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Church, temple find home together in synagogue building

Aixalee Villatoro of Brentwood moves the pulpit after

Aixalee Villatoro of Brentwood moves the pulpit after the Ministerio Jesucristo Vive service to make way for a Jewish service at a former synagogue in Smithtown on Saturday, July 15, 2017. Credit: Ed Betz

They may be the unlikeliest roommates in Smithtown.

Four years ago, the Conservative Jewish congregation of Temple Beth Sholom, facing mounting bills and dwindling membership, sold its Edgewood Avenue synagogue to Ministerio Jesucristo Vive, or Jesus Christ Lives Ministry — a burgeoning, largely Latino evangelical church.

The church counts about 1,500 members and hundreds of families; the synagogue, about 75 families.

The synagogue sold for $1.75 million in 2013, according to property records. Leaders of the two congregations agreed that they would share the space for at least five years, with Beth Sholom staying rent-free during that time. Cohabitation has worked, leaders of the two religious groups said in interviews this month.

“We use something, we put it back,” said Pastor Raymond Jaquez, who leads the church with his wife, Pastor Monica Jaquez. “We want them to feel comfortable,” he said, as if there’s “not a new owner, just new management.”

The church brought with it little Christian iconography, save a Christian flag that hangs off to the side of the sanctuary the congregations share.

A rare Torah scroll, rescued from Nazi-controlled Europe during World War II, retains its place of pride in the building’s lobby; in the banquet hall, the stained glass windows remain, illustrating Old Testament scenes familiar to adherents of both faiths.

Rabbi Jonathan Waxman still occupies his book-crammed office; the Jaquez pastors work out of smaller, neater rooms across the hall.

During the Jewish High Holidays, when Beth Sholom’s evening services sometimes overlap with Jesucristo Vive’s Wednesday night prayer meetings, the church moves downstairs, but typically, the only day both congregations use the sanctuary is Saturday, when the Christians hold a morning prayer meeting, then leave as the Jews start their Sabbath service.

This arrangement is “not a common circumstance,” a representative of the United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism said in an email this month, though Waxman — who is the son of Rabbi Mordecai Waxman, a prominent figure in the Conservative movement — said he believed there might be at least one similar example in Nassau County.

The factors that brought Beth Sholom and Jesucristo Vive together reflect broader trends. Long Island’s Latino population has grown in recent years, and many Latinos are leaving the Catholic Church for evangelical congregations, according to U.S. Census data and a 2014 Pew Research Center report.

Meanwhile, the Conservative Jewish population is aging, said Stephen M. Cohen, a Hebrew Union College sociologist, and “synagogue membership in general is driven by people who are parents of young children.”

A recent demographic study by UJA-Federation of New York put the Jewish population in Smithtown, Port Jefferson and Stony Brook at 16,500 in 2011, down 6 percent from 2002. The area was distinguished by a high rate of intermarriage and low rates of involvement in the Jewish community, such as synagogue membership, researchers found.

Other factors are more specific. The retirement of a longtime rabbi in 2000 may have contributed to a drop-off in membership in the synagogue, which was founded in 1956 and once topped 500 families, Waxman said. Fallout from the Bernard Madoff Ponzi scheme and the 2008 recession harmed the catering business that had supplied much of the synagogue’s budget and may have also caused donors to pare back their gifts, he said.

Meanwhile, Jesucristo Vive was growing. The church started in 2005 with seven members in a Hauppauge hotel conference room and moved several times in search of more space before coming to the synagogue in Smithtown — an area with few Latinos that is miles away from the homes of most church members, many of whom hail from Bay Shore and Central Islip.

All of this, Jaquez said, is part of God’s plan, which he believes has as much to do with bringing two congregations together as with a simple real estate deal.

“If you don’t know a person,” you form your views from afar and sometimes incorrectly, he said. “Then, when you know that person closely, your view can change.”

A recent Saturday morning began shortly after 6 a.m., with a boisterous, hourslong Christian service in the sanctuary featuring singing, readings from the Psalms and a lecture from Monica Jaquez on the significance of the tabernacle in Exodus. A woman testified how faith had seen her through a cancer scare. “When the people of the Lord come together, we can do anything,” Raymond Jaquez preached.

Much of the service was conducted in Spanish, with a deacon, Angela Layampa, providing real-time English translation via headphones for those who needed it.

That service drew about 100 people, most middle-aged or younger, many of whom drove in from Central Islip and Bay Shore. The church’s two Sunday services typically draw another 400 each from places as far away as Connecticut, the numbers swelled by the pastors’ daily radio show.

By 10 a.m. the Christians had put away their instruments and the lectern the pastor used, and the Jews took over the sanctuary. They were five — too few for a formal religious service — so for much of the time Waxman, by turns sounding learned and witty, led a discussion of the day’s text. It was a critical reading, conducted mostly in English with some Hebrew, of the book of Numbers, of the kind that would not have been out of place on a college campus.

The congregation’s median age is above 70, though. As the service ended, there were prayers for sick friends and relatives and talk about scheduling the next meeting of the congregation’s book club.

The congregation is trying to grow, buying advertising in local newspapers and dropping dues for new members to make itself more attractive for young families and others.

Some members said they were grateful for the church’s willingness to host them, doubting the congregation would survive if it had to find a new home.

“The way I look at it, this is a family, and they’re taking care of their poor cousins,” said Gary Klein of Hauppauge.

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