Beth Sholom Congregation and St. James Episcopal Church transform a necessary landscaping project into a community-building initiative.
Until recently, the boundary between Beth Sholom Congregation and St. James Episcopal Church in Potomac, Maryland, was obscured by pooling water along the shared property line. Now, the Interfaith Greenway bridges the physical gap to unite the two congregations.
The greenway features native plant species and strategic dry wells to facilitate water drainage, while the benches clustered under the trees provide a multi-purpose communal meeting space. A path between the benches leads from St. James to the stone steps that rise up to the Beth Sholom parking lot.
According to David Fuller, a Beth Sholom board member and the project’s visionary, creating the Interfaith Greenway addressed several issues: “It resolved the water run-off issue, recaptured underutilized space, and created a shared experience with the church next door.”
On Sunday, Oct. 15, approximately 125 people — including synagogue members, church members, clergy, and local politicians — came together for the ribbon cutting and official opening of the new Interfaith Greenway.
Clergy members from both congregations spoke about the importance of fostering connections across faiths and ideologies. “We have these two great commandments: love G-d and love your neighbor. But how can you love your neighbor without knowing your neighbor’s name?” asked the Rev. Meredith Heffner, rector of St. James Episcopal church.
Despite their shared property line, members of the two congregations haven’t had many opportunities to interact recently. Rabbi Nissan Antine of Beth Sholom expressed his excitement that the greenway will be the first step in many wonderful projects between the synagogue and the church. “There are so many social action and neighborly initiatives that we can do together,” he said.
“Property lines and faith boundaries aren’t boundaries here,” said Maryland State District 16 Delegate Bill Frick, who championed the bill to fund the greenway. The entire District 16 delegation helped secure the necessary funding for this project, which came from the state of Maryland and the Chesapeake Bay Trust. “This is an example of making government work for the people and I’m glad to be involved,” said State Sen. Susan Lee. “I think this is a great collaboration between the communities, thinking out of box to turn a drainage ditch into a beautiful garden.”
Community members have already put the space to good use. As the sun peeked through the clouds after the ribbon cutting, people sat on the benches in the Interfaith Greenway to talk about Judaism, Christianity, and forging connections with neighbors in spite of rising sectarian divisions.
“We live in such a polarized world right now. We identify people in groups but don’t know people personally, so we lose our humanity. We need to get to know each other and find community,” said Harley Venton, a member of St. James.
Yoel Altmann, a member of Beth Sholom and son of Susy Altmann, the project’s landscape architect, added: “[The greenway's] establishment will positively affect both preschools for years to come.”
The directors of the two preschools didn’t waste time; they began to discuss opportunities for collaboration immediately following the ribbon cutting. “We do the same things with our children. We have a slightly different curriculum, but want the same things for our children,” said Astrid Crookshank, director of the St. James preschool.
“Great greenways make great neighbors,” said David Felsen, president of Beth Sholom.
By Malka Goldberg
Malka Goldberg is the Community News editor for Kol HaBirah.