For Trinity Episcopal Church on Jackson Avenue, Christmas Eve is one of the biggest nights of the year. This year, however, Trinity had a problem: The sanctuary is undergoing extensive repairs following damage from Hurricane Ida in 2021.
With about 2,000 members, Trinity’s leaders had to find a way to hold services so that no one would be left out in the cold.
Enter Temple Sinai, which offered its sanctuary to Trinity on Christmas Eve.
“The relationship [between the two houses of faith] goes way back,” said Rabbi Daniel Sherman of Temple Sinai, as he and the Rev. Andrew Thayer, Trinity’s rector, met with Uptown Messenger at Temple Sinai.
Each year for several decades, both the church and synagogue have participated in a rotating interfaith pre-Thanksgiving service with local houses of worship. Sherman and Thayer are also part of a group of Uptown faith leaders who meet regularly to discuss their respective congregations — or just to chat. Group members refer to themselves as the “God Squad.”
“During Ida, the church took some damage — not a lot, but an inch or two in the ceiling can be very upsetting to engineers,” Thayer said. The main sanctuary took the worst hit, so while the damage was being assessed, the congregation met in the chapel and rectory.
“All of the churches and synagogues along St. Charles, when they found out, either called or texted me and said, ‘Whatever you need.’” Thayer said.
Trinity has hosted services in different churches and in their parish hall cafeteria while the repairs commenced.
“We were back in the church for a little while during what I think was a ‘conditional use occupancy,’” Thayer said. “And the condition was, we could not be in the church during ‘inclement weather.’ Or a ‘wind event.’
“I asked if we could do a liturgical dance all together, and I was advised against it,” he said with a chuckle.
The engineering team hired by the church is in the process of reinforcing 26 rafters in the large sanctuary. Steel rafters will hold up the ceiling. Ashley Eastham, the communications manager for Trinity, said they hope the process will be complete in time to host the Trinity Episcopal School graduation in mid-May of 2023.
Meanwhile, Trinity and Sinai’s staffs have been working hard to make the Christmas Eve service a success.
“We love the idea of them being here. There’s something nice about being in a worship space,” Sherman said.
Not just “a worship space,” Sinai’s main sanctuary, constructed in 1928, is an exquisite space with large, intricately decorated stained glass windows, balconies and a pipe organ.
“We know what it’s like to be displaced,” Sherman added. Last year, the High Holy Days occurred just weeks after Hurricane Ida. During the most spiritually significant holiday of the Jewish calendar, services were held via Zoom, and attendees, scattered by evacuation, joined online from about 10 different states.
The temple’s damage from Hurricane Ida was not structural, though water intrusion has damaged the plaster below the stained glass windows. Sherman mentioned that the next renovation project planned for the synagogue is protecting the windows against moisture.
Thayer mentioned that many members of his congregation are excited to visit the synagogue and learn what a Jewish house of worship looks like.
“A lot of people are coming just because it’s Temple Sinai,” he said. He also mentioned the church and the synagogue’s sanctuaries have much in common.
“Preaching, and teaching and reading are things that this place is set up for, in some ways [setting up] was easy. We are very grateful to Rabbi Sherman,” he said.
The service will also feature communion.
“We didn’t know what the rules were,” said Thayer, who added that the church will bring in holly and evergreen boughs as decorations, with a small altar in front of the bimah. “We didn’t want to wear out our welcome …”
“The donkey would have been pushing it,” cracked Sherman, referring to Gumdrop the Donkey, who appears in Trinity’s Christmas pageant each year.
In the past few years, both Sinai and Trinity, along with other houses of faith, have had to adapt to Covid-related limitations for occupancy, leaving many members to join remotely or stay home. Trinity hosted multiple Christmas Eve and Easter services to compensate for the loss of capacity in the sanctuary.
“For the Holy Days this year, one of our themes was ‘welcome home,’” Sherman said. “Trinity doesn’t have that opportunity. We know that this is their Holy Day — and we want those who come to worship to feel at home.”
Sherman acknowledged that rising anti-semitism has impacted the temple. The temple has hired security for each service and a larger security team than ever before for this year’s High Holy Days.
In the face of this threat of bigotry and division, both Thayer and Sherman expressed their happiness at their congregations coming together, and said the future will bring more opportunities for interfaith events.
“It’s a very New Orleans thing. We look out for each other. Neighbors helping neighbors is a very New Orleans concept and value.” Sherman said.
“Christmas is a story of displacement, with no room at the inn,” Thayer said. “You learn something about your identity when you’re displaced.”
“Our faith has much more in common than what separates us,” Sherman added.
The bond between the priest and the rabbi has been a boon for the communities they serve. After the interview, they set off to have lunch together. “He’s going to help me write my Christmas sermon,” Thayer said.
Reporter Jesse Baum can be reached at email@example.com.