Keeping the Faith

How a rabbi and a reverend share the same worship space in Bethesda




Photo by Patrice Gilbert

For the past 50 years, the Bradley Hills Presbyterian Church and the Bethesda Jewish Congregation have shared space on Bradley Boulevard. Like any long marriage, that relationship has lived through moments of conflict and conciliation.

A church member commissioned a stained-glass window in the main sanctuary honoring his late wife and depicting the 23rd Psalm. The design featured a bearded man holding a shepherd’s crook with a distinctive curve at the end, and that troubled Rabbi Sunny Schnitzer, who leads the Jewish community.

The curved crook is a Christian symbol associated with Jesus, and the rabbi remembers asking: Why not make the crook a straight staff? “And the donor said ‘No, it needs to be a shaped crook,’ and I said, ‘I can live with that,’ ” recalls Schnitzer.

Living with each other—tolerating and respecting and even embracing each other—makes this marriage instructive and enduring. “When someone walks in who is Jewish—I hear it all the time—they look at that window and they go, ‘Oh it’s Moses,’ ” Schnitzer says. “And if they’re from the church they go, ‘No it’s the shepherd, the Good Shepherd.’ You can bring to great art whatever you need at the moment.”

When Jews use the church’s sanctuary on High Holy Days, Schnitzer can see the stained-glass window from the pulpit, and it makes him think of Jesus and his Jewish origins. “Jesus, nice to have you back in house, I’ve actually thought that more than once,” says the rabbi, who came to Bethesda in 2001.

Some tensions are inevitable. But if sharing space with another faith makes someone uneasy, they generally don’t join these congregations in the first place. For those who do, says the Rev. David Gray, the Presbyterian minister, “the partnership is almost universally a positive,” a symbol of the church’s message that “this is a place of real openness theologically.”

“We reflect Montgomery County, a lot of people in both congregations are well educated and have an interest in multicultural, multireligious things, in really wanting to engage the mind and the heart,” Gray says.

This partnership started in the late ’60s, when a small group of Jewish worshippers began renting space from the church. As both congregations expanded, they jointly raised $3 million for a new room, Covenant Hall, shaped like a six-pointed Jewish Star of David and nestled in the corner of the church’s cruciform design.

I have a special connection here. My wife, Cokie, and I are an interfaith couple—I’m Jewish, she’s Catholic—and 51 years ago we were married in the garden of her childhood home just 2.3 miles away on Bradley Boulevard. We’ve written two books about interfaith marriage and were invited to speak at the dedication of Covenant Hall in 2001.

I interviewed the Presbyterian minister at the time, Susan Andrews, who explained the church’s thinking: “It seems so natural to me, so obvious. It’s a good use of space, and we’re teaching our children to live with those who are different.”

Of course there were problems. When the Jews use the church sanctuary they cover a large cross with a banner, and as Andrews noted, “I had to deal with people who thought it was sacrilegious to cover the cross. ‘How dare they.’ ”
Schnitzer recalls his first winter on Bradley Boulevard and seeing a large Christmas tree displayed in the building’s main lobby. “I went, ‘Oh, that could be problematic on a Friday night or Saturday morning for people who are coming for a Jewish experience,’ ” he recalls. An answer was quickly found: Put the tree on a dolly and move it out of sight during Jewish services.

In recent years the congregations have expanded their partnership to include the Idara-e-Jaferia Islamic Center in Burtonsville, hosting joint worship services and study groups, and co-sponsoring a family of Syrian refugees trying to resettle in the area.

When President Donald Trump last January issued an executive order barring Muslims from seven countries and blocking all refugees from entering the country, parishioners from all three faiths felt “confused and angry,” says Schnitzer, and rapidly organized a joint prayer service that attracted 400 people. “We actually suffered a personal loss, this affected our congregations directly. We felt our friends were under attack.”
Both the rabbi and pastor are often consulted by other clergy who are exploring similar joint ventures. The interest is particularly strong among those from mainline Protestant denominations like Presbyterians, who are facing a steady decline in membership. Gray explains, “Part of it is practical. We have a lot of churches that are shrinking quickly and saying we can’t afford this building.”

The other impulse is spiritual. “In a post 9/11 world,” says Gray, “more and more people are reacting to the politics of hate by saying let’s find a way to be in [a] community with people who have a diverse background.” 

That reaction is not universal. Andrews told me about a testy interview she had on the Christian Broadcasting Network, an arm of the Rev. Pat Robertson’s evangelical ministry. “They couldn’t understand what we were doing; we were supposed to be converting Jews,” she says. 

A rabbi from the Chabad-Lubavitch movement, a conservative group, was invited one Passover to demonstrate olive oil pressing for the Hebrew school students. “He pulls up and sees the cross [on the church building], and he just left,” recalls Schnitzer.

In the face of such intolerance, and the larger scourge of sectarian violence around the world, the congregations on Bradley Boulevard are trying to send a different message, one of: bridges not walls, inclusion not exclusion, reaching out not pulling back. The stained-glass window in their common space commemorates both Jesus and Moses, the shepherd of Christians and the liberator of Jews. And here, they are brothers. 

Steve Roberts teaches journalism and politics at The George Washington University and is the co-author, with his wife, Cokie, of From This Day Forward. Send ideas for future columns to sroberts@gwu.edu.

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