Dozens of Tree of Life*Or L’Simcha congregants and Pittsburgh Christians alike gathered under one roof at Calvary Episcopal Church Dec. 22 to celebrate Chanukah and Christmas in an interfaith celebration of common values and community bonds.
The day started at 11 a.m. Sunday with the church’s annual Christmas service, crowned with a Nativity scene featuring five dozen children dressed as shepherds and angels, six sheep, a donkey and an ornery 1-year-old camel named Abe who refused to walk all the way to the altar. It continued at noon with a Chanukah party resplendent with songs, crafts, food and a few lessons about the connections between the faiths and the holidays. People were met at the front door by a statue of Jesus on the crucifix; in front of him sat a lighted menorah.
“This is Pittsburgh — it’s a community,” said Tree of Life President Sam Schachner, shortly after Rabbi Jeffrey Myers played acoustic guitar and led the interfaith group through a rousing rendition of “I Have a Little Dreidel.” “To be able to share in this, it’s a wonderful thing.”
Donald Kaplan is no stranger to the bonds between different faiths. He’s Jewish, raised by interfaith parents, and has started a family with his wife, Emily, who is Episcopalian. The construction consultant and native Pittsburgher smiled broadly on Dec. 22 as his 3-year-old daughter, Eliza, spread primary-colored paint over a popsicle-stick Star of David.
“I think all of this just speaks to the level of community,” said Kaplan, who lives on the North Side. “There’s a shared knowledge and that’s endearing at this time. It’s more inclusive. For my daughter to know these two things can coexist, it’s special.”
Nearby, Jennifer Blaze, who is a nondenominational Christian, watched her 3-year-old granddaughter, Maya, paint a Star of David, too. Jennifer’s sister converted to Judaism and attends services at Tree of Life. She laughed when asked how it felt to watch Christian children take part in Chanukah-themed crafts at church on a Sunday.
“It’s wonderful,” Blaze said. “We embrace it — absolutely.”
The relationship between Tree of Life and Calvary Episcopal Church is not new. The church’s pastor, Rev. Jonathan Jensen, jump-started a collection at the church to rebuild the Tree of Life facility the day after the October 2018 shooting in Squirrel Hill claimed the lives of 11 congregants.
“Those are the things one’s supposed to do,” Jensen said.
But he didn’t stop there. He reached out to the congregation and offered his building, which is used by several community groups, for services during the transition period. About 50 Calvary members volunteered to serve during Tree of Life’s High Holiday services at the church this year. Tree of Life responded by sending dozens Sunday morning to celebrate Christmas alongside their new friends.
“I’ve never heard of a Christmas pageant and a Chanukah party being held at the same time. But it can work in Pittsburgh. It works for us,” Jensen said. “I’ve been asked 100 times, ‘Why’d you do this?’ I say, ‘It’s the right thing to do. We’re neighbors. We’re Pittsburghers.’”
The church has a lengthy interfaith resume. It hosted the first-ever radio broadcast of a religious service on Jan. 2, 1921, on the precursor to Pittsburgh’s KDKA. The pastor at the time asked the radio station’s two soundmen, who were Roman Catholic and Jewish, to dress in robes so they’d blend in.
Alan Hausman — Tree of Life vice president of administration and finance, and the congregation’s Volunteer of the Year — blended in just fine Sunday. He wove throughout the crowds, mingling with members of both congregations and listening as others talked about the stained-glass windows at Calvary.
“I’ve been in this building so much, I could probably give tours,” laughed Hausman, a lifelong Squirrel Hill resident.
Hausman said he saw the day’s activities as an illustration of the bonds between the two congregations.
“This is all just an extension of sharing,” Hausman said. “In the end, we’re all the same. We all want the same things for our families. Our traditions are different but this is just a great way of sharing them.”
He also said these sorts of interfaith moments were especially poignant for a congregation that had been shaken so much by the October 2018 shooting.
“If we could all be a community like this, what happened to us last year wouldn’t have happened,” he said.
Sarah Wilson is part of this growing community. She is a Calvary church verger, which means she’s responsible for helping to lead processionals and accompany readers to the lectern during Sunday religious services.
“I think of the common faith stream between the Jewish faith and the Episcopal faith,” said Wilson, whose father was an Episcopal minister and whose brother converted to Judaism. “We all started at the same place. So this is very meaningful to me.”
For Michele Woltshock, the Tree of Life membership chairwoman who helped organize Sunday’s crafts for children, the event this week was all part of a larger narrative. On Dec. 8, there was another chapter in the story, when about 30 Tree of Life members, led by Myers, descended upon the “Christmukkah” pop-up bar at Bakery Square to celebrate holidays of multiple faiths.
“I want people to know we are an active congregation, I want people to know we are small but mighty,” said Woltshock, who was born Christian and converted to Judaism. “This year and a half has brought us closer than ever. We are family. And joining these families is great.”
“2020 is going to be our year,” she added. “This is the future now.” pjc
Justin Vellucci is a freelance writer living in Pittsburgh.