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Expressway: A house of worship finds a savior

A sign at a house of worship on

A sign at a house of worship on Edgewood Avenue shows the presence of two congregations -- the original Temple Beth Sholom and the new Jesus Christ Lives. JCL moved in in 2013. JCL allows the temple congregation to share the building. Photo Credit: Newsday / Lawrence Striegel

Like many people on Long Island who want to give their children religious training, my wife and I sought a place that would serve a multitude of purposes. The first, of course, was providing our three children with some sense of religious identity, and the second, a refuge from the hurly-burly of life.

In the 1970s, we found a small temple on Edgewood Avenue in Smithtown, and were quickly drawn into its revivalist flavor. It was so appealing that we could threaten our young children that they would miss temple on Friday night if they misbehaved. It always worked. They begged us to let them go, and they worked hard to be on their best behavior.

Temple Beth Sholom -- its literal meaning, the house of peace -- was a Conservative temple with Reconstructionist influences. It became our Jewish home for many years. Having grown up in a Conservative home with stricter ritual behaviors, I joked that I belonged to a temple with a looser theology where we prayed "to whom it may concern."

The temple was rich with music. The cantors played guitars, led songs and clapped with boisterous uplifting of hands.

Our family always looked forward to a particular hymn punctuated by a vigorous announcement of "Shifty, shifty, whoo!" At that moment, our smallest child would be tossed into the air and fall giggling back into my lap. Exhausted, we could melt into the rhythms of the rest of the service. The rabbi would preach, and the congregation would sing songs and play instruments.

Each week would bring something new and unexpected, especially to those of us who had a more traditional upbringing.

Rabbi Elliot Spar, who had an open-minded, ecumenical approach, had a close relationship with nearby churches. It was not unusual for a sermon to be delivered by a minister or a priest. The rabbi even mentored a female minister and let her lead services. The temple had our own choir, and we hosted church choirs during some holidays. When the two choirs sang separately during my eldest son's bar mitzvah, I thought my more conservative father would have a heart attack. We survived that one. We also survived a variation on the traditional Jewish baby-naming ceremony when the rabbi invited children to bring in their Cabbage Patch dolls.

As the temple family grew, its board approved the addition of a catering hall to raise revenue. Like anything else, some would have preferred to maintain a smaller, warmer, family-type setting. But the hall was beautiful. Etched-glass windows pay homage to the 12 tribes of Israel and stories of the Bible. The caterer hosted a steady stream of events.

Slowly, however, change came. Rabbi Spar retired in 2000 after 39 years. Services differed. Some post-bar mitzvah families, including ours, drifted away. And warring camps in the congregation began what seemed to be a march to dissolution.

But it didn't happen. I drive by the temple now and see an altered sign. It carries the names of both Temple Beth Sholom and JCL, Jesus Christ Lives. A growing Christian congregation from Central Islip -- known in Spanish as Ministerio Jesucristo Vive -- acquired the temple in 2013, but openly gives the remaining Beth Sholom congregation space and freedom to pray and nurture its membership.

When I drive by, strains of the "shifty" song dance around in my brain, but I mix in some Spanish words. The temple has been twice blessed by two religions, the sadness of demise reversed by an atmosphere of shared space and newfound peace.

Reader Sy Roth lives in Mount Sinai.

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