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A House Divided Stands for 2 Faiths : Temple, Church Hold Services Under One Roof

November 27, 1986|PATRICK MOTT

Every Sunday morning, Shir Ha-Ma'Alot Harbor Reform Temple in Newport Beach undergoes a subtle, yet complete, transformation.

It turns into St. Mark's Presbyterian Church.

And five days later, with a quick twist of the furniture, it changes back again. This ecumenical wizardry has been going on 51 weeks a year for the eight years since the two congregations dedicated their new joint facility. The series of structures was built to accommodate Christian and Jewish ceremonies and to serve as a religious home for both.

But on Thanksgiving, a third bit of magic shows itself. On that day, the building at the corner of Jamboree Boulevard and Eastbluff Drive becomes neither exclusively Christian nor entirely Jewish but a place for a profoundly communal gathering of joyous, tearful--and thankful--celebrants. In an emotional joint service--the only one of the year--the nearly 600 members of both congregations reaffirm their friendly, side-by-side ties to one another.

"That service begins my holiday season with such warmth," said Bev Boling, a church member. "There's a fellowship that exists there like nowhere else. I've had a lot of guests at my house on Thanksgiving, but I would not miss that 10 a.m. service."

The high attendance at the service and its wide appeal among the congregations underscore a harmonious relationship between Presbyterians and Reform Jews that the leaders of the two flocks believe is unique.

"We'll get calls occasionally from people who ask if we're the place that's half church and half temple," said Rabbi Bernard King of Shir Ha-Ma'Alot. "But we tell them no, that it's not a merger. It's a whole church and a whole temple."

Outwardly, the trick is accomplished with a little visual and architectural sleight-of-hand. In the large room used for services, the stained-glass windows are abstract and represent no religion in symbols or pictures. At the front of the room is an altar, behind which is a large cabinet-like structure. Inside the cabinet is the Torah, the Jewish holy book, and on the doors are lettered, in Hebrew, the Ten Commandments. On the other side of the cabinet is fixed a cross.

To change the building from Shir Ha-Ma'Alot Harbor Reform Temple to St. Mark's Presbyterian Church, often the only thing that needs to be done is to swivel the cabinet on a special track made for just that purpose. When it faces one way, the Jews call it an ark. The Christians call it a chancel piece when it faces the other.

The church and temple have separate offices and joint community rooms on the property, as well as a preschool sponsored by both congregations.

Signs and religious symbols on the property were constructed in scrupulously equal sizes. In fact, almost the only indications that the cluster of buildings houses two religious congregations are a mosaic cross and Star of David fixed to one outside wall. Between them hangs a sign, bearing the words of Psalm 133: "Behold how good and pleasant it is for brethren to dwell together in unity."

While the two groups may not dwell together at the same times (Jewish and Christian religious services and holidays, say members, have never conflicted), there is, they say, a unity of philosophy and an often deep affection between them.

"We're more people and program oriented than edifice oriented," King said. "The main ingredients are the communities themselves. The lay people really carried the ball when we were putting things together. It shows that we're not working artificially to make brotherhood happen. They took a vote on this shared relationship when it was proposed, and it was virtually unanimous."

The partnership was a result of mutual growing pains. Nine years ago, the church's then-16-year-old building at Jamboree and Eastbluff didn't have enough space to house its congregation. More land at the same site was available but, said the Rev. Bill McQuoid, the church wasn't sure "we wanted to tie down our energies in a building" to the possible neglect of church programs.

Shir Ha-Ma'Alot, too, was running out of room at the Balboa building it rented from Christ Church by the Sea United Methodist Church.

McQuoid and King, who at the time had just met one another at an interfaith gathering at a local clergyman's home, began to see the possibilities. After three years of financial and legal planning and, finally, $450,000 worth of construction, McQuoid and King signed the joint ownership documents on Thanksgiving Day, 1981.

"One of the concerns we had early on had to do with mutual respect," King said. "We wanted everyone to understand that we didn't want to Judaize the Christians, and they didn't want to missionize us. Now I think that because it's worked, the Jews are better Jews and the Christians are better Christians."

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