Pictured left to right: Rabbi David Cohen-Henriquez and Pastor Jim Bixby
When Temple Sinai’s Rabbi David Cohen-Henriquez and Pastor Jim Bixby from Clifton Lutheran Church first met at a Marblehead Ministerial Association meeting last summer, they both sensed a spiritual connection that went beyond them being among the youngest in the room.
“His church and Temple Sinai have a lot of similarities,” said Cohen-Henriquez, who is known as “Rabbi David” to his congregants. “Both are small. Both are in Marblehead. And both are dealing with contemporary theological challenges where people are not going to services like they used to. We are both striving to find ways to engage the new generations.”
Bixby, who congregants call “Pastor Jim,” grew up in Miami next door to many Panamanians, and he was fascinated when he found out Cohen-Henriquez was born in Panama. “I said to myself, ‘I don’t think I know anyone from Panama who is Jewish, let alone a rabbi, let alone a man with a hyphenated last name and a gift for storytelling,’” Bixby said with a chuckle.
The two spoke at length and realized their connection ran deeper than congregational size and demographics. Both aspired to engage their communities into social action while connecting personally and spiritually with their neighbors of different faiths.
Bixby learned of Temple Sinai’s decision to focus its social action on homelessness and of its support for Lynn shelters. He shared his church’s emphasis on helping recently arrived refugees and immigrants at Lynn’s New American Center.
With both congregations committed to providing food for marginalized people in need in Lynn, the two spiritual leaders decided to combine forces.
The result is “The Manna Project,” a joint mission with three components: a pulpit exchange, a Harvest Festival, and a food-packing event to benefit the needy in Lynn.
The September pulpit exchange was a huge success. Bixby addressed a Friday night Shabbat service and Cohen-Henriquez spoke at a Sunday morning church service. Both events drew congregants from both communities and thrilled the two clergymen.
Cohen-Henriquez had been in churches before, but had never been to a Sunday service, and certainly had never spoken to a congregation from a Christian pulpit.
The similarities between the two traditions impressed him. The Lutheran selected reading (similar to the weekly Torah parsha) during his appearance happened to be about the crossing of the Sea of Reeds, known to Jews as the parting of the Red Sea. He captivated the churchgoers with midrashim that retold familiar biblical stories in ways outside the traditional Lutheran framework.
“Seeing people react to these stories that fill in the blanks, appreciating and rediscovering treasures that were already there, was really satisfying,” Cohen-Henriquez said.
The communitywide Harvest Fest, timed to coincide with the end of Sukkot and Oktoberfest, was a fund-raiser with vendors, games, and food, which both communities prepared and sold together. Shepherded by Temple Sinai Executive Director Susan Weiner, and Clifton Lutheran Church UpReach Council member Pat Small, the event raised $2,000 toward its $5,000 goal. Each dollar raised buys a meal for a family of four.
To fill the fund-raising gap, The Manna Project will sell tickets for a monthlong daily raffle in January. Bixby and Cohen-Henriquez went to local Marblehead businesses soliciting donations. (“Seeing a pastor and a rabbi entering your store must be like the opening of a joke,” Cohen-Henriquez said with a laugh).
Both were struck by how generous the business owners were and by how much they appreciated seeing clergy from different traditions work together.
The Manna Project’s third and capstone event is a food-packaging gathering on March 4, which will involve both communities’ social action committees and many volunteers. “We will need as many hands on deck as possible in order to get out the 3,000 to 4,000 meals we hope to prepare. Many hands make light work!” said Small.
In the meantime, both the pastor and the rabbi are positive their collaborations will not end with The Manna Project.
“Our communities are getting to know each other. We even see our missions as intertwined,” Bixby said.
“It’s a consciousness that transcends how you pray,” echoed Cohen-Henriquez. “There are many more things that bond us than separate us.”
For more information on The Manna Project, call Temple Sinai at 781-631-2763 or Clifton Lutheran Church at 781-631-4379.