The story of ‘The Cabinet:’ How two congregations share space and faith

Jews and gentiles gathered for the dedication of The Cabinet.

Wooden, taller than a person, wider than two.

Built to hold a four centuries-old Torah with ample space for a family heirloom Bible.

It honors a Holocaust survivor and rests outside the sanctuary of a Presbyterian church.

“We pray that your Word given to your people, spoken to your prophets, etched in stone on Mount Sinai, now on deer skin and paper” — Rev. Chris Herrin’s remarks during the May dedication — “become inscribed on our hearts.”

Herrin, in her third year leading the Bluffton Lowcountry Presbyterian Church congregation, posed for a picture with, among others, Deena Chontow, president of the board of directors of Temple Oseh Shalom. For the past decade, the temple’s congregants have rented space from the church. It’s a business arrangement and a spiritual relationship. And this year, with the dedication of The Cabinet and the offering of a mission-focused class, it’s a partnership that continues to evolve.

On the morning of Nov. 19, roughly 60 people — split almost equally between the temple’s and church’s congregations — gathered at the church to discuss how they could make their community better.

“Tikkun Olam,” Chontow said in a recent interview, referring to the class led by a rabbi. “Which is ‘repairing the world.’ ... So we are now in the process of looking for a joint project, repairing the world, and doing something we think will benefit our community.”

“And it was intended to be for both groups together,” Herrin, sitting at her desk across from Chontow, said. “We have a common heritage, obviously — (we draw) on that common heritage.”

“And (the rabbi) used Biblical references for taking care of the poor and the needy as the basis for his talk,” Chontow said.

Future classes are planned, the duo said, and the project, whatever it ends up being, will continue to take shape. The congregations already partner to support Family Promise of Beaufort County, a local nonprofit that provides food, shelter and services to homeless families as they search for a permanent residence.

More than a decade ago, when the temple’s founders were looking for a home and found the church, they were surprised when almost 200 people showed up for the first service.

As the temple established itself, some rabbis, those more conservative practitioners, weren’t comfortable leading worship in a church. But the congregation — which Chontow calls an “open” group, welcoming the faithful from Conservative, Orthodox and Reform Judaism alike — has found others to lead it and has grown to more than 400 members.

In 2007, Allen Kupfer, a Holocaust survivor, donated the Torah to the temple. Years later, a scribe came to the church to inspect and repair the 400-year-old scroll, its message written in Morocco on deerskin.

As the scribe performed his work, the congregation discovered how old and precious the Torah is, and the idea for The Cabinet was born.

In September 2015, Herrin entered the church to find the scribe working on another of the temple’s Torahs.

He’d laid out the scroll across several tables. He showed her where he’d stitched repairs to pages and inscribed, in special ink, replacement passages in Hebrew. And he showed her how much effort it took just to unroll the Torah.

Herrin noticed the scribe’s fingers, how they were bandaged from all the cuts he’d suffered stitching the document.

He acquired fresh cuts after his first day of work and arrived on a later day at the church without his bandages. He covered his hands in “Presbyterian band-aids,” as Herrin wrote in a sermon inspired by her encounter.

“It felt like I was standing in a long line, a tradition,” she said recently, when asked what she took from the experience.

“Just the depth of the Christian faith, with our Jewish heritage,” she said. “A connecting point back to my spiritual ancestors.”

The Torah is the first five books of the Old Testament, she said.

“We are more alike than different,” Chontow said. “That is the essence of our worship.”

In The Cabinet, the heirloom Bible occupies the top shelf; the much larger Torah rests below.

On the pages of the texts, the messages of different faiths are written in different languages.

And though they are made from different materials and stitched together in different manners, their pages are holy.

And open to the same spot.

The 10 Commandments.

Shared by Jews and gentiles.

Wade Livingston: 843-706-8153, @WadeGLivingston