A rollicking folk-rock tune fills the sanctuary, a tune with ancient Hebrew words. The sanctuary is a church, the Turner Memorial AME (African Methodist Episcopal) church in downtown Washington. The big round stained-glass window above the pulpit says "God our Father, Christ our Redeemer, Man our Brother." And the sanctuary is full of Jews.
This is not a religious service exactly, but what the two congregations call a "religious exchange program": a get-acquainted event in late autumn between the black church and the synagogue Adas Israel. Last January, on Martin Luther King Day, large numbers of the Turner congregation went to the synagogue in upper Northwest to sing hymns and share sermons. In return, Adas Israel's choir has come to sing a concert version of the Jewish "Selichot" ceremony, usually performed as the prelude to atonement the night before Yom Kippur.
In a way, the autumn visitors are as much at home in Turner Memorial as their hosts. Before the church moved here in 1958, this was the Adas Israel building for 50 years. The connection made Turner Memorial the obvious choice for friendly overtures a year ago when members of the present-day Adas Israel congregation, like many Jews in the wake of the bruising black-Jewish frictions during the 1984 presidential campaign, began to look about for ways to rebuild old bridges between the communities, to bring back the sometimes idealized civil-rights-era days of cooperation and sympathy.
Congregations in different cities have tried different kinds of bridges, usually by launching some joint social action -- a homeless shelter, a youth program -- or by setting up conferences and panel discussions of varying success. But the Adas Israel Social Action Committee, addressing itself to the problem in 1986, "thought we'd better get to know each other a little bit first," says Martin Blank, the committee's chairman. The Rev. Goodwin Douglas of Turner Memorial, accordingly, recalls that "Marty Blank called me up out of the blue one day and said, 'I want to have lunch with you.'" Douglas agreed that "we ought to get to know one another as people before we tried working together, so there wouldn't be that suspicion."
Martin Luther King Day was an obvious starting point. The AME church has been closely identified with civil rights; some Adas Israel congregants had led desegregation efforts, and King himself had spoken from the synagogue's pulpit in 1965. Adas Israel hosted a regular Friday night Jewish service, with hymns by the Turner choir and a sermon from the Rev. Douglas; the evening ended with a party and promises all around to repeat the event in January 1988. Figuring out the proper way to reciprocate downtown took more ingenuity, but the rabbi, Jeffrey Wohlberg, and the cantor, Arnold Saltzman, eventually settled on the synagogue's distinctive "Hush of Midnight" service, a hip modern version of Selichot that Adas Israel had commissioned in the '60s and has sung in various settings since, including once on an ABC-TV special.
In some ways, the musical composition typifies the qualities that link these two fairly upscale, liberal-leaning congregations. Taking the main prayers from the Jewish High Holy Days, considered the ritual peak of the year by most Jews, it knits them together with passages of modern poetry in English -- about the turning of the year, about the Holocaust, about injustice and atonement -- and with a swooping jazz-quartet beat that surprises everyone in this audience, Jewish or black. The cantor leads a choir of 40 in and out of the melodies, some of them traditional ones that make the Jewish part of the audience murmur along; the English-singing choir comes in, at one point, to "praise the Lord/whom all men praise/with separate song."
No one applauds in the pauses between sections: a reverent, not just a concert, silence. When you can't clap, the emotions engendered by the music build. The cumulative effect is intense, enough so there is a burst of expression afterward, a considerable discharge of feeling, the listeners from Turner wringing their guests' hands and smiling.
Forget the politics of religion for the moment. The extraordinary warmth here has little to do with politics, everything to do with the shared flush of uplift. Most people don't experience their religion as primarily political anyway.
"People look at each other enough, and eventually begin smiling at each other," Rabbi Wohlberg says. From what people told him after the service, "people were elated." Conversation was brisk after the concert in the church's capacious basement, where a Turner Memorial group had made a creditable attempt to provide a kosher food spread. When conversation lagged, the former congregants and the present ones could always talk architecture and memories: My daughter was married in this room . . . that was my parents' pew behind yours. . . . Who did the renovations when you folks took over? . . . He did a lovely job on the rose window.
Despite initial shyness, the small knots of people talking over their food mostly managed to integrate. A youngish black woman leaving one such group said "See you" as a matter of course to her friend -- then added politely, to the woman from Adas Israel they'd been talking with, "Maybe I'll see you again too sometime."
"Sure," said the other, "we'll see you in January."
The writer is a member of the editorial page staff.