Lifted hands, open hearts

The Baltimore Sun

If any member of the Baltimore Hebrew Congregation at first appeared to be subdued during the joint service with First Mount Olive Free Will Baptist Church, Senior Rabbi Rex D. Perlmeter offered an explanation.

"You lift your hands in prayer, and by tradition we have sat on our hands in worship," Perlmeter said of his Reform congregation's custom of relatively reserved services.

But the stillness was short-lived yesterday as both the Baptist and Jewish congregations in Baltimore took to their feet with cheers praising God at the sprawling Park Heights Avenue temple. They united for more than two hours in a song-filled, tear-soaked, dancing-in-the-aisles service for the first time this weekend to celebrate the birth of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.

In recent years, local Reform synagogues and African-American churches have held joint activities around the holiday for the slain civil rights leader in an effort to foster understanding between African-Americans and Jews, two communities that have had somewhat strained relations in the past.

The communal celebrations were also the first since First Mount Olive began to hold Sunday services at the temple last fall. The Baptist congregation relocated after a fire in July destroyed their West Baltimore church.

Jill Petschek attended the joint weekend services at Baltimore Hebrew that also included a Shabbat Shira on Friday evening with a talk by the bishop from First Mount Olive. She hopes the experience will lead to more interaction between the two faith communities.

"My 11-year-old son asked why I was crying Friday night, and I told him that it's just so joyful that we're together. Their music is so uplifting and I was happy to hear that our music touched them in the same way," she said. "We just need to get to know each other more."

First Mount Olive congregants responded enthusiastically to yesterday's service, singing hymns in both English and Hebrew, shouting spontaneous praise and often physically embracing their Jewish brethren through the lively service. Though devastated when fire destroyed their church, many Baptists said they now see the tragedy as a divine opportunity for interfaith dialogue and a chance to learn more about Jewish traditions.

"It's like we're going to Thanksgiving at your mama's house," Kesheia Hill, 29, of West Baltimore said of Baptist services at Baltimore Hebrew. "It's not your house, but it always feels like home."

In July, the church steeple at First Mount Olive was hit by lightning, sparking a five-alarm fire that consumed the building. In the first months after the fire, the Baptist congregation of 3,000 held Sunday services at another synagogue.

That arrangement was only short-term, Perlmeter said, and his congregation of 4,000 was approached about hosting First Mount Olive for the near future.

"We talked a lot about it," the rabbi said. "We're a liberal Jewish community, but we obviously don't agree about everything with First Mount Olive. Still, the need was there, and I have just been overwhelmed what a wonderfully spiritual community they are."

Before the fire, the nonprofit corporation that owns the church was twice threatened with foreclosure - on both the building in the 800 block of W. Saratoga St. and a separate 9-acre plot purchased in 2002. When asked yesterday about the church's finances and future, Bishop Oscar E. Brown of First Mount Olive said that plans to rebuild are continuing. He hopes architectural drawings will be completed in the next few weeks, but he has said that the church's reopening is many months away.

Brown served as the guest speaker at the Jewish congregation's Friday night Shabbat Shira service while Perlmeter spoke from the pulpit at First Mount Olive's weekly service yesterday.

In thanks, Brown presented Perlmeter with an ornate plate yesterday for use during the Passover Seder.

"We're already talking about having our men's groups meet to talk about how to get more men into our congregations," Brown said. "We want to do the same thing with our youth."

He added: "We decided to do this weekend only if it was going to about more than just a one-time get together."

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