New Jewish congregation finds home in Episcopal church

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Gaspee Days is a good time for a fresh beginning.

Beth Veltri hadn’t thought of it that way, but the timing for a new Jewish congregation to move from its former temple in Warwick to Trinity Church in Pawtuxet coincides with the day for the closing of the celebration of the colonial defiance of British rule in 1772.

On Sunday, June 11 at 1 p.m. Veltri, who is president of the Or Chadash Congregation, and an estimated 30 members in addition to untold others from the Episcopal Church and the community will assemble near Pawtuxet Park. The park should be busy. There will be a colonial encampment with tents with local militia. There will be games for the kids and at 4 p.m. people will focus on the cove where a group will set fire to the Gaspee.

By then Or Chadash, New Light in Hebrew will be ensconced in Trinity Church. The congregation will occupy a classroom in the church that had formally housed day care. The congregation will have access to church facilities including the kitchen and meeting room.

On June 11, taking turns, Or Chadash members will carry the three Torahs they were able to acquire at auction when the former Temple Am David was placed in receivership across Pawtuxet Bridge and to the church on Ocean Avenue. An ark that will house them will be waiting.

The bridge crossing holds particular symbolism to Veltri who met recently with Judy Bessoff, vice president, and Aaron Weintraub, treasurer, to talk about the new congregation and how it found a home in an Episcopal church. Under an agreement with the Buddhists who bought Temple Am David and have converted the property into the state’s first Buddhist temple, Or Chadash was welcome to continue services until they found a suitable replacement.

“It felt like the time to look for a place,” said Veltri, “so I called Scott [Mayor Scott Avedisian] and not 24 hours later we were visiting Trinity Church.

Avedisian had closely followed the transition at Temple Am David and, in fact, stopped in at the temple on the day of the auction to talk with Veltri, where he learned of the congregation’s efforts to continue.

When he got Veltri’s call he thought of Trinity where he is a parishioner and serves as senior warden. The church’s small chapel, which is used only at certain times of the year seemed like a possibility. It looked like a fit. Use of the chapel didn’t overlap. In addition, the church hall could be used by Or Chadash for Shabbat that begins at Friday nigh sunset and continues on Saturday. Before taking too many steps, Avedisian wanted to clear use of an Episcopal place of worship as shared space for a Jewish congregation and their worship.

Avedisian is thrilled by the response.

“There was not one negative comment from anyone,” he said.

“From the most senior to the newest members, no one batted an eye,” the Rev. Mitch Lindeman, priest in charge at Trinity said. He said there has been a “positive outpouring” and he notes with satisfaction a transformation of the space as Or Chadash members have painted the room and prepared it for its new use.

Rev. Lindeman views Trinity as having a “ministry of facility,” opening its doors to the community. As he puts it, “let’s lose the keys out in the community.” He said the church would hold its parish picnic on June 11 and Or Chadash is invited.

Veltri expects Avedisian will join in the procession. The group will carry a chuppah, or canopy, lifted from four poles above the assembly.

Veltri emphasizes Or Chadash is an all new congregation that, while it has roots to Temple Am David, is not financially or otherwise obligated to the former temple. What is critical to the new congregation is that they were able to acquire many of the religiously significant items and in particular three of eight Torahs from the temple.

Veltri remembers spending the night at the temple so as to be among the first at the auction. The group had identified the items they hoped to acquire within their budget constraints. They hoped to acquire a single Torah, never imagining they would end up with three.

Prior to the commencement of the auction, Veltri was approached by a man who remains unidentified and was not a member of the former temple. He was a stranger. He had read about the temple’s financial problems and was dismayed by the auction.

“‘Here’s the Torahs,’” Veltri remembers the man saying as he looked over the list, “‘Let’s go pay for this’…he bought everything we needed.”

Veltri explains to establish a congregation at least two Torahs are preferred because, at different times of the year, there are concurrent readings from different passages. A third Torah was possible when someone Veltri knew and had been a member of the former temple bought it and gave it to them.

It will soon be housed in an ark on the eastern wall of the Trinity Church parish house between windows with a view of Stillhouse Cove, which is not that far from the shores where colonialists set off to burn the British schooner Gaspee as it was aground on the shoals of Namquid Point.

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