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BHA's History of Interfaith Collaborations

12/07/2021 02:04:59 PM

Dec7

Anna Marcus

A medium brown complexioned man wearing a black kufi skull cap with white design, smiles while hugging another man wearing a black Jewish skull cap whose back is to the camera. There is an audience seated behind them looking on.
Imam Abdullah Abdul Wajid and Rabbi Brent Spodek embrace at  One Beacon: Light in the Darkness of Racism & Anti-Semitism event on November 1, 2018, Salem Tabernacle, Beacon, NY, photo courtesy of ritterphoto.com

 

Early Interfaith Interactions

As the only Jewish synagogue in Beacon, the Beacon Hebrew Alliance has taken care to maintain good relations with the other houses of worship and faith communities in this city. Many of the first Jewish residents in Beacon were business owners, with stores, taverns, and restaurants on Main Street. They served everyone in the community, not just Jewish patrons. They were aware that by forming an organized Jewish center of worship, they would be exposing themselves to extra scrutiny from the community. In fact, in the board minutes of April 16, 1924 we see a note about “a committee appointed to attend City Council concerning improper language used by a commissioner regarding the Jews.” And in August of 1927 we see a note about repairs needed for the Torah, and “charges should be pressed against the vandals.”

An old typewritten note on yellowing paper reads, “April 16, 1924. Committee appointed to attend the City Council concerning improper language used by a commissioner regarding the Jews.
BHA Board minutes from April 16, 1924 discussing response to anti-semitic comments by a Beacon City commissioner

 

A cube-shaped granite stone is perched atop another stone and is engraved with Hebrew letters at the top and an English engraving below that that says, “Cemetery of Beacon Hebrew Alliance, 5691, Beacon, 1931.”
The stone marker commemorating the establishment of BHA’s Cemetery in 1931 on Osborne Hill Road, Fishkill, NY

Regardless of these incidents, BHA generally maintained friendly relationships with its Christian neighbors, and had key allies in those communities. Most emblematic of this was BHA’s relationship with the builder James Lynch, who was contracted to build the synagogue building in 1929. He accepted the job for only $30,000 (about $450,000 today), and to stay within this tight budget, he donated some of the building supplies from his lumberyard and got the Obed Lodge Masons to aid in the construction. Lynch was also tagged to aid in developing the land for BHA’s cemetery in Fishkill. When the farmer who was selling the land refused to sell it to Jews, BHA’s president David Alper had a gentile friend purchase the land instead, which he turned over immediately to BHA. It is through key alliances like these, that BHA was able to build its synagogue and acquire its beautiful cemetery on Osborne Hill Road.

 

Helping a Neighbor

BHA not only received support from people of other faiths, it also lent a hand to its neighbors when they needed help. One significant occasion for this arose in February 1943, when the First Presbyterian Church on Liberty Street caught on fire and was almost completely destroyed. Immediately, various houses of worship across Beacon offered their facilities to the Presbyterians to hold their services, but they chose to take up temporary residence at the Masonic Temple, right next door to BHA! While we don’t have any evidence in newspapers of BHA’s support of the church during their rebuilding, we have heard stories passed down by members of both congregations, that a friendship arose between them. The new First Presbyterian Church was completed by October 1945, remarkable given the shortage of supplies during the war. Supposedly a plaque hangs inside the church commemorating the support that BHA, and other Beacon houses of worship, gave to the church after the fire.

A photocopy of a newspaper clipping that has two dark pictures of the church building on fire.
Beacon News article covering the devastating fire at the First Presbyterian Church on February 17, 1943

Fortunately for us, a relationship between BHA and the First Presbyterian Church was rekindled almost 70 years later, when BHA’s new rabbi, Brent Chaim Spodek, met the new pastor of the First Presbyterian Church Ben Larson-Wolbrink and they became fast friends. Here is Rabbi Brent telling the story:

 “When I moved to Beacon … I saw somebody posting that they were new to town and they were looking for somebody who could do some babysitting for an installation … and I thought, there are only two sorts of installations I’m aware of: either there’s an artist installing some work in a gallery; or there’s a clergy person being installed in a house of worship! Either way, they seem to be new to town, I’m new to town, so …  I sent Ben Larson-Wolbrink a note… We met in Green Street playground, which is between my house and his house, and very quickly realized there were obvious differences … and there were also a lot of similarities. We both had worked in the human rights aspect of our faith traditions, there were similar outlooks, similar love of hiking, a great connection. That was really the beginning of what was, and still is, one of the most beautiful friendships of my life! Sadly Ben and his family have moved to Michigan … but it was really that friendship that restarted the interfaith clergy group, which had been dormant for years, to rebuild those relationships.”

 

Contemporary Interfaith Clergy Group

A few dozen people of all races, young adults and older adults, sit around tables on folding chairs. They are in a room with blue walls that appears to be a church basement, and are listening to a dark-complexioned woman, who is speaking.
Participants in the 2015 Winter Interfaith class, Exodus Conversations

One of the things that came out of this interfaith clergy group was a series of classes in the winters, in which a different biblical theme would be explored such as “Psalms” or “Book of Exodus.” Rabbi Brent says, “The real learning wasn’t just the text, it was the people.” The group started with just Rabbi Brent from BHA and Pastor Ben from First Presbyterian, but then grew to up to eight houses of worship. They would rotate between the houses, with the host clergy person presenting their understanding of the theme (ie. “Psalms” or “Exodus”), and also their faith traditions to the group. Again Rabbi Brent says, “They were some of the most socially, economically, and racially diverse gatherings I’ve ever been a part of in Beacon.” The interfaith group built connections between not just BHA and First Presbyterian, but also Salem Tabernacle, Church of God in Christ, and Tabernacle of Christ.

The close connections between the houses of worship in Beacon were further tightened by outside events that required mutual cooperation and understanding. One of these was after the killing of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri on August 9, 2014, which raised concerns nationwide about police violence on Black and Brown people. In Beacon, Mayor Randy Casale brought together civic leaders including the clergy group, to start to engage in collective discussions about these concerns.

 

One Beacon

Then in October 2018, white nationalist and anti-semitic flyers were put up in several churches in Beacon and across Dutchess County. In response to this, the interfaith clergy group began organizing a community event. However, shortly after these discussions began, the massacre occurred at the Tree of Life Synagogue in Pittsburgh, and the need for a strong united front against hate became very urgent.

Clergy from all over Beacon as well as police officers showed up at BHA on October 28th, the day after the Pittsburgh shooting, to protect Jewish children coming to Sunday school and to show their support. Within a week, the interfaith group held the “One Beacon: Light in the Darkness of Racism & Anti Semitism” event, an interfaith rally at Salem Tabernacle that was attended by hundreds of people in support of Jews and people of all races and faiths. 

Four light complexioned men stand on the stairs outside of a brick entrance to a church. The man on the left is short, with gray hair, glasses and a wide smile. To his right is a taller man with a shaved head who is wearing a minister’s white collar and a black v-necked sweater, and a silver cross pendant. The next man to his right is slightly shorter, and is wearing a dark suit with a blue tie, and the man all the way to the right is the tallest. He has glasses, a salt and pepper beard and is wearing a button down shirt with a silver cross on a necklace.
Organizers of “One Beacon: One Beacon: Light in the Darkness of Racism & Anti Semitism,” left to right: Beacon Mayor Randy Casale, Pastor Bill Deandreano of Salem Tabernacle, Rabbi Brent Spodek of BHA, Pastor Ben Larson-Wolbrink of First Presbyterian Church, November 1, 2018, photo courtesy of ritterphoto.com

 

Rabbi Brent recalls this emotional and terrifying time: “All of the clergy with whom we had been building these relationships were there outside of our synagogue, singing songs and giving candy to our kids ... To have them all there … I can’t imagine the Divine Presence any way other than that … Then a week later we had the event that was hosted by Salem, and they insisted on feeding everybody! It was hundreds and hundreds of people … the biggest event, outside of Hudson Valley Renegades Games, I’ve ever been to in Beacon. And it was simulcast, before everybody would be simulcasting… All of the community was there - Mayor Casale, clergy and civic leaders - as a way of saying, ‘We are one Beacon. We may have our differences, and we’re going to work on our differences, but this is not who we are or who we want to be.’ That sense of looking, really courageously, at the real dangers of white nationalism in this country, for Jewish people, for Black and Brown people, for all people, including … for the white Christian community … Those are hard conversations to have, and they wouldn’t have happened without some really courageous faith leaders here who were willing to step out of their comfort zones and listen to the realities of people who were really different from them, but also, when it really comes down to it, not actually that different.”

Time and again, the people of Beacon have shown that they will show up for each other when needed. BHA has been a part of the larger faith community for its entire 100 years of existence, both as beneficiaries of community support, and givers of support. May this legacy of tikkun olam and courageous interfaith collaboration continue and be carried forward for generations to come.

 

Do you have photos or other memorabilia that relate to BHA’s story? If so, please fill out this quick google form to let us know what you have. We will reach out to you to arrange to scan your photos or collect your artifacts.

BHA’s Centennial programs are made possible, in part, with funding from the Sadie Jane Effron Cahn Beacon Hebrew Alliance Endowment of the Community Foundations of the Hudson Valley.

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