In Florida, Jews and Christians worship and learn under same new roof
In one Florida town, United Church of Christ members are studying Hebrew. They don’t have to go far for lessons.
In fact, they don’t have to travel at all.
First Congregational UCC in Ocala now worships under the same roof as Temple Beth Shalom. The two sold their former buildings and built a new one together. It opened this year: a 16,500-square-foot structure on about five acres of land. It’s called Ocala Tree of Life Sanctuary.
The Christian and Jewish congregations still have their own identities and spaces. There are, for example, two kitchens — one of them kosher. But the separate worship spaces for church and synagogue, and the social hall between them, can open up into one big hall for shared events, thanks to movable walls and seating. Each worship space seats 225; the combined space seats 600.
The first such event — the building’s March dedication — was the latest and largest step for two congregations that have known each other for years. The Rev. Hal McSwain, First Congregational’s pastor, describes them as “local voices for liberal religion.”
They both care about peace, social justice and community welcome. Those common values, plus practical needs each congregation had, made them a good match for the Tree of Life project.
First Congregational had been at its previous site, about three miles from the new one, since its founding in 1984. “Back in those days the price of property was a song,” McSwain said. “The church bought 10 acres that turned out to be prime acres on one of the main arteries leading southwest from Ocala.”
By 2015, the church had aging members and a lot of maintenance to do, such as “mowing 10 acres in July and August,” McSwain said. “We decided we would sell that property and locate on a smaller footprint. In the process, we came into dialogue with Temple Beth Shalom.”
That congregation, too, wanted to move. It was growing. Many of its members were commuting from the residential area that is now Tree of Life’s home.
By then, McSwain and Rabbi Ze’ev Harari of Beth Shalom had known each other for about six years. They led congregations that had been acquainted for decades. “We were the usual suspects in town for liberal religion in general,” McSwain said. He and Harari had been involved in the same advocacy events, lectures and panels. They had preached and taught in each other’s congregations. And they had become friends.
Over lunch one day, they talked about the possibility of building together. The idea took root with both congregations. Designs were carefully drawn up for separate and common spaces, including a shared lobby and classrooms. Seven years later, Tree of Life was completed, mortgage-free. The sale of the congregations’ previous properties, plus a generous land donation, covered “a large chunk” of the project’s costs, McSwain said.
Synagogue worship is at 7:30 p.m. Fridays. Church services are at 10 a.m. Sundays. Not only that, the building is — by design — available to the community. “That’s part of our charter,” McSwain said. “It’s part of our mandate to be involved in the community in that way.”
Tree of Life has already hosted a blood drive and a concert, with many more such events to come, he said. A local chapter of PFLAG meets there monthly. The building will be a regular election polling site, and, because of its sturdy construction, a hurricane and tornado shelter.
‘To build bridges’
The Tree of Life partners say they know of only four situations in the U.S. in which Jews and Christians deliberately share a space in this way. Two examples with UCC affiliation are the Tri-Faith Initiative in Omaha, Neb., and Brookville Multifaith Campus on Long Island, N.Y.
But Ocala Tree of Life Sanctuary is the only arrangement of its kind in Florida.
And it’s meant to send a message. In a 2018 report on the project, Harari and McSwain said they had discussed that intention early in the process. They valued “the ‘witness’ that the cooperation of our two congregations, sharing the same physical location, would have in our community, particularly given the polarizing proclivities characterizing much of Central Florida.”
In a 2020 poster, the two congregations invited readers to “imagine”:
- “Jews and Christians sharing space, an expansion and expression of their being Open and Affirming Congregations welcoming everybody into their respective fellowships, non-discriminating, a vivid expression of interfaith harmony to build bridges throughout our community.”
- “Two communities of faith acknowledging the highest tenets of their respective and collective beliefs, coming together in safe space to put faith into action.”
- “Tree of Life Sanctuary providing a haven in which adults, children and youth of different faiths will learn to live, work, play and worship together with dignity, mutual respect, and honor.”
Jewish identity, UCC heart
One UCC member who found his way to the new facility is someone whose faith journey was told in this 2016 UCC News article. Danny Eitington was the first Jewish person to serve as moderator of First Congregational UCC in Albuquerque, N.M.
He moved to Ocala in April 2022 to live in one of its communities for residents 55 and older. He said he “connected with First Congregational within a month.” Eitington is in the process of joining as an associate member and hopes also to remain a member of the Albuquerque church — the first religious community that welcomed him as a gay man and a Jew.
For him, the main attraction of Tree of Life was less its interfaith aspect and more the fact that the UCC feels like home. “I tell people, if it comes up, that I identify as a Jew but my heart and soul are with the UCC,” Eitington said. The Ocala and Albuquerque churches “both live and breathe the UCC’s message of acceptance and tolerance of all people,” he said. “The UCC has provided me with a family that loves and accepts me unconditionally.”
Eitington said that, as a young person, he attended synagogue “out of obligation,” then stopped after his bar mitzvah, the coming-of-age ceremony for young Jewish men. But being part of the UCC has helped him understand the religious side of his own ethnic heritage.
“Ironically enough, I have learned more about Judaism from attending UCC Bible studies than I ever did by attending Sunday school and Hebrew school at the synagogue,” he said. Studying both Hebrew and Christian scriptures “has enlightened me about Judaism while I simultaneously learn about Christianity.”
‘Amazing what I’ve learned’
Similar kinds of interfaith learning at Tree of Life might benefit everyone’s faith, McSwain said.
Beth Shalom’s rabbis, for example, are teaching courses in the biblical language that the two faiths share in common. “One of the Hebrew classes is made up of all Christians from our community of faith,” McSwain said.
“I just finished reading a book about the Jewish origins of Jesus, written by a Christian author who researched the geopolitical and cultural backgrounds up to 2,000 years before Jesus’ time,” he said. He hopes offer a study at Tree of Life on that subject. “It’s amazing what I’ve learned about the gospels in particular and the world in which they were written.
“Through this project, I have learned so much about my own faith.”
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