Father Kirk Berlenbach flips his head around to show his ponytail, underscoring the point that he’s not mainstream, that he doesn’t “like to conform.”
Rabbi Eli Freedman of Congregation Rodeph Shalom sits across from the Episcopal priest at Strangelove’s, a beer-centric restaurant in Center City, as The Beatles’ “Come Together” plays in the background and the two enjoy their second and third beers, respectively, on a recent weekday afternoon.
It appears the two could spend hours dissecting the subtle elements of craft beers, but they have more important business to discuss right now: their plans for an interfaith event in the sukkah at Freedman’s Reform congregation, where later this month they will unveil their saison beer, brewed personally by the rabbi and Berlenbach, along with members of their respective congregations.
The interfaith brew project is the latest joint venture for the clergyman, who have found common ground in their love of beer, religion — and drinking beer while conversing about religion.
Since meeting last year, the two local religious leaders, along with the Rev. Bryan Berghoef, a Christian minister from Washington, D.C., have formed a group, “A Rabbi, a Priest and a Minister Walked Into a Bar,” and have hosted events during the annual beer weeks in Philadelphia and D.C. They are both practitioners of something that Berghoef has written a book about — Pub Theology: Beer, Conversation, and God.
Freedman said he and the Christian leaders are trying to meet “people where they’re at.” Wine, he said, may be the more common alcoholic beverage for religious occasions, but beer is a suitable alternative that can similarly provide a spiritual connection.
Berlenbach, of St. Timothy’s Episcopal Church in Roxborough, agrees. He refers to the Roman Catholic text that states when you lift a cup of wine at a communion, you say: “Fruit of the vine and work of human hands.”
“I would say the same thing about beer; it’s just a different vine,” says Berlenbach, 44, who brought a hop vine from his garden to the meeting.
Initially, the priest and rabbi were brought together not by their religious calling but by the beverage they love.
The two both purchase their brewing supplies from Homesweet Homebrew at 20th and Sansom. The owners, a Jewish-Christian couple, told the rabbi about the priest, and vice versa. Meanwhile, Berlenbach had read Berghoef’s book and contacted him.
In a phone interview before the recent lunch, the rabbi explained that he has been homebrewing since he was an undergrad at Brandeis University more than 10 years ago.
His first batch, he said, “came out absolutely disgusting.”
“I think we drank the whole thing anyways,” he said.
Sitting at Strangelove’s, the clergymen explained how they decided that a saison style beer would be best for the upcoming public event in the sukkah, set for Sept. 23, the fourth day of the Jewish holiday that celebrates the harvest and marks the time when Jews wandered in the desert.
They chose Saison —punningly — from the Book of Ecclesiastes, which is read during the holiday and includes the well-known verse: “For everything there is a season.”
Since the beer is the product of their harvest, Berlenbach said, “it’s particularly appropriate for Sukkot.”
To brew a double batch of the beer, the clergy and a few members of each congregation gathered in July at St. Timothy’s. Then, a few weeks ago, congregants from each institution returned there to bottle it. The saison, they said, will probably be best three years from now.
So what will it be like later this month?
“I would say it will definitely be drinkable,” Freedman said as he downed a Strangelove’s Duet, a Belgian blonde beer whipped up cooperatively by the restaurant and the Manayunk Brewing Company.
In explaining his passion for brewing, Freedman referred to Jewish theologian Abraham Joshua Heschel’s talk of radical amazement, the idea that “science can explain a lot of the natural phenomenon,” and yet that doesn’t “make them any less amazing.” With beer, Freedman said, he understands the intricacies of the fermentation process but “it still blows my mind every time I think about it.”
During his ongoing conversations about beer, with the other clergy and with his congregation’s men’s club, Freedman said, he delves into the religious side of beer, often citing text from talmudic scholars. He refers to a tractate from the Talmud that prohibits the very activity they are encouraging — Jews drinking beer with people of other faiths — primarily out of fear that such mingling would encourage intermarriage. In another break from tradition, Freedman said, he sometimes says Kiddish over beer, rather than wine, at Shabbat dinner.
Although that might strike some as odd, Freedman sees no problem with making a blessing over a cold one, especially since a key ingredient also comes from a vine. When discussing the Jewish texts and traditions, Freedman said, “there are parts that I disagree with,” and so he alters them.
Berlenbach also talks about distancing himself from some aspects of Christianity that promote abstinence. To emphasize his point, he quipped, “Wherever you find four Episcopalians — you’ll find a fifth.” (It took the rabbi and a reporter a moment to realize the priest was referring to a bottle of liquor.)
The priest stressed that brewing and drinking beer “is not just something that’s OK,” said Berlenbach. “It’s something that has the potential to be strongly positive, something that can lead us to draw closer and build bonds of fellowship with each other — and also draw closer in our appreciation of our creator through appreciating the creation.”