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Greensboro pastor, rabbi keep faith amid national turmoil

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GREENSBORO — The Rev. Sid Batts often dashes across Greene Street on Sunday mornings to the pulpit of Temple Emanuel, which Rabbi Fred Guttman offered for services during renovation of the sanctuary at First Presbyterian.

Batts, the neighboring Presbyterian church’s pastor, has since baptized babies and offered communion to the faithful there — the firsts of these Christian rituals to take place in this Jewish sanctuary.

“If, God forbid, something happened to our building while we were there ... I know they would offer us space in a heartbeat,” Guttman said.

Batts brought up the relationship between the two congregations — which goes back 100 years — as he stood before the biennial national gathering of Presbyterians in Detroit late last month to speak against a proposal to stop buying stock in companies thought to be aiding the Israeli military in the settlements occupied by Palestinians.

The Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) has wrestled with whether to divest for a decade. Other denominations are struggling with the same issue. It is a complicated issue, the delegates agreed.

“I, too, think the settlements are unjust. ... But I question divestment as a strategy,” Batts said during the discussion, which was streamed online.

Divestment from those companies would not further peace between the Israelis and Palestinians, he added, and it would strike an odd tone. The targeted companies — Caterpillar, Hewlett-Packard and Motorola Solutions — do lucrative business there.

“Simply put, divestment has the symbolic power to humiliate our Jewish friends in this country,” Batts told the group before the vote.

Of Temple Emanuel: “We study together, serve together and sometimes worship together,” Batts said at the meeting.

Although much can be said of the relationship of Jews and Christians throughout Greensboro, First Presbyterian and Temple Emanuel share a special bond.

The stained-glass window at First Presbyterian with a Star of David overlooking the synagogue is symbolic of their close relationship. The Star of David is a symbol of the Jewish faith.

The two congregations have pooled their resources to help the disadvantaged. Both have been incubators for promoting education, ecumenical goodwill and civic ideas in the community.

When interfaith groups were in their infancy, the temple’s Rabbi Fred Rypins already was holding such meetings in his home.

He became the founder of the local branch of the National Conference of Christians and Jews, which became the National Conference for Community and Justice.

Before then, the relationship was even more personal. In 1929, when First Presbyterian ran out of money during construction of its sanctuary, Temple Emanuel’s congregation helped pay off the debt.

When Temple Emanuel moved to Jefferson Road in 2002, its congregation continued to use its old synagogue across from First Presbyterian for meetings and some weddings and funerals.

First Presbyterian holds two of its four Sunday services there.

At the Presbyterian General Assembly, the motion to divest passed by seven votes, 310–303.

“The vote shows how divided we are on this issue,” said Batts, who voted against divestment.

Guttman told Batts he found the vote painful. Many Jews consider Israel their homeland and were paying attention to the denomination’s actions.

“I just don’t think the Jewish people look at the national leadership as being unbiased anymore,” Guttman said. “Instead of trying to engender trust by both sides in this conflict, we felt the Presbyterian Church nationally has taken sides and has done so in a way that makes Israel demonic.”

Batts took part in a prayer vigil last week at Temple Emanuel for the three Israeli teenagers kidnapped on their way home from a religious school and later found dead in a West Bank field.

It was clear nothing had changed on a local level.

“I feel really blessed by the relationship I have with Presbyterians in this town,” Guttman said.

Contact Nancy McLaughlin at (336) 373-7049, and follow

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