Mormons lend meetinghouse to Jewish congregation for one year

Credit: Riz Espinili
Credit: Riz Espinili

After meeting for a year in an LDS stake center, the Shir-Ha-Ma’alot Jewish congregation listened to a Shabbat service sermon by Rabbi Richard Steinberg titled, “What We Have Learned from Our Friends.”

The Oct. 13 service was the last time the Jewish group would meet at the Church’s Irvine California Stake Center. Members of the stake were invited by the rabbi to join the evening’s service. More than 200 Jews and Mormons met together. Those in attendance welcomed each other with expressions of gratitude, handshakes and Shabbat greetings.

A year before, leaders of the synagogue were looking for a place to worship while their building was being renovated. President Tait Eyre of the Irvine stake heard the Jewish congregation was in need and offered the meetinghouse as an option.

“Our purpose for doing this was to strengthen our relationship between our faiths,” President Eyre said. When Rabbi Steinberg came to visit the building he was a bit surprised by the opportunity. The rabbi was told by President Eyre that it is, “our religious duty to share our space” when possible.

The Jewish congregation used the building on Friday nights and Saturday mornings — times when the stake members typically did not need the facilities. Priesthood holders in the stake were there to host the Jewish congregation each time they met in the building. The Church standards of no smoking, no coffee and no alcohol in the building applied for the Jewish services as well.

In his Shabbat sermon, Rabbi Steinberg told the congregation, “Many of you have experienced Mormon missionaries knocking at your door.” He pointed out the missionaries in attendance that had assisted with congregation’s High Holy Days.

“Imagine,” he said, “what it’s like when a rabbi goes knocking on a door of the Mormon Church asking to move into their house for a whole year.” He said they “opened the door with love and kindness.” The members who came to host would help clean up, prepare classrooms and even join in the services. It was as if “the call of duty knows no bounds,” Rabbi Steinberg said.

The rabbi expressed appreciation for the commitment of Church members to put aside their basic tenet to share the gospel while his congregation was in the building. “Not one person would even ‘missionize’ to us,” he said. Through the year, he had gained a greater understanding of why Mormons want to share the truths they believe. Yet, he saw how they refrained from proselytizing “in order to achieve a higher religious value.”

As an expression of gratitude, Rabbi Steinberg wanted to give three things to the members of the Church. All the Mormons in attendance were asked to come up to the rostrum where the Rabbi pronounced a blessing upon them. He then presented a certificate to President Eyre, indicating SHM would dedicate a space in its new synagogue in honor of the Church as a reminder that the Church’s “graciousness, hospitality and kindness are a model for all religions.” All the Mormons were invited to attend the grand opening of the new synagogue. The Rabbi expressed a hope that, “the world around would see the friendship between these two communities as a model.”

President Eyre said, “We hope that these roots are roots that run deep. In the future we will be here for each other.” He expressed his love for Rabbi Steinberg and the Jewish congregation. You are “wonderful neighbors; we wanted to get to know you. We have a lot in common.”

Marty Hart from SHM who attended Shabbat services and Torah study on a regular basis said, “It’s been a remarkable feeling of closeness that has never faded for the entire year.”

For Kenny Giuliani, a Mormon who had opportunities to serve as a host, it was his first experience at a Jewish service.

“I enjoyed it every time I attended,” Giuliani said. “Even though the way we worship may be a little different, one thing that definitely unites us is love and respect for other’s religious views and beliefs.”

Larry Gassin, a Mormon who converted from Judaism and coordinated the building sharing for the year said, “Both groups had the opportunity and blessing to witness and experience the goodness and sincerity of one another. Eyes were opened, hearts were softened and turned, and relationships of friendship and respect were kindled and nurtured. We all had the opportunity to learn, with appreciation and gratitude, that we have much more in common than many may have suspected and more around which we can unite.”

Friendships between SHM members and Mormons were made and strengthened in workplaces, neighborhoods, and the community, President Eyre said.

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