ORANGE COUNTY, Calif. — Smoke and soot soiled the entire synagogue, including its six sacred Torah scrolls, after a fire gutted Temple Beth Sholom's kitchen in February 2014.
Rabbi Heidi Cohen couldn't imagine how she would find a temporary home for worship for the 500 families in her care. Rebuilding the synagogue in Santa Ana, California — the oldest in Orange County — would take 18 months and millions of dollars.
She didn't know that 50 years earlier, Temple Beth Sholom had taken in another homeless congregation in need. The friend who told her to ask the Mormons for help didn't know that history, either.
Soon, Rabbi Cohen was on the phone with Matt Goodman, who oversees eight Mormon congregations and three buildings as president of the Orange California Stake of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.
He too was unaware of the half-century-old story, but it didn't matter then.
"You've found a home," he told the rabbi.
On the first Friday night, on what is Shabbath or Sabbath for Jews, hundreds of members of the synagogue filled the Mormon chapel in Orange, a mile from Temple Beth Sholom. The meeting spilled into the building's gym, used for overflow for large events.
Rabbi Cohen invited Goodman to speak at the beginning of the service.
"It's an honor to be here," he said, wearing a Jewish yarmulke. "We welcome you. We're glad we can serve you in your time of need.
"Tonight, we are all Jewish."
In those first days, however, Rabbi Cohen and Goodman learned the story that was unfamiliar to them. Mormons who had lived in Orange County since the 1960s told them that when the Latter-day Saints in the area were building the stake center, their congregation, too, had been homeless.
Temple Beth Sholom took them in.
"Amazing," Rabbi Cohen said. "We didn't even know each other, but basically it's a friendship that's always been there."
Sharon Rasmussen, a Mormon who has lived in Orange County since 1959, remembered that the Latter-day Saints first met in an old, abandoned schoolhouse. Then they met in the synagogue for about two years until the stake center was finished — the same stake center that celebrated its 50th anniversary this year.
The same one providing temporary shelter for Temple Beth Sholom.
"Heidi and I looked at each other and realized there are no coincidences," Goodman said about learning the history.
"The goodwill we send out comes back."
How to host
The arrangement required coordination. Goodman and Rabbi Cohen and leaders from both congregations met and created a joint online calendar. The Mormon congregations, or wards, that share the building agreed to give up use of it on all Friday nights, regularly the time for Mormon ward activities, so the Jews could hold Shabbat services.
"It worked out great," Rabbi Cohen said. "Our services are on Friday nights and some Saturday mornings" — Bar Mitzvahs and Bat Mitzvahs, the coming-of-age ceremonies for Jewish boys and girls. "The timing worked out great for the LDS because they met on Sundays."
Timing was more challenging for Jewish High Holy Days, which can fall in the middle of the week when Mormons have youth nights, and for Temple Beth Sholom's day camp that runs Monday-Friday for five weeks each summer.
Goodman also arranged to have at least one Mormon host from the Orange Stake at every Jewish event, including the day camp.
"We had a lot of repeat hosts and hostesses because it was such a delightful experience to sit in on their worship services," Goodman said.
Rabbi Cohen said her congregation made sure to offer Hebrew Challah bread to each host of a Shabbat service.
Typical Shabbat services included readings from a prayer book in English and Hebrew, singing, reciting and a sermon by the rabbi.
Word of God
The flames had gutted only the synagogue's kitchen, but the fire's influence spread well beyond.
Smoke damage was extensive to the Torah scrolls, one of which is 275 years old and was rescued from a Nazi storehouse after World War II, and the ark which held them.
With repairs complete last month on four of the scrolls and on the $11 million renovation to the Temple Beth Sholom sanctuary and campus, the Reform Jewish congregation moved home and hosted a Return and Renewal event on Aug. 30.
"They have a mixture of delight and reverence for the Torah," Goodman said. "It was really special to see the way they treated it."
Goodman joined the march of the Torah during the Return and Renewal event, which included dedication of a new ark for the scrolls.
"There was great respect and reverence," he said. "It is respect for the word of God."
During the service, Rabbi Cohen urged the hundreds in attendance to "mend the world with acts of loving kindness."
The congregations continue their efforts to serve others, sometimes together.
In the spring, Temple Beth Sholom joined the annual Mormon Helping Hands volunteer effort at the Second Harvest Food Bank in Irvine, California.
Similarly, the Jewish congregation feeds 200-250 people a week with food cooked in the synagogue's kitchen.
"It's in both of our missions to feed the needy and care for the poor," Rabbi Cohen said. "It's wonderful to connect those missions."
For Rasmussen, a young mother when the synagogue hosted her Mormon congregation in the 1960s, returning the favor now tasted sweet.
"We were very grateful, grateful for a place to meet, a place to take our children for primary during the week," she said, referring to the former LDS practice of having children's classes on weekdays; today, those services are also on Sundays. "I hope people will come together and try to help each other whenever they can. There's so much need. I was so happy our stake president offered our building to the Jewish people and synagogue."
Members of the synagogue's congregation expressed deep appreciation each week they met at the Mormon stake center, Goodman said. Those feelings grew into two significant acts of service. Temple Beth Sholom's women's service organization made a donation to a Mormon bishop for LDS Humanitarian Services, and a general contractor in the temple's congregation is in the process of improving handicap access for one of the doors at the stake center.
Other Mormons remember finishing youth conferences in the 1980s with Sunday testimony meetings in the synagogue, another piece of history previously unknown to Rabbi Cohen and Goodman. They relish the past history of their congregations as they look forward to enjoying a renewed and continuing relationship.
"We feel so grateful and blessed," Rabbi Cohen said. "From tragedy comes great friends."22 comments on this story
For example, one Jewish woman invited the Goodman family to Passover in her home each of the past two years.
The friendships are based on shared teachings, Goodman said.
"The Old Testament says to love God with all our heart, might, mind and strength and to love our neighbor as ourself," he noted. "That's familiar to Christians from the New Testament, but it's in the Old Testament, the Torah, as well. So is the Golden Rule, to do to others as we would have done to us.
"In this case, that was literally true."