It's Sunday morning at the Church of Ocean Park, a Methodist church in Santa Monica that strangely lacks overt Christian insignia: there are no crosses or crucified Jesuses decorating the walls, but the stained-glass windows do picture a bearded figure tending to a flock of sheep, with a shaft of light illuminating his head.
Some 30 casually dressed people of varying ages sit in chairs arranged in two semicircles facing the Rev. Sandy Richards, who is discussing Lazarus, a character who appears in one of Jesus' parables to teach Christians that the poor deserve our respect, not neglect. The service continues with hymns, tearful discussion of the morning's topic (suffering) and "bread," a ritual where a loaf of bread is shared among the congregants.
It's all par for the course for another Sunday at church, except for the fact that at least one-third of these churchgoers are Jews. These aren't Jews who have converted to Christianity. They still identify as Jews, and although some are intermarried, others are not. Many of them belong to a synagogue as well as the church, but most view the church as their first choice as a locus for spirituality and community, identifying with the congregation's strong commitment to social justice.
According to the American Jewish Identity Survey (2001), coordinated by the Center for Jewish Studies at the Graduate Center of City University of New York, only 18 percent of the American Jewish population is affiliated with Jewish organizations, and out of 5.3 million Jews, 1.36 million are estimated to be adherents of a religion other than Judaism. The Jews at the Church of Ocean Park have not turned their back on Judaism, but their enthused participation in the church raises questions for the Jewish community about what should be the appropriate response to religious assimilation.
The church was established in 1898 as a small beachside church, but by the 1970s, it had only a handful of very old congregants. It experienced a revival in that same period, when the Rev. Jim Conn (Richards' predecessor) started Sunday night happenings, which attracted young people who got together to dance and discuss their opposition to the Vietnam War. The community grew, and the church got involved in Santa Monica political issues -- such as rent control and saving the pier. Today, the church is well-known for its participation in the living-wage movement, and, although it is Christian, it sees itself as having a "progressive definition of Christianity," according to Richards, which allows people of different faiths to partake in its services.
"I don't ask that people make a hard allegiance [to Christianity]," Richards said. "You can be as Jewish as can be, and you may be offended from time to time, but we are all there together, and the diversity is part of our identity."
"The church is a group of people who are very committed to being in community with one another," said Beth Leder-Pack, a Jew who has been attending the church since 1990. "My definition of God is basically being in community and doing good works here on earth, and the Church of Ocean Park really lives out those values. I really love Judaism, but I have never considered leaving the church, and it is true that I have never felt that a synagogue brings me all that I need."
Leder-Pack's sentiments are shared by many of the Jewish churchgoers. Although they admit that their choice of Sunday activity causes shock among their Jewish friends and family, they say that the feel more at home in the Church of Ocean Park than they do at any synagogue.
For its part, the church has made concessions to its Jewish members. In deference to the people of other faiths, Richards no longer practices communion at the church. On occasion, the church brings in people like Cantor Steve Puzarne of Breeyah (a synagogue revival organization) to give classes on Jewish music, and this Passover, Puzarne conducted a seder at the church.
The Jewish presence in the church, Puzarne said, is a rebellion against Jewish materialism. He added that the Jewish community needs a concerted outreach effort to reach Jews who have stepped away from the faith by either attending church or by intermarrying.
"Synagogues have become so associated with big money, catering to the big machers [wealthy people], and building one huge edifice after another," he said. "There is a gluttony of self-indulgence around the bar mitzvah, and whatever philosophies we proclaim, we are not walking the walk."
Rabbi Bentzion Kravitz, the founder and West Coast director of Jews for Judaism, an anti-missionary organization, called Jewish affiliation with Christian organizations an epidemic.
"This is a horrific trend of the Jewish community," he said. "I think it is a wake-up call when we hear these things, and we need to figure out what they are doing right and what we are doing wrong. Judaism is a beautiful, spiritual, fulfilling religion. If we value Jewish survival as a people, we have to double our efforts to make Judaism more spiritual and more welcoming to people."