WATERLOO, ONTARIO — On a hillside in Waterloo, Ontario, two Canadian congregations, one Jewish and one Christian, have united to do what neither could do on its own: build a place to worship God.
Looking a bit like a latter-day Noah's ark, the "Cedars House," as the two groups dubbed it, has a roof that peaks at either end above each congregation's sanctuary. Between the two is a folding wall, removed to provide extra seating when either congregation needs it.
"As far as we know, it's the first time in the world that a Jewish congregation and a Christian congregation have begun their relationship by designing a building together," says Mark Pancer, a past president of Temple Shalom, the Reform Jewish congregation partner in the project.
On a recent Friday evening, Temple Shalom parents and children celebrated Hanukkah by eating traditional foods at long tables in the community room - a decorated Christmas tree put up by the other congregation conspicuously in the corner. Nobody seemed to mind.
While a handful of shared-space arrangements between Jews and Christians exist in North America (typically in a former church building), this four-year, $1- million joint project appears to be a first.
The arrangement shares construction costs and all rooms of the new building. With the Jewish temple worshipping Saturdays and the Christian church Sundays, the sharing schedule seems made in heaven, each group says.
The Rev. Gary Boratto, pastor of the Westminister United Church of Canada - the Christian church partner in the project - says he is pleasantly surprised "we actually managed to pull it off."
He is quick to add, however, that he is referring to the complex logistics and financing of the structure, not internal divisions. Rather than becoming divided over design details, the work has had an elevating impact on both congregations, he says.
"We never split along denominational lines on designs ... because there were always people that could see both sides," Mr. Boratto says. "This all started out as a bricks and mortar thing and it ended up being a people thing. We've developed some good friendships."
FRIENDSHIP provided the project's initial spark. As Mr. Pancer recalls, he and neighbor Jim Robinson were both on the building committees of their respective congregations. One day in September 1992, the two found themselves talking over their back fences about their mutual problem of finding a new home for their respective congregations. The temple was in a church basement and had to move. The church, likewise, had been in a gymnasium for five years, and members were threatening to leave if they didn't move soon. It wasn't long before the two men began talking with others in their own congregations about this "wild" idea," Mr. Robinson says.
"I thought it was a wonderful idea," Mr. Pancer says. "My major concern was that, being a member of a minority religion, I knew some would have concerns about losing a sense of identity or being overwhelmed by the predominant religion in the area."
He also knew, however, that a number of people in the Westminster church could understand the Jewish congregations' concerns.
After the church council and temple board discussed the notion "it was agreed that nobody had any reason to think it might not be workable," Robinson says.
Still, Pancer and Robinson acknowledge there were hurdles. For one, the adjoining university communities of Kitchener, Ontario, and Waterloo had struggled at times with flare ups of anti-Semitic activity. Members of both religious groups were acutely conscious of the community turmoil. Robert Chodos, president of Temple Shalom, says several members felt the idea would be a symbol of peace for the community if it succeeded, as well as a way to meet their own needs.
As a first step, the two congregations agreed to jointly sponsor a design competition at the local architecture school. The congregations also decided a two-thirds majority vote would be needed to proceed at each crucial stage. In late 1993, however, a crisis occurred when only just over 60 percent of Temple Shalom voted to proceed. Some in the congregation, Pancer says, just were not convinced the partnership was something to get locked into forever. But the Christian congregation showed it understood the misgivings.
Rather than throw in the towel, the Westminister congregation agreed the temple could be a full equity partner in the project, but still be allowed to walk away after five years if the temple membership felt overwhelmed and wanted out. From there the project hit cruising speed.
"It was touch and go at some points," Mr. Chodos says. "There were a small number who did leave.... But now that we're in the building our people are glad."
In September, three dedication services were held for the new building - one for the whole building and one by each congregation for its respective sanctuary. The city's mayor, Brian Turnbull, says the new place of worship is "remarkable."
"I think what's happened is quite wonderful," says Gary Pokras, a student rabbi from Hebrew Union College in New York who commutes to Temple Shalom once a month. "Here what we've found is that we're able to celebrate our differences."
Boratto, the Westminister pastor agrees. "What I thought held things together at the crucial times was our mutual inspiration in the Old Testament," he says. "The passage we used from Psalms, says, 'How good and pleasant it is when kindred dwell together in unity.' And I guess that's just how we feel today."