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“Do you go to the Jewish Church?”

I have been asked this question on numerous occasions since moving to the south.  At first I thought it was merely an expression of ignorance.  Not exactly an ignorance of the existence of Jewish neighbors; after all, the question reflects an awareness that the building they’ve seen but have never entered is a Jewish place of worship.  Instead, it struck me as an inability to find the appropriate words to discuss matters of faith with a Jew.  Over time I came to realize that if I was the first rabbi—perhaps the first Jew—to engage in a personal conversation with this Christian, then his or her question was actually an attempt to find common ground.

Many of my Christian neighbors here are church-going Christians, and not just Christmas-Easter ones. Wednesday night is “Church Night,” a time to gather for a meal and fellowship.  I first learned about Church Night when I tried to drive across town one Wednesday evening—police officers are employed to direct traffic on just about every corner in Metro Atlanta.  As a result of their strong affiliation with their churches, Christians expect their Jewish neighbors to express a similar commitment to their synagogue communities.  With declining rates of affiliation and lagging attendance even on the High Holy days, we could learn from our Christian neighbors about reviving the Jewish Church.

Local synagogues often have Hebrew names combined with the word “congregation,” which can make their pronunciation inaccessible to non-Jews and even some Jews.  Thus, the question “Do you go to the Jewish Church?” is also a delicate phrasing of an unspoken request for information: “I am nervous about offending you by saying the wrong word or mispronouncing the unfamiliar Hebrew, so could you please teach me the proper and respectful way of referring to your place of worship?”

The English word synagogue comes from the Greek word for assembly.  In Hebrew, synagogue is bet knesset, house of assembly; church is kneisiyahKnisah, from the same root (k-n-s), means entrance.  The foundation of synagogues and churches is each member’s desire to assemble with other people of faith and enter into a relationship with God.  Now, when asked if I go to the Jewish Church, I consider the question an entry-point to a deeper conversation about our basic human need for affiliation with a community. It’s also an opportunity to engage in true fellowship with my neighbor.

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