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Jewish group to use Smithtown church for services

When Temple Beth Sholom in Smithtown announced this

When Temple Beth Sholom in Smithtown announced this year it was closing because of financial troubles, Cantor Judy Merrick, pictured here in this undated handout photo, says she didn't want the congregation to die. So she went to the First Presbyterian Church of Smithtown to ask for space to hold services. Credit: Handout

When Temple Beth Sholom in Smithtown announced in February that it was selling its building because of financial troubles, Cantor Judy Merrick said she didn't want the congregation to fade away.

So she went to the First Presbyterian Church of Smithtown to ask for space to hold religious services there. The church quickly agreed.

"I knew I had to do something about it," Merrick said. She is a cantor who helped lead services at the synagogue and her first service at the church will be Friday night at 8. "I couldn't just let it die completely."

These types of partnerships are increasingly common as hard economic times force religious institutions to band together to share costs. Especially notable is that the pairings frequently cross religious lines, said the Rev. Thomas Goodhue, executive director of the Hempstead-based Long Island Council of Churches.

"Sometimes these are very comfortable, long-term relationships," Goodhue said, adding that they often cross ethnic lines as well.

The First Presbyterian Church, for instance, already is sharing its church with a group of Korean Presbyterians who worship in part of the complex on Friday nights and Sunday afternoons, said the Rev. James Hulsey, First Presbyterian's pastor.

Hulsey said his church has a tradition of reaching out to other religious groups. "We felt like it was a neighborly thing to do" to invite in the Jewish group.

He added: "It's just a reminder that in an era where there are a whole lot of religious tensions here and there, some of us are trying to get along."

Hulsey said the church will not charge the Jewish group for the first three months. If the group decides it has enough support to continue, Hulsey and Merrick will reach a payment arrangement.

Merrick, who was born in Israel and plays the guitar at her services, said she is anxious to see how many worshippers she draws Friday night. If enough people come consistently each week, she will form a permanent congregation. At that point, she will begin a membership fee that should be less than the one at the synagogue was because expenses will be lower, she said.

She doesn't expect many difficulties in using the church for Jewish services. Though the plainly decorated sanctuary has a cross, Hulsey said, he has agreed to allow it to be covered with a cloth for the Jewish service.

The timing also is doable because the Presbyterians typically do not use the church on Friday nights, he said.

Goodhue said such sharing of religious buildings have been occurring for decades on Long Island and the frequency of cross-denomination partnerships are growing.

He said money is not the sole reason for the partnerships. Many churches or synagogues are finding that congregants often don't have as much time as they once did to give to their religious institution.

People also don't want to focus all their charitable giving on just one institution -- money that goes principally to maintain buildings, Goodhue said. "There's a growing sense among people they don't want all their charitable giving to be going to heat and light and that kind of stuff," he said.

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