MILWAUKEE – Southeast Wisconsin’s only Reconstructionist congregation still doesn’t quite have its own space. But it’s deepening its relationship with its benevolent landlord, Plymouth Church, right down to plans for synagogue signage in front of the building.
The sign is to sit in front of the grand, old church building at 2717 E. Hampshire St., two blocks from University of Wisconsin – Milwaukee. Rabbi Michal Woll is considering this for the sign: “Congregation Shir Hadash – progressive Judaism in the city.”
The Rev. Andrew Warner, spiritual leader for Plymouth Church, said having the synagogue represented on a new sign in front will reflect his church’s values. He predicted his churchgoers will only continue to think it’s “really cool we have a partnership with a synagogue.”
Beyond signage, the church has accommodated changes to the reception hall that the congregation uses for prayer. “Now there’s a definite presence,” Woll said. “I love it.”
The reception hall is still a shared space, part of a rental arrangement, but the room now has a greater feel of being Shir Hadash’s own spot. Prayer books are now visible in a couple of large cabinets and an ark has been placed to head up the room.
“Instead of being off to the side, it’s sort of front and center,” Woll said. “We’ve rearranged.”
Also, for the first time in the four years that Shir Hadash has been at Plymouth Church, the High Holiday services in 2017 were held there. Previous High Holidays services were held at the Mequon Nature Preserve.
“I think the bottom line is if we’re going to be an urban shul we need to be an urban shul,” Woll said. To Woll, it feels right to have High Holiday services in their usual space and it makes more sense for engaging synagogue membership. “If they’re going to come, they’re going to come on High Holidays,” she said.
Welcoming church, welcoming shul
Woll started at the synagogue in July, when Warner’s Plymouth Church was already home to Shir Hadash. “As I got to know him and got to meet with him and learned how things worked, he had some vision of setting up in a more permanent way,” Woll said. “I think they’re very excited about the relationship in the same way that we are.”
A plaque at the church’s old gymnasium states that it’s a gift for the benefit of youth of the neighborhood. Warner takes that timeworn message to heart for his church and he says he’s sought to integrate inclusiveness during his 20 years there.
“We’ve long had a history of wanting our building to be more than just our own sanctuary,” he said. “I think it’s really important for Shir Hadash to feel like they’re not a guest in the building but they’re part of our ecosystem.”
Warner said his church and Shir Hadash both represent minority strains of their own religions. His own tradition, he said, “is kind of ‘Reconstructionist Christian’.”
Woll and Warner agreed in separate interviews that there are some shared values for Plymouth Church and Shir Hadash.
“I think the primary one is inclusivity,” Woll said. “That is really like their calling card.”
Shir Hadash certainly leans inclusive, including an openness to interfaith. When Woll moved to Milwaukee last summer, she brought along her daughter and husband, Jon Sweeney, a Catholic writer whose bibliography is filled with books related to his religion and history.
Sweeney and the rabbi have published a book together, “Mixed-Up Love: Relationships, Family, and Religious Identity in the 21st Century.” The book explores how interfaith relationships impact dating, weddings, holidays, raising children and family functions.
Much of what happens at a Reconstructionist congregation would by familiar to Jews of other denominations. But there are differences. Woll highlights the removal of the concept of “worship”; the removal of chosenness from liturgy; that the rabbi is more a facilitator than a top-down authority and that decisions related to observance are made by congregants, grounded in values.
That unique community structure, Woll said, “is really important to me.”
Woll is offering a class this month on comparative Judaism, part of her effort to help the congregation learn more deeply about Reconstructionism.
“If you take out the Jewish exceptionalism it’s very much a more universal tradition,” Woll said. “Our theology is overtly non-traditional.”