For as long as anyone can remember, congregants at Beth Sholom Congregation in Potomac had been cutting through their neighbor’s yard to reach their own synagogue.
It was indicative of their “wonderful” working relationship, as Rabbi Nissan Antine put it. St. James Episcopal Church forgave their trespasses, and in return, congregants from Beth Sholom donated money to the church for maintenance of the makeshift pathway.
But the path was problematic. The constant use prevented grass from growing, and large puddles would form when it rained. By 2013 it was clear that a solution was needed.
What was unveiled Sunday is what the congregations are calling their “Interfaith Greenway.” It’s more, they say, than they ever imagined back then.
A locally sourced stone path now sits in place of the mud, and native plants and young trees grow where invasive species and scrub brush once thrived. A dry well underneath allows stormwater to percolate slowly into the ground, and the congregations’ preschools plan to jointly use the natural surroundings to teach about the environment.
“Instead of building fences between our neighbors, we built a greenway,” said David Felsen, president of the Orthodox congregation.
The project, which cost about $120,000 and took roughly five weeks to complete, was funded through a Chesapeake Bay Fund grant and a Maryland state bond. Three Beth Sholom congregants, including Felsen, went to Annapolis to testify before state legislators in support of the bond bill.
Its environmental bona fides are two-fold: It prevents stormwater runoff from reaching the bay and provides educational opportunities. Signs soon will identify the plants.
“We thought, ‘We can make this a win-win-win,’” said Susy Altmann, a landscape architect and Beth Sholom member who helped design the greenway. “A win for the synagogue, a win for the church and a win for the Chesapeake Bay Fund.”
Congregants are hoping that this isn’t the end of the work. They’re looking to expand the greenway north to Seven Locks Baptist Church and south to Chabad of Potomac. For now, though, it’s been an opportunity for the two neighboring congregations to strengthen their interfaith bond.
The houses of worship have been next door to each other for more than 40 years.
“There’s always been a good friendly relationship,” Felsen said. “But this gave us the opportunity to actually interact with each other.”
According to Antine, the leadership of the two congregations have already scheduled quarterly meetings. On Saturdays, Beth Sholom will use the greenway in conjunction with its services and on Sundays St. James will make use of it. For Beth Sholom, it’s the only open green space available.
Antine said it makes sense that the two faiths would come together in a natural setting outside their respective houses of worship.
“We each have our own books and rituals and holidays in the context of our buildings,” he said. “But it’s powerful to go out into a little island of nature in our backyards that’s shared. We’re all children of God.”