Written by Anthony Moujaes
First Congregational of Ocala is a church welcoming of all people. When a nearby Jewish congregation needed a new place to gather, the Florida congregation of the United Church of Christ was eager to extend an extravagant welcome to their neighbors from Congregation Beth Israel. But the main point of pride during the process for the Rev. Harold "Hal" McSwain, Jr., senior pastor at First Congregational, is that the members come up with the idea and approached him.
"The coolest part of this is that it was started by members," McSwain said. "It wasn't me. They got the ball rolling and I was just carrying it."
Congregation Beth Israel of Ocala will share space with First Congregational of Ocala beginning Sept. 27, gathering Friday for Sabbath service. Congregation Beth Israel, which formed in 2009 among the Jewish community in Marion County, previously met at a medical center, but the lease was not renewed.
After reading a story in the local newspaper about Beth Israel's need for a worship space, three First Congregational members — George Taragna, and Carl and Joyce Edgarton — went to McSwain and suggested reaching out to Congregation Beth Israel to see if they could help.
Beth Israel was delighted and accepted the offer. Sonia Peterson, treasurer for Congregation Beth Israel, told the Ocala Star-Banner that First Congregational was "so nice and accommodating."
As a progressive and inclusive community of Judaism, Beth Israel is affiliated with the Jewish Reconstructionist Federation, because, according to its website, it offers a balance between traditional and contemporary American life. Beth Israel has about 60 members.
When McSwain asked the congregation and the church board about embracing the Beth Israel group, he said everyone thought it was the right thing to do
"We've had a long, healthy relationship with both Hebrew and Muslim communities here," said McSwain, who has been an ordained pastor for 34 years and is a member of the Florida Conference of the UCC. "We're an Open and Affirming church. Everyone is welcome here."