Partners in Justice

Date Posted: 
Monday, September 21, 2015

A pastor and a rabbi join forces to serve their neighbors

Old First Reformed Church in Brooklyn, New York was drawing crowds, but not for its sermons or its worship music. The attraction: the church’s front stoop. It had become a popular refuge for the area’s homeless population. And the neighbors were not happy. They called for the church to take action against the stoop-dwellers. Old First’s pastor, Daniel Meeter, refused.

“I kept saying, ‘Well, this is God’s house—a public space. We’re not going to chase people away from here,’” Meeter says.

When Andy Bachman, the rabbi at Congregation Beth Elohim, heard about the disagreement, he came up with an idea.

“Andy said, ‘Let’s bring our congregations together to work on the homeless problem,’” Meeter recalls.

And that’s just what the congregations did. They worked with the city to provide better housing for people without homes. While Old First and Beth Elohim had periodically joined forces in ministry before, this marked the start of a unique, close partnership between the church and the nearby synagogue.

In 2009 that partnership grew even closer—literally. The plaster on the synagogue’s ceiling started falling down, so the church let the synagogue use its sanctuary for services until the ceiling was repaired. Three years later, when Old First’s ceiling began to collapse, Beth Elohim returned the favor.

The church and the synagogue banded together to help their neighbors again when Hurricane Sandy hit in 2012.

“A lot of the people in the area hit hardest were poor Jews,” Meeter says. “So Beth Elohim started this incredible campaign of making food and delivering it to all the Hurricane Sandy victims—Jews and non-Jews.”

But on the Sabbath the Jews couldn’t cook. So Old First set up an operation in its kitchen to make sure everyone was fed. That operation grew into a food relief program that continued throughout the Hurricane Sandy recovery, side-by-side with the program at the synagogue. By May, the church had delivered more than 200,000 meals.

Neither Old First nor Beth Elohim knew how big their relief programs would become. They were just extending hospitality to their neighbors—a practice Old First picked up from Beth Elohim.

“[Through our work with Beth Elohim] we’ve seen that one way of doing social justice is providing hospitality. It’s not marching and demonstrating, but it’s a really important ministry,” Meeter says. “From panhandlers on our stoop, to our Jewish neighbors, to anybody who walks in off the street, we want our church to be a sanctuary for everyone.”

Although Andy Bachman left the synagogue last year, the partnership between Beth Elohim and Old First Reformed is stronger than ever. The congregations hold joint services several times a year and continue to work together on ministry efforts in their neighborhood.

In June, Bachman and Meeter were honored as “Partners in Justice” by AVODAH, a nonprofit that engages and develops a network of Jewish leaders committed to pursuing justice and fighting poverty in the United States. 

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