First Congregational & Beth Israel Center

The letter below was written by Cynthia Hirsch as an OpEd for the Wisconsin State Journal. First Congregational was proud to be able to host Beth Israel Center for their High Holy Days this year. Beth Israel Center and First Congregational will be celebrating Thanksgiving together on Thanksgiving Eve with “A Conversation on Gratitude,” led by Rabbi Joshua Ben-Gideon and Rev. Eldonna Hazen. Please plan to join us at 7:30pm on November 26th at First Congregational.

For the Madison Jewish Community, and indeed for Jewish people all over the world, the holiday of Sukkot began at sundown on October 8th.

Also known as the Festival of Booths, it commemorates both the harvest and our days of wandering in the desert. We remember the insecurity of having no permanent home, and we remember the kindness of strangers who gave us shelter. Booths, or little huts, were built to protect us from the sun while we harvested the season’s gifts or moved through the desert while in exile, depending on the century you choose. Here in Madison as elsewhere, we often build little huts and eat outside in them, enjoying friends and foods of the season. We celebrate Sukkot with joy, knowing that at least most of us no longer wander.

Beth Israel Center, Madison’s egalitarian traditional congregation, however, has been wandering a bit. Our synagogue (at the corner of Mound and Randall) is undergoing a transformative renovation that required us to vacate our building temporarily, and we found ourselves without a sanctuary for Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur, the holiest days of the year.

We have been out of our building since March, and Temple Beth El has been generously hosting us for weekly services and religious school. Their building could not possibly accommodate both congregations, however, for the fall High Holy Days. At the most important time of the year for our community, indeed at a time when we gather at our fullest capacity, we needed a place to call home. More than just a place for us to gather, however, we needed a place that would let us bring our unique Jewish flavor and full holiday spirit. Madison’s First Congregational Church graciously hosted us, and we were able to hold all of our services for Rosh Hashana, and Yom Kippur in their Church.

I, personally, was overwhelmed with gratitude and a sense of awe when I entered their magnificent sanctuary and saw our Ark with our Torah scrolls strategically placed in the front of our congregation. They had given their sacred space to us, for our own sacred observances, for these holy days. Historically, of course, things between Christians and Jews have not always been so pleasant. And in 2014, at a time when organized religion is viewed (perhaps legitimately) as a source of conflict around the world, this gesture is for me a powerful statement of crossing boundaries, in the name of tolerance and friendship. The broader Madison community enjoys a rich and complex mosaic of religious practice and observance. We wish to thank our neighbors at the First Congregational Church for helping us, and for reminding us of the strength and power of our interfaith relationships.

Soon after Sukkot, Beth Israel Center will move back into our beautiful newly remodeled synagogue. Although we will be happy to be going “home,” these were High Holy Days we will not soon forget. On behalf of Beth Israel Center, I want to publicly thank the staff, leadership, and members of the First Congregational Church of Madison. We look forward to being able to share our sacred space with the larger Madison community in the spirit of interfaith friendships and mutual concerns for community issues.


Cynthia Hirsch

Immediate Past President

Beth Israel Center


Posted on November 4, 2014 at 11:11 am in Featured Content.

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