“A Moving Story;” A Schankman’s St. Louis Special Report

    The Journey of Kol Rinah
    By Paul Schankman and Christina Chastain
    Video by Paul Schankman

    After the deadliest attack on the Jewish community in the history of the United States a few weeks ago, here in St. Louis, two congregations came together under one roof for prayer and meditation: one Jewish, one Christian.

    They came together under the roof they have shared for the past year.

    “Both of our congregations have gravitated to one another, and there seems to be an outpouring of affection and appreciation and ‘how can we learn from you?’” Rusty Maple, the pastor of The Journey, said.

    When congregation Kol Rinah opened its doors in 1953, it was one of several large synagogues in the middle of St. Louis’ most vibrant Jewish neighborhoods. However, after 65 years, Kol Rinah has experienced a shrinking membership and an aging building.

    The Journey, on the other hand, is a relatively new and fast-growing, nondenominational Christian church with six locations in St. Louis and southern Illinois.

    The two congregations happened to be 12 blocks from one another on the same street.

    While Kol Rinah was looking to downsize, The Journey was looking for a location closer to those in need north of the Delmar Divide. The two decided to swap.

    “There’s been a long history of churches buying synagogues and using synagogues as churches,” Noah Arnow, rabbi of Kol Rinah, said. “And synagogues actually also using churches because the uses are pretty interchangeable.”

    However, there was a timing problem. The Journey’s plans for remodeling the old synagogue could be completed in just a few weeks. But Kol Rinah’s plans for renovating the old church included building an addition to house its new sanctuary, and that would take at least a year-and-a-half. The answer was a two-state solution, with The Journey inviting Kol Rinah to stay and pray, sharing the old synagogue building until the new Kol Rinah was finished.

    “After getting to know a lot more people from Kol Rinah, each of the other parties was so wanting to make this work in a really positive way that now we’re actually really getting kind of into it and getting to be family,” Alison Funke, The Journey member, said.

    Two different faith communities sharing one building comes with many logistical challenges. But, for the members of Kol Rinah, it has also been emotionally challenging. Turning a synagogue into a church meant removing the holy arc (used to hold the Torah) and the large, stained glass window that surrounded it.

    “Change is hard,” Rabbi Arnow said. “Even when we realize that change is necessary, it still hurts.”

    “I think it’s natural for people to resist change, especially when they have such long traditions,” Gary Kodner, Kol Rinah member, said. “To see their congregation or to see their sanctuary closed up and packed up and moved off. But if we all just stop and look at history, we do this. We’ve done this maybe every 40 or 50 years in order to survive.”

    The two congregations are not only surviving together, but thriving, leaning on one another through the healing process of last week’s massacre, all while Kol Rinah’s home is under construction.

    What happened in Pittsburgh was especially painful for those members of Kol Rinah who had originally attended Brith Sholom Kneseth Israel. In 1977, their synagogue also came under attack by a neo-Nazi gunman who opened fire on people leaving a bat mitzvah. Two men were hit. One of them died.

    “We’re trying to lead out of love, and with that comes understanding and some grace that covers some of the confusion or some of the things that we might get wrong,” Alison Funke, The Journey member, said. “But I really do think that that’s the example. And we learn from others too when we lead with love. That’s really all we need to focus on.”

    Kol Rinah’s new location, although just up the street, is much more urban, which they hope will help grow the congregation.

    “We’re moving into the most growing, vibrant, active community in the St. Louis region,” Randi Mozenter, Kol Rinah president, said. “There’s so much construction. There are so many people. There hasn’t been a synagogue in Clayton since 1957.”

    Once Kol Rinah construction is finished in 2019, the two congregations will go back to being 12 blocks apart. But sharing this experience will surely have shortened the greater distance between them.