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When Drew Willard's family moved into its South Plainfield, N.J., home the same week in 1958 as their Jewish neighbors, the two families hit it off immediately. Each wanted a fenced-in yard – so they put up one fence around both properties with a gate that led to the open fields behind them.
More than 50 years later, the Rev. Drew Willard has led the UCC at The Villages (Fla.) in a celebration devoid of division and fulfilling in faith. Worshiping the past seven years at various sites – including the past three at the New Jewish Congregation of Temple Shalom a mile up the road – the UCC at The Villages took root in its new building Aug. 15.
"No more talk about 'when we get to the new building,' " says Willard joyously. "We had a mountaintop experience on Sunday."
Sumter County inspectors issued the church's certificate of occupancy just two days prior, which "turned out to be one of the luckiest Friday the 13ths you could imagine," says Willard. "We said amongst ourselves that if we couldn't get permission to do this, we were going to make the walk anyway. We still would have done an exchange of the cross, the chalice and the Bible in the narthex – like planting the flag on Mt. Everest," says Willard with a laugh.
The "walk" was a mile-long kadimah (kuh-DEE-muh), a pilgrimage of about 100 people from the temple to The Villages' new building. It followed a brief service at the temple where members of both congregations exchanged gifts. "We were singing songs like "Kumbaya" that first half-mile," says Willard of the march.
Once inside the new sanctuary, the sounding of the shofar (a ram horn used as a wind instrument) signaled a new era.
"Confirmed members and choir members lined up first," says Willard. "I presented the cross, Bible and chalice to the diaconate, and everyone had a chance to hold the elements." Jerry Fabian, building committee chair, presented the key to church moderator Phil Pierkowski, and the Rev. Dr. Bill Wealand, the church's founding pastor, offered the invocation.
"It was a wonderful way for my wife and I to visit with so many people with whom we shared five years of building the congregation, much less the building," says Wealand.
Willard's sermon included a recounting of the Sermon on the Mount. "We're neighbors and there's no fence between us now," he told worshipers. Reflecting on that moment two days later, he adds, "As I learn more about the Jewish religion, it helps me become a better Christian. The same holds true for learning about Muslims."
Members of the Jewish community sang a song of blessing, and communion was offered. Sheldon Skurow, spiritual leader of the temple, and Nancy Bell, a Villages member, read a verse from Exodus, alternating in Hebrew and English. Holding hands in song, celebrants closed the service by singing "Let There Be Peace on Earth."
"Sunday was terrific, it was just … fantastic," says Skurow. "We were almost sorry to see them go." Skurow recalled his congregants' own journey from a temporary space to their new synagogue with a 4-mile kadimah that went past the site where The Villages church now stands. At that time, members of The Villages stood and cheered the synagogue's congregation.
On July 20, 2003, the Rev. Ben New planted the seeds for UCC at The Villages by calling a meeting. Thirty people attended and four years later – after holding worship in a Villages conference room, a storefront office, a Seventh Day Adventist church and the New Jewish Congregation of Temple Shalom – the church rented the temple and purchased land for its own building. Ground was broken in August 2009.
The physical space of the new building reminds Willard of the temple. "The design of the sanctuary and narthex, with the fellowship hall off to the side, is actually the type of layout we have at our church building."
Willard, senior pastor at The Villages since May, traces the inspiration for the farewell event and the kadimah to his candidating service Feb. 21. "After that service, I met with the temple's music director, Rose Eberle. She invited me into their narthex for a demonstration of their acoustics." Eberle and Villages choir member MaryAnn Neder sang – and really struck a chord with Willard.
The opening of The Villages' new space does not mean a close to its relationship with Temple Shalom, says Skurow. "We've had an interfaith Thanksgiving service with them on the Thursday prior to Thanksgiving the past few years, and a Methodist church and several others have joined us. In fact, Drew has suggested we have it at their church this year. "
The Rev. David Schoen, UCC's minister and team leader for Congregational Vitality and Discipleship, hails the UCC at The Villages as a rarity. "You just don't see a whole lot of this kind of thing anymore. They are to be congratulated on moving with such focus and intent to achieve a really beautiful facility within seven years. And the Florida Conference should be congratulated for having the foresight to purchase the land."
The UCC's Church Building Loan Fund provided UCC at The Villages with a $1.65 million construction loan.
Samaritan elders lead Passover festivities on the West Bank's Mount Gerizim in early May. Closely related to the Jews, the 670 remaining Samaritans trace their lineage to ancient Israel. Religion News Service | Osher Sassoni photo.
Samaritans in the New Testament
"When the Samaritan saw the beaten man, he had compassion on him, and went to him and bound up his wounds, pouring on oil and wine. Then he set him on his own beast and brought him to an inn, and took care of him. The next day, he took out two denarii and gave them to the innkeeper, saying, ÔTake care of him; and whatever more you spend, I will repay you when I come back.'"
ÑJesus, to a young man, teaching about loving one's neighbor (Luke 10:33-35)
"How is it that you, a Jew, ask a drink of me, a woman of Samaria? For Jews have no dealings with Samaritans."
Ña Samaritan woman at a well, speaking to Jesus (John 4:9)
"Then one of the 10, when he saw that he was healed, turned back, praising God with a loud voice. And he fell on his face at Jesus' feet, giving him thanks. Now he was a Samaritan."
Ñfrom Luke's story of the 10 lepers cleansed by Jesus (17:15-17)
"Now when they had testified and spoken the word of the Lord, they returned to Jerusalem, preaching the gospel to many villages of the Samaritans."
ÑActs of the Apostles (8:25)
"The Arabs see us as Jews and the Jews see us as Arabs, but we're not Jews and we're not Arabs. We're Samaritans."
Ñ Elezar HaCohen, Samaritan elder
By Michele Chabin
Religion News Service
MOUNT GERIZIM, WEST BANK—Dressed in flowing robes of the type their ancestors wore thousands of years ago, the 670 people in the world who call themselves "Samaritans" gathered on this lonely mountain one evening in early May and celebrated the holiday of Passover.
At sunset in the small mountaintop village they call Kiryat Luza, the male heads of the various clans prayed and then cut the throats of 30 lambs as part of the Pascal sacrifice in accordance with the Book of Exodus.
For the remainder of the week, while the world below their mountain carried on its own routine, Samaritan children stayed home from school and their parents from their jobs. They ate special foods, including home-made "matzah," or unleavened bread.
Despite the Samaritans' marking of Passover, the Sabbath and other rituals and observances similar to Judaism, Samaritans are not Jews but a distinct people. They are best known from the New Testament parable Jesus told of the Good Samaritan who came to the aid of a mugged and wounded traveler.
In contrast to Jews, who follow both the written law of the Torah as well as the oral law, the Samaritans adhere only to the five books of Moses, known as the Pentateuch. Like Orthodox Jews, the Samaritans strictly observe the laws of circumcision, family purity and kosher dietary laws. They write in ancient Hebrew script, the language of their Torah, and pray in the ancient Hebrew dialect spoken by Jews through the first millennium AD.
"Jews and Samaritans are both sons of the Israelites," says Israel Tzedaka, one of the Samaritans' much-honored elders, during the Samaritan Passover feast, which occurred a month after Jews celebrated the holiday.
Tzedaka lives in the Israeli town of Holon, as do roughly half the world's Samaritans. During holidays and family occasions, the Israel-based Samaritans travel to Kiryat Luza, where the community's other half resides on Mount Gerizim, in Palestinian territory just southwest of Nablus, the biblical Shechem.
"We trace our roots to the 12 tribes of the Kingdom of Israel," Tzedaka says. While there have been centuries of animosity between Samaritans and Jews, it was Christians and Muslims who almost succeeded in wiping out the Samaritans.
"Once we lived throughout the land of Israel and there are 1.2 million of us," Tzedaka says of the Samaritan's Golden Age, in the 4th and 5th centuries AD. "When the Christians and Muslims came they persecuted us. They killed many of us and the rest were converted by force."
By the early 1900s, the community consisted of just 146 people, according to a local census. It grew a bit during the 1930s, under British colonialism and has continued to grow, very slowly, ever since.
Today's Samaritans are an eclectic mix of ancient and modern. While the older members dress as if they had just stepped out of the Bible, the younger generation sports jeans and T-shirts. They attend college and surf the Internet, while practicing their faith to the letter.
Arguably the most challenging precept the community maintains is the one related to marriage: Under Samaritan law, single women Ñ who are outnumbered by single men by a 3-to- 1 ratio Ñ must marry another Samaritan. Usually, that's a first or second cousin. Samaritan men are permitted to find a wife outside the group, but only on the condition the bride adhere strictly to the community's laws and traditions.
The Mount Gerizim Samaritans identify with their Palestinian neighbors. They speak Arabic among themselves and attend local Palestinian schools. Yet unlike other Palestinians, the Samaritans have Israeli identity papers that enable them to travel freely to and from Israel even when other Palestinians cannot.
Israel-based Samaritan men serve in the Israeli military, "though we're posted close to home so that we can maintain our traditions," says Osher Sassoni, a 25-year-old Holon resident who served in the armed forces before becoming a computer expert. "We can't eat the meat served in the army, so we eat like vegetarians."
Zahara Yehoshua, the mother of three grown children, credits the close-knit community's education system and its day-to-day practices with instilling a love of tradition in the younger generation.
"From the time they're born we raise our children in a Torah atmosphere. By the time they're 2 or 3, they start learning our language and religion, and how to pray," Yehoshua says.
Despite living in two such different cultures, the Israeli and Palestinian community members get along well, according to Sassoni. "Of course, we're not the same. We act differently and even our jokes are different. We dress more like Israelis, who dress like Americans. The others dress like Europeans."
Since the start of the Palestinian uprising in September 2000, "the Holon people have traveled more to Mount Gerizim than vice-versa. We speak better Arabic than they speak Hebrew, but we communicate and get along," Sassoni says of his Palestinian Samaritan brethren.
Following such an unusual path, which skirts both Palestinian and Israeli society, is fraught with minefields, says Elezar HaCohen, a Samaritan elder.
"The Arabs see us as Jews and the Jews see us as Arabs, but we're not Jews and we're not Arabs. We're Samaritans. We keep the Torah like they did in the beginning," he says. "What is permitted is permitted. What is not permitted is not permitted."
HaCohen says the community's leaders go to great lengths to remain apolitical, but adds the group's biculturalism makes the transition between the two warring societies less harrowing than one would expect.
"Personally, I was born in Shechem but have lived in Holon for 35 years. When I go to Shechem and I meet people there we hug each other."
Yaffet Ben Asher Cohen, the self-appointed guardian of the community's priceless ancient texts and family trees that span 3,700 years, says, "Our hope is that we will be able to preserve our language, religion, traditions and unity of the people until Judgment Day. We also hope that the Palestinians and Israelis will learn from us.
"We Samaritans have survived countless wars," he says. "In every generation they have conquered us, killed us, imprisoned us. War brings only destruction."