Congregation goes home to old friends of a different faith

Rabbi Barbara Thiede and theRev. Steve Ayers of McGill Baptist Church say their farewells as Temple Or Olam moves to its new home last year. Now the congregation is returning to McGill.
Rabbi Barbara Thiede and theRev. Steve Ayers of McGill Baptist Church say their farewells as Temple Or Olam moves to its new home last year. Now the congregation is returning to McGill. COURTESY OF BARBARA THIEDE

Temple Or Olam, the first (and only) Jewish congregation of Cabarrus County, came home just in time for the New Year.

The Jewish one, anyway. For Jews, the year 5776 and our New Year begins in September.

Home, for Temple Or Olam, is McGill Baptist Church of Concord.

Temple Or Olam is an independent Jewish congregation, founded by a few Jewish families in 2004. I’ve served as the community’s spiritual leader and, after earning ordination, as its rabbi.

A year ago, Temple Or Olam decided to move to Piedmont Unitarian Universalist Church in Charlotte – in part because our congregational center appeared closer to University City than to downtown Concord.

We loved the sanctuary at Piedmont Unitarian Universalist Church. The community was gracious and kind.

But the transition was hard to make. Cabarrus County had been our home, and we had been proud to be the only Jewish congregation in the county. That had been part of our identity and pivotal to our history.

We were never large enough to build our own synagogue. The Rev. Steve Ayers and his congregation understood: We were small and would likely remain so. They offered us a home, and we met at McGill – for over a decade, in fact.

Much of our history had happened inside its four walls. Even my decision to study for the rabbinate was made at McGill after I’d been invited to the church to speak about Judaism. Those attending asked so many deep and important questions that I concluded that I needed to be better prepared next time. I went home and began attending classes as a rabbinic student at ALEPH, The Alliance for Jewish Renewal.

Members of Temple Or Olam have studied together with the people of McGill Baptist Church. We have traveled together to Charlotte to see an exhibit of the Dead Sea Scrolls. We have held joint parties and shared traditions.

I celebrated at McGill Baptist Church when I was ordained as a rabbi, and Pastor Ayers, who serves the church, was present to celebrate with me. I have chanted scripture in the fellowship hall and in the sanctuary.

We have blown our 3-foot long shofar inside the sanctuary. We have held our annual meetings and board meetings there. I have known what it is like to hear birds chirping at the windows on the morning of Rosh Hashanah, the festival of the Jewish New Year as we sang our prayers.

In the weeks just before we made the decision to come home final, news got out somehow.

One of our members told me that he’d been out to dinner with friends – one, a congregant at McGill. The gentleman from McGill had heard a rumor that we were returning, and he wanted to tell his friend at Temple Or Olam how happy he was that we were coming back.

That same week, I’d walked into my doctor’s office for a routine check-up. One of the staff there, who is also a longtime member at McGill, rushed over.

“I hear you are coming home,” she said, smiling broadly.

Our members kept discovering – in one way or another – that McGill’s members had missed us as we had missed them.

I do not believe that God needs a translator. Human prayers are heard no matter the language, no matter the faith, no matter the creed. In the beginning and in the end, it is love that we are offered and love we are asked to give: “You shall love your neighbor as yourself” (Leviticus 19:18).

The Hebrew word in this Levitical verse that we often translate as “neighbor” also means “companion,” “friend.”

Temple Or Olam is particularly lucky to have friends who have extended their love to our community. We have come home to give the same in return. In gratitude and with, I hope, abundance.

Barbara Thiede is a freelance writer: