Tree of Life -- Or L’Simcha is a conservative Jewish congregation, and Calvary Episcopal Church is mainline Protestant. But both Pittsburgh congregations trace their origins to the mid-19th century. And both have long inhabited houses of worship accented by stained glass on tree-lined Shady Avenue, albeit a mile apart.
Starting this week, they are sharing much more, as Calvary hosts Tree of Life’s High Holidays services -- the first since Tree of Life’s synagogue, in Squirrel Hill, was the site of the deadliest anti-Semitic attack in U.S. history.
Tree of Life was the largest of three congregations the attack displaced from the building it had called home since 1953. Sunday, it celebrated the first night of Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish New Year, in Calvary’s grand, 113-year-old sanctuary, in Shadyside. Images of Jesus and saints from the British Isles looked on in stained glass. Rosh Hashanah services continue through tomorrow, and services for Yom Kippur take place next week.
Tree of Life was attacked on Oct. 27, 2018. Eleven people died and eight were injured; the suspect faces federal hate-crimes charges and related counts. The massacre was international news, and the outpouring of sympathy was immediate. Less than a week after the massacre, Calvary’s head priest, Rev. Jonathon Jensen, wrote to Tree of Life offering its space for any of the synagogue’s needs.
“Our faith calls us to love God and love our neighbor as ourselves,” Jensen said in a recent interview. “And this is one expression of that.”
Tree of Life executive director Barb Feige says Calvary was the first group to offer help of that kind. “It was just such an overwhelmingly wonderful gesture of love for them to have made this offer,” she said.
Tree of Life didn’t take Calvary up on the offer right away. Since November, even as the community continued to grieve and recover, Tree of Life has held weekly services at Rodef Shalom synagogue, in Oakland, itself a landmark. (Dor Hadash, a smaller congregation formerly housed at Tree of Life, also worships at Rodef Shalom; the third congregation, New Light, worships at Squirrel Hill’s Congregation Beth Shalom.)
But High Holidays, quips Feige, are “prime time” for synagogues. Tree of Life expected some 800 worshippers at a time for Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur – perhaps even more this year. (Yom Kippur, or the Day of Atonement, is the most solemn day in the Jewish calendar.)
Talks with Calvary were followed by a series of open houses for Tree of Life members. This past Wednesday, Tree of Life moved a portable ark, containing Torah scrolls, to Calvary’s Gothic-revival home, along with supplies of yarmulkes and prayer shawls.
On Sunday morning, Calvary held services as usual, then prepared its sanctuary for the Rosh Hashanah services set to begin about seven hours later. For instance, as a gesture of interfaith hospitality, Calvary covered four prominent crosses in its sanctuary with fabric. (Jensen noted that Calvary covers the crosses for its own services during Lent.)
Dozens of ushers from Calvary volunteered to work alongside Tree of Life ushers for the three days of Rosh Hashanah worship and the 25 hours of Yom Kippur.
“The idea is, Tree of Life know their people,” said Jensen. “Calvary people know the building well, and so the question most often asked is not, ‘Do you believe in God?’ It’s, ‘Where is the restroom?’”
Indeed, Tree of Life will have the run of the Calvary’s limestone-clad landmark, with its 220-foot spire, for the duration of the High Holidays.
“They are making accommodations with their pre-school so that we can have a baby-sitting room,” said Feig. “They’ve made accommodations for us to have our youth service up in their choir room.”
But there’s another connection between Tree of Life and Calvary – one that began several years ago, but which neither most members of the congregations nor their leadership knew about until recently.
Sarah Nadler, 26, is in her fourth year as Tree of Life’s cantorial soloist for the High Holidays. And although she’s Jewish, the soprano is also in her fifth year as a soloist and section leader in Calvary’s own choir.
The High Holidays will be "very different" this year, Nadler said.
“It’ll be difficult, but I know it’s really important and I’m going to do my best to lead everyone in prayer,” she said.
Nadler lives in the South Hills and is not a Tree of Life congregant. But she’s a one-woman foreshadowing of Calvary's hospitality for its Jewish counterpart from up the street.
“I can’t say that I’m surprised that they offered their facilities, because they were so welcoming to me,” she said. “I’m not Christian, but I sing all this music with them. And even though I might not believe the same things as they do, we’re both sensitive to each other’s beliefs, and they’re totally accepting, welcoming of me.”
The Tree of Life synagogue remains shuttered, partly surrounded by a cyclone fence adorned with artwork by children from around the U.S. and in New Zealand. Representatives of the three synagogues said that while they are committed to worship again at the site, discussions over whether to raze the building or renovate it continue.
Regardless, it seems like Tree of Life has an ally in Calvary. Jensen said last week that 50 Calvary parishioners had requested tickets to Tree of Life’s High Holidays services. He added there are more cross-faith collaboration in the works: “What would it look like to do something fun together, to get to know each other and then do service projects together?”