Eighteen months ago, a fire sparked from a malfunctioning refrigerator in the kitchen of Temple Beth Sholom in Santa Ana, Calif., causing severe smoke and water damage to the sanctuary and holy ark. Inside the ark were the congregation's six torahs, including a 275-year-old scroll from the Czech Republic that was rescued from a Nazi warehouse after World War II.
Overnight, Rabbi Heidi Cohen and her congregation's hundreds of members were suddenly without a building to conduct their services, schooling, social work and beyond. "Have torah, will travel," Cohen said jokingly. "We had every intention of continuing our services and raising the money we needed to rebuild our temple."
Since the fire, members of Beth Sholom — the oldest Reform Jewish synagogue in Orange County — have raised roughly $7.5 million to rebuild the sanctuary and social hall. After a year and a half, those structures have finally been finished, allowing the congregation to gather at the temple for a ceremony celebrating their journey back home.
What's really amazing is who helped them out during construction.
Upon learning about the fire, the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints — a Mormon congregation less than a mile from Beth Sholom — extended an offer to help the congregation by housing the group for weekly services and various events.
"We saw a congregation in a time of need," President Matt Goodman said. "If we were in their shoes, we would've liked it if someone helped us."
As Mormon services occurred on Sundays and the Jewish services Friday night, the schedules worked perfectly. "Every time we were there, they would have a volunteer to host us and make us feel comfortable there," Cohen said.
Apparently, history suggests this was the church returning a favor.
The congregations learned through the process that 50 years ago, Temple Beth Sholom took in the Mormon congregation when its sanctuary was under construction. "So in a sense," Goodman said, "the blessing they gave us years ago, we were able to return in God's time."
In addition to the great karma being spread around, "There was a lot of bonding among members of the two congregations, which was wonderful to watch," Cohen said.
As Beth Sholom returns to its newly refurbished sanctuary to say the She'he'cheyanu — a prayer often uttered at the beginning of something new — they'll look back on an initially tough situation warmly thanks to their giving neighbors.