Ontario Church, Synagogue Build Joint House of Worship
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Ontario Church, Synagogue Build Joint House of Worship

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Two congregations — one Christian, one Jewish – – have jointly built and now occupy a place of worship in the southern Ontario town of Waterloo.

The distinctive building, shaped like a fat letter T with a doubly-peaked roof, houses two religious sanctuaries with seating for about 90 and 260 people, respectively.

Congregants of Temple Shalom, with a membership of about 68 families, worship in the smaller space on Friday evenings and Saturday mornings. Congregants of the Westminster United Church, which is Methodist-Presbyterian, gather in the larger space for their weekly services on Sunday mornings.

The wall between the two sanctuaries is removable and the pews can be swung around so that, when the occasion arises, either group may hold a special celebration with seating for about 350 people.

Like the architecture and furniture, each group has to be flexible in order for the arrangement to work, said Bob Chodos, the temple’s president.

“Because we’re a Reform congregation, we only celebrate the first day of Jewish holidays like Rosh Hashanah, which never fall on a Sunday,” he says. “We’re a small enough congregation that it doesn’t really matter if we don’t celebrate the eighth day of Passover, for example.”

In September, soon after the two groups officially opened the building that they have jointly dubbed Cedars House, Westminster United held a wedding that began shortly after the conclusion of Rosh Hashanah services.

As soon as prayers were concluded, church officials began setting up the double sanctuary for the wedding, which began less than two hours later.

“It’s a matter of give and take,” says the Rev. Gary Boratto, who has been pastor of Westminster United since 1991, when his roughly 100-family flock was worshiping in the gym of a local public school.

“We try to accommodate each other as best we can,” says Boratto. “I figure the arrangement with Temple Shalom is better than sharing with another church because there’s less conflict in terms of scheduling.”

What if Christmas Eve should fall on a Friday? “We would just have a later service,” Boratto replies.

Before moving into the new building, Temple Shalom congregants were meeting in the basement of a church. By coincidence, Marc Pancer, then-temple president, was a neighbor of Jim Robinson, a member of Westminster United’s building committee. During a conversation over the back fence in 1993, they realized the parallel needs of their two congregations and soon presented the idea of a shared space to their respective boards.

After each group approved of the joint project, design of the building began. Design and construction took four years — much longer than anticipated – – because of the consensual process and the need for blueprints to go back and forth between the two groups.

Although the original proposal was for both groups to own the building jointly, the temple’s board ultimately balked at that arrangement for financial reasons.

“The temple members decided we weren’t in a position to commit ourselves to this arrangement, based on our income and membership at the time,” Chodos says. “So the church proposed a long-term leasing arrangement instead, which was better for us in that it didn’t involve as permanent a commitment.”

Chodos says his congregation still “has an option to buy, but the lease allowed us a trial period before we exercise that option.”

While such a sharing arrangement between Jewish and Christian congregations may be a first for Canada, Chodos and Boratto received advice from an Episcopalian Christian and a Reform Jewish congregation that share a building known as Genesis in Ann Arbor, Mich.

“It’s a wonderful arrangement, and we haven’t really run into a problem yet,” Boratto says. “We’ve made really good friends between the temple and the church, just learning the different cultural traditions. It’s been a learning experience and very enjoyable to our people.”

If congregants of Westminster United have had difficulties accepting the arrangement, Boratto has not heard from them, he says. “What struck me in all of this, as questions arose about sharing the building I began thinking: How do you share the planet? Because if we can’t share a building on a hilltop in Waterloo, then what chance do we have of sharing the earth?”

Temple Shalom’s situation with Westminster United is “primarily a practical arrangement,” says Chodos, but he acknowledges that it is also much more.

“We also see it as something of a model for interreligious cooperation,” he says. “That has an important message in itself.”

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