2016-12-07 / Voice at the Shore

Beth Israel helps New Hope Baptist Church celebrate its 75th anniversary

By ELLEN WEISMAN STRENGER
Voice shore editor

Rabbi David Weis of Beth Israel in
Northfield spoke to members of
the New Hope Baptist Church in
Atlantic City during the church’s
month-long anniversary celebration
in November.Rabbi David Weis of Beth Israel in Northfield spoke to members of the New Hope Baptist Church in Atlantic City during the church’s month-long anniversary celebration in November.Good friends are there for each other in times of need and to celebrate each other’s simchas— and that’s just how it is between Congregation Beth Israel in Northfield and New Hope Baptist Church, an African-American Church in the inlet section of Atlantic City.

Years ago, New Hope’s pastor, Reverend John Howard, accepted an invitation to speak and to bring his choir to Beth Israel’s Martin Luther King service, and has been coming to Beth Israel’s annual MLK service ever since. At some point, Beth Israel’s Rabbi David Weis also began attending occasional services at the church. “I’ve been going to church there about three times a year for a number of years,” noted Weis. Although he drops in spontaneously, congregants know him and Reverend Howard always asks him to speak. “For me, it’s fun,” said Weis. “There’s a lot of energy in the room.”

The relationship has deepened over time. When Weis heard that New Hope’s sanctuary was severely damaged by Superstorm Sandy, he called Reverend Howard to see what he could do to help. And when Beth Israel celebrated its 125th anniversary last year, Weis asked Howard to speak.

So when Reverend Howard asked Rabbi Weis to speak at New Hope’s 75th anniversary celebration last month, and to bring along Beth Israel’s choir to sing, Weis said he was tremendously honored but not surprised.

Howard asked Weis to talk about the theme of the church’s 75th anniversary: “The latter house shall be greater than the former house,” a quote from the prophet Haggai about the rebuilding of the Temple in the year 520 BCE. Applied to New Hope’s celebration, explained Weis, the quote meant that the congregation’s next 75 years would be better than the first 75. “It’s a metaphor for renewed vision,” he added.

On Sunday, November 20, Weis delivered his sermon to the congregation at New Hope. Although Reverend Howard introduced him to those assembled, he really required no introduction because they all knew him, and he knew their history.

“Remember when this house of worship was damaged by the hurricane? When you came in and saw it, you cried at the destruction you saw before you. But it didn’t take long for those tears to dry up and turn to vision and opportunity and the desire to rebuild. But not just to rebuild, but to make it better, so that the glory of the latter house surpassed the glory of the former,” said Weis.

“Your 75th anniversary…is not a milestone, it is a stop along the way. This house of Gd is an ever-changing place, always evolving,” said Weis. “This is not the house of G-d,” he added, “This is the gateway to the house of G-d. The house of G-d is outside of this place. You can speak sweet and wondrous words inside this place, but if they don’t inspire you to be G-d’s agent when you walk out the door, then the words spoken here have failed.”

Weis’ sermon was interrupted by constant shouts of “Yes!” and other affirmations—interruptions that Weis has gotten used to during the many times he has spoken at the church, and which he welcomes. “It’s inspiring; you get this sense that they’re really listening, affirming what you’re saying. It gets me really animated and it’s very festive!”

“I think it’s really important that we continue to build bridges between communities,” stressed Weis, noting that faith communities are notoriously isolated from each other and segregated. “We gravitate toward those who are like minded, those who are most like us.”

It’s important to get over the resulting polarization by trying to understand other people’s worldview, he added. In order to break down the barriers between different kinds of people, he stressed, we must learn to “see the world through someone else’s eyes.” s

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