Recently, Rabbi Avi Friedman made Rabbi Ruth Gais an offer she couldn’t refuse. It has nothing to do with organized crime. But it has everything to do with eschewing the usual turf battles so common among different denominations and synagogues.
Friedman leads Congregation Ohr Shalom-Summit Jewish Community Center, a Conservative synagogue in Summit. Gais, who holds Reform ordination, leads Chavurat Lamdeinu, an independent minyan she established more than a decade ago. She is also a member of the Summit JCC.
The offer gives Chavurat Lamdeinu a new home in Ohr Shalom’s newly expanded and renovated building. The group has been meeting in the Masonic Lodge in Madison since 2003.
“Turf battles? I’m not worried. Anything that brings Jews into a synagogue on Shabbat is a good thing,” said Friedman. “And if my congregants find what they are doing meaningful, great. Then we’re doing exactly what we need to be doing.”
Friedman knew that Gais had been leading Chavurat Lamdeinu since before he arrived nine years ago at the synagogue. And he knew the group meets every week on Shabbat morning for study and prayer. He had no idea, however, where they were meeting.
“I thought they were meeting in people’s homes,” he told NJJN.
He learned, almost by accident, that their gathering space was at the Masonic Lodge — whose building, as it happens, is a former church. “It saddened me that this group of Jews was traveling to Madison while we have a brand-new building with a multi-purpose room [with] an ark and even a Torah,” he said. With the building newly renovated, the timing was perfect.
He approached Gais.
“‘I’m thinking it would be really nice for Jews to be able to hang out together, especially on Shabbat,’” she recalled his saying. She agreed that it’s good “to be in the same space in a loving way.” She added, “This really makes more sense.”
Still, she said the move is bittersweet. “We are sad to leave the Masons,” Gais said. “They’ve been lovely to us.”
The Masons expressed their feelings in e-mails of farewell. Ed Coster, one of the Masonic leaders, wrote, in part, “I know I speak for our members when I say that we are very sorry to see you leave your home in Madison and the mutually supportive relationship we have enjoyed. Yet we understand that the move to the beautiful new center in Summit affords you a different kind of sanctuary that is better suited to your current needs.
“We wish you all the best in your new home. We will always remember the important part you have played in the history of our temple as a place of devotion to the Almighty for persons of many faiths.”
While the physical logistics of the move are not particularly challenging, Gais said, “emotionally, it will be different. It’s a different space, and it will take time to adjust.”
There are benefits to all involved. Summit JCC members will be able to join Gais’s Talmud study class before services begin. And Chavurat Lamdeinu members can participate in the activities of the synagogue, including attending services when the smaller group doesn’t have a minyan. And everyone will be together for kiddush. (Chavurat Lamdeinu will contribute proportionately to the kiddush to cover their members in order to feel a sense of ownership, according to Friedman.)
Chavurat Lamdeinu will begin meeting in its new space in July.
“I’m all for it; I’m very excited,” said Gais. “I think we’ll all gain a lot.”