Rabbi joins interfaith effort to rebuild burned church

Sign up for Weekday J and get the latest on what's happening in the Jewish Bay Area.

NEW YORK — The Clinton and Gore families were not alone when they pitched in this week to rebuild Fruitland, Tenn.'s, Salem Baptist Church, which was destroyed by arson last year.

Rabbi A. James Rudin, director of interreligious affairs for the American Jewish Committee, was part of an interfaith delegation organized by the National Council of Churches that went to work on the predominantly black church.

The National Council of Churches is an umbrella group for Protestant and Orthodox Christian denominations. Its general secretary, the Rev. Joan Brown Campbell, presented a check for $105,000 to the church's congregation, earmarked for restoring the burned edifice. That amount included an $8,000 gift from the New York Board of Rabbis.

The AJCommittee and the National Council of Catholic Bishops are participating in the National Council of Churches' Burned Churches Fund, which so far has raised $9 million in donations.

Since early 1995, 190 U.S. churches have been destroyed by fire, most of them in the Southeast. Seventy have been black churches. Rudin said the AJCommittee is planning to "adopt" a black church that was destroyed in Mississippi and work closely with the local community to rebuild it.

Other Jewish groups have also been involved in the effort to rebuild the churches.

"People don't realize that it's more than just the physical building. It's replacing the organ, the robes, the Bibles that were destroyed," Rudin said in a telephone interview.

He said his visit to Fruitland made him aware of ways in which synagogues and black churches play a similar role in their respective communities.

"In many ways it's their community center, with day care, senior citizens' programs, things for single parents and counseling," he said.

"You're out in what can only be described as a shtetl, except that it's Fruitland, Tenn., where they grow soybeans and corn," he said. "Church plays a major role in the life of this community."