By Julie Huss
---- — DERRY — It’s a successful partnership rooted in faith and friendship.
The congregations of the Church of the Transfiguration and Etz Hayim Synagogue both have individual spaces adjacent to one another on Hood Road and share both a close physical and spiritual proximity to one another.
It’s a community effort that not only joins two faiths for religious events and social activities, but also honors different beliefs.
That’s why this unique bond made the “603 Reasons” list for why New Hampshire is special.
The relationship between church and synagogue began in 1992, when Etz Hayim’s growing population started holding its worship services in Church of the Transfiguration space.
Church of the Transfiguration hosted its services on Sundays and Etz Hayim would hold its services on Saturdays. The schedule worked well for both sides.
The successful relationship continued until Etz Hayim planned construction of its own building. Church of the Transfiguration offered an adjacent piece of its property and the new synagogue opened its doors next door on Hood Road in 2009.
The two are still joined.
Many parishioners refer to the two places of worship on Hood Road as “the churchagogue,” one of the few interfaith campuses in the United States, members say.
Rabbi Bryna Milkow is the first female rabbi at Etz Hayim Synagogue. She came on board in 2011, following the retirement of Rabbi Louis Rieser.
She is only the third rabbi in Etz Hayim’s history.
Milkow said sharing both community activities and faith-based events makes the relationship unique. She joined with the Rev. Ray Bonin of the Church of the Transfiguration last year to celebrate a new joint sign honoring the two congregations.
“I think it’s wonderful,” she said during the sign dedication. “It’s very exciting, very unique and special. I’m glad to be part of it.”
Members of each house of worship are embedded in each other’s lives outside the sanctuary offering comfort, support and helping with whatever is needed, including babysitting, piano lessons and much more.
Bonin said the relationship works.
“We are two congregations sharing a ministry,” he said. “It’s been a great gift.”
The two congregations maintain warm spiritual and working relationships. They host regular free community meals, Elijah’s Table, and also host a youth faith-based programs where young church members learn about each other’s faith and traditions.
Adult groups also study the Bible together.
At a recent Elijah’s Table meal, Bonin said Church of the Transfiguration also honors its neighbor with two large quilts hanging on the fellowship hall room, one for his church and one to celebrate Etz Hayim. That shows the two congregations with one strong relationship.
Transfiguration member Mimi Cagle said the relationship gives members a universal message about faith, friendship and tolerance.
“Religion exists to try to answer the most fundamental questions of the universe and our place in it,” she said. “If any single religion had found the answers, we’d all go to that church/temple/synagogue and our search would be over.”
Cagle has met many friends through the Etz Hayim/Transfiguration connection and said joint activities between the two have given her new ways of thinking about faith, worship, the Bible and even politics.
“Everyone hears so much in the news about the intolerance of various Christians,” she said. “I am thrilled that our campus stands for inclusivity.”