by a minister of the church and Cooper, both emphasizing the importance of committing oneself to service.
The church-synagogue partnership began just over a year ago, when Amy Ganz Sadeghi, chair of the synagogue’s social action committee, was in search of a way her family could do community service on Thanksgiving Day. She reached Debi Hall Dean, executive director of Franklin-St. John’s, and — so both women say — they knew they had found a partnership.
The Oheb community joined in, its various sections offering to collect food to add to the turkey drive the church members had going to help needy local families.
This Thanksgiving Day, the Sadeghis plan to serve alongside the church members, providing a meal for homeless people. Cooper and his family will be working alongside them.
In the weeks prior to the Thanksgiving event, Etgar members explored the issue of world hunger, including a “hunger banquet,” with different groups arbitrarily assigned different levels of privilege. Some had seats; some had to sit on the floor. Some got salad, others only rice.
Some people got pretty upset, said Teddy Gruer, 15, but it helped that they knew they weren’t really going to go hungry. They were still going to have their weekly group dinner — usually pizza.