A local synagogue extends a friendly hand — and Spartan sleeping arrangements — to a Kentucky church group coming to see the pope.
Among the messages Pope Francis will attempt to convey when he arrives here this weekend to culminate the World Meeting of Families celebration is the recognition that whatever our differences, we’re still all very much alike. Men or women, black or white, Catholic or Jew, it doesn’t matter. We’re all children of God — whatever that means to each individual — no better or worse than the next person.
If the pope wants to see a living example of that, he should try to make it to Broomall sometime during his stay. There, he would witness the true meaning of mutual cooperation and brotherhood among people of different faiths.
Beginning Friday night, right around the start of Shabbat, Congregation Beth El-Ner Tamid will host 50 parishioners from the Holy Spirit Catholic Church of Bowling Green, Ky. It’s a joint venture that came about largely due to a longtime friendship between three women, one which has endured in spite of the 800-mile distance.
“A friend of mine whose sister lives in Bowling Green and is active in the church told me a parishioner had donated a bus for teenagers there to come to Philadelphia to see the pope,” said Ellen Glassman, educational director at the synagogue for the past 21 years, and who has been instrumental putting this together. “As she started to call local churches around here she kept getting the same answer.
“Nobody would open their doors for a sleepover. When she called me to see if I knew of any organizations, community centers or schools, I said, ‘Let me find out about our synagogue. It seems like something we’d be interested in.’ Rabbi Blum said, ‘Let’s run with it.’ ”
Over the past few weeks, Rabbi Barry Blum and Holy Spirit Deacon Matthew Keyser have been putting the operation in motion. Through their conversations and emails they’ve quickly discovered how much their respective communities have in common.
“What I found most meaningful about our talk is that he really didn’t want to talk about the differences between Jews and Christians, but what unites us,” said Blum, who’s planned an ambitious schedule for his visitors that includes an interfaith service and other meaningful interchanges. Among them is a joint program at the synagogue’s 11-foot Paper Clip sculpture, created following the eponymous 2004 documentary film about a Whitwell, Tenn., school that collected 6 million paper clips to represent the Jews lost in the Holocaust.
There’s also a Saturday evening Havdalah service, followed by a screening of the documentary.
“Christians have what they call the Golden Rule” — do unto others as you would have them do unto you — continued Blum. “In Judaism, we have ‘Love thy neighbor as thyself.’ Those are basic pillars in both faiths — very uniting forces.
“I think it’s a nice mitzvah we’re doing because nobody else is really reaching out. I liken it to hachnasad orchim — welcoming guests.”
And that hospitality is very much appreciated. “We needed a space, and were excited they offered,” said Deacon Keyser, who explained that Bowling Green, Ky. — not to be confused with Bowling Green, Ohio — is about an hour north of Nashville and 90 minutes from Louisville. “We don’t have a synagogue in Bowling Green. The Jewish tradition is foreign. So now basically we’re trying to spend a little time learning about our Jewish brothers and sisters. Talking to the rabbi, he says less than 3 percent of the population in Broomall is Jewish — much smaller than it used to be. We’re in a part of Kentucky which has a small percentage of Catholics, so we feel in the minority, too.
“We’re calling this a pilgrimage. What makes and adds so much to this trip is getting to know the community. We’re hoping to see the pope, but I’ve told my group we may go all this way and not get a view of him.
“But everyone’s excited to be part of the spectacle. We’ll get as close as we can and watch from the Jumbotron. We’re going to roll with the punches, but we’ll have fun no matter what.”
Little did he know that the punches would soon roll in a way he never could’ve imagined. While the parishioners were preparing for the journey, Beth El-Ner Tamid congregant Melvin Melnikoff was working behind the scenes to pull off somewhat of a miracle. He contacted officials of the World Meeting of Families, told them about the travelers from Bowling Green and managed to secure 50 prime seats in the eighth row for Sunday’s mass on the Parkway. Not until their arrival would the Holy Spirit contingnent learn about these truly “golden tickets.”
For the 15 adults and 35 students, ranging from eighth grade to college, it figures to be the experience of a lifetime. They’ll leave 6:30 Friday morning, hoping to arrive before sundown. Once they get here, they’ll find the folks at Beth El-Ner Tamid have gone overboard trying to make them feel at home.
“We’re having a chair party to remove all the chairs from the gym,” explained Glassman, who’s looking forward to being reunited with Marilouise Thomas and her sister Katherine Bird, whom she’s known since discovering they had beach houses on the same block in Margate.
“We’ll have sandwiches and salads ready for them when they arrive. We have a group of volunteers coming in Friday morning to make them and had some donations from the congregation.
“Saturday morning, we’ll serve them a continental breakfast with cereal, croissants and bagels. Saturday after the service we’ll serve bagels and poached salmon. Then Sunday morning, we’ll give them goodie bags for the day.”
The parishioners were planning to leave first thing in the morning to try to stake out a spot along the Parkway to see Francis. Now that that’s no longer necessary they may be able to hang around a bit longer with their new friends. For Marilouise Thomas this will not be her first Papal experience. “I saw Pope John Paul II [in 1979] in Washington, D.C. on the Mall,” said Thomas, who last saw Ellen and Arnie Glassman over Fourth of July weekend when she and Katherine — who lives in Doylestown — were in Margate. “I didn’t see him up close. But when you’re at a mass where he’s presiding, just that alone is amazing. When he gives that papal blessing, I’ll be there. This will be a great experience for our youth, to meet kids of another faith. It’ll be an experience I hope they’ll talk about the rest of their lives.”
For those from Beth El-Ner Tamid, it figures to be equally memorable. “We think it’s important for us to open our doors to the community,” said Glassman, who’s set up a network of pen pals between the two houses of worship. “Just the experience of our teens spending a weekend with teens of a different faith and exploring the similarities.
“And talking about ripple effect, if you’ve never met a Jewish person before you may not realize they’re just like you. So if we send 35 teens back in the world who can say, ‘We really had a great experience,’ that’s 35 more people who know a little bit more about Judaism and respect and tolerance for different religions.”
As for reciprocating down the line, both are open. “We’d love to do it,” said Deacon Keyser. “We’ve hosted people all the time from a Jesuit college in Lancaster.
“They crash here on their way to New Orleans (about 600 miles away).”
“We haven’t said we’d take a bus out there,” countered Glassman, who says their guests will have an open block of time Saturday afternoon, but aren’t sure how they’ll fill it. “But I’m sure they’d welcome us with open arms.”
She also warned there mav be one downside to the weekend, factoring in the synagogue’s relatively Spartan facilities. “Do they know they’re not going to be able to shower for three days?” she asked laughingly.
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