SALT LAKE CITY — During the first week of August, the 6-acre property surrounding the Congregation Kol Ami Jewish Synagogue underwent a major transformation.
In the span of five days, hundreds of volunteers worked around the clock in 100-degree heat and clouds of dust to remove old, overgrown trees and shrubs and replace them with new trees and drought-tolerant plants, decorative rock, concrete paths and patios, as well as a new drip irrigation system.
Along with a refreshing and colorful xeriscaped look that will save money and conserve water, a new bond of friendship was forged between synagogue members and Latter-day Saints of the Highland Utah South Stake of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.
Danny Burman, Congregation Kol Ami’s executive director, described the experience and change as “amazing.”
“It’s been an amazing experience from the first day when they showed up with all the equipment and the volunteers started removing 40 years of overgrowth around the building. They did that so quickly, it was an amazing sight,” Burman said. “We have built a relationship that I think is for the ages and will continue to grow.”
Standing with a shovel in hand and perspiration dripping from his forehead, President Chris Juchau, stake president of the Highland South Utah Stake, said the feeling was mutual.
“The real highlight is getting to be with people that we don’t get to mingle with very often, to learn about them and feel brotherly and sisterly with them,” he said. “They keep thanking us but I feel like we need to thank them for the chance to do something so different.”
‘It felt right’
It all began about a year ago with Dovan Lapin, a 13-year-old synagogue member, considering a service project for his bar mitzvah. His father, Jeremy Lapin, discussed the idea with his colleague and friend, Lars Anderson, a Latter-day Saint in the Highland South Stake. Anderson created a landscape plan for the synagogue but the price tag was well beyond the synagogue’s means.
“When Jeremy thanked me for helping him with the plan it took the wind out of my sails a bit when he indicated they simply did not have the resources available to make it a reality,” Anderson said. “That’s when the wheels started spinning about our stake taking this on.”
Anderson approached President Juchau about organizing a service project and the church leader approved.
“He said this was exactly what our members needed, an opportunity to sacrifice for nothing in return and an opportunity to serve a group completely outside our typical service circle,” Anderson said. “It felt right.”
Brotherhood and friendship
A plan was developed over several months as both groups began fundraising. They combined to raise about $30,000 while a list of community businesses and sponsors donated or provided supplies at a generous discount, including trees and shrubs, irrigation parts, rocks and trucking. To pay for the massive project would have cost well over $100,000, Lapin said.
The project was originally planned for cooler temperatures in the spring but postponed until August due to the COVID-19 pandemic. When the target date finally arrived last week, several Latter-day Saints who work as contractors showed up with their equipment and many people took days off to come work each day from 7 a.m. to 5 p.m. With 10 wards in the Highland South Stake, the stake president assigned two wards to send volunteers each day of the week. Others in the community heard about the project and turned out in full force. Organizers say they had between 20 and 70 volunteers working at different times throughout each day.
The project was even praised on social media. Michael Mower, who lives in the neighborhood, tweeted photos of volunteers engaged in their work.
“Looking good in our neighborhood! Rabbi Sam Spector and members of Congregation Kol Ami are working side-by-side with volunteers from the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints to make the synagogue grounds WaterWise. So cool!” he tweeted with the photos.
Looking good in our neighborhood! 😀. Rabbi Sam Spector and members of Congregation Kol Ami are working side-by-side with volunteers from the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints to make the synagogue grounds WaterWise. So cool! pic.twitter.com/dptUt3yR5a— Michael Mower (@MikeLMower) August 6, 2020
Mark Griesemer and his sons Blake, Luke and Clay were among the Latter-day Saint volunteers. The Griesemers recently moved to Utah from Indiana where they have participated in interfaith service projects before.
“It’s great to be part of a community,” Mark Griesemer said. “We’re all believers in a higher being and we can serve one another. Good things can happen when people come together, aren’t selfish and understand that we’re all God’s children.”
Lars Anderson’s wife, Kristi Anderson, said one volunteer who came in a bad mood left after five or six hours of hard labor feeling inspired and happy.
“She said she needed this, to just do some service,” Kristi Anderson said. “The highlight for me has been watching the community come together. You wouldn’t know the difference between us. It’s just one big effort.”
Jeremy White, one of the Latter-day Saint organizers, agreed.
“It’s been a fun experience to work side-by-side with them,” he said. “Serving is a great way to increase your love for your neighbors.”
The two faiths took turns each day leading out with a prayer. On Wednesday, Rabbi Samuel L. Spector, sporting sunglasses and a Seattle Mariners baseball cap, recited a biblical quote with the message, “How good it is when brothers and sisters come sit and dwell together,” he said.
Rabbi Spector said the church has reached out in brotherhood and friendship several times since he arrived at Congregation Kol Ami two years ago. Many in his congregation have been humbled and moved by the church’s generosity. While helping to conserve water in the community, he estimates the xeriscaping will save the synagogue thousands a year on the water bill.
“It’s been a touching thing for our community to see how much these people care about us and how they have come together to make our lives better,” the rabbi said. “It’s been touching especially in a time where we’re seeing growing anti-semitism and such to see people of other faiths reaching out to help us.”
Jill Spector, the rabbi’s wife, said Latter-day Saints and other volunteers may not realize how much this means to their congregation at a time when they aren’t able to gather for worship services. It’s been nice to get outdoors and do something good, she said.
“Frankly, this is something we need right now,” Jill Spector said. “Even if it is 104 degrees, it’s worth it to be out here. And I haven’t seen anybody who doesn’t have a smile on their face.”
For Lapin, the church’s generosity made something that seemed impossible possible.
“They’ve given us a once-in-a-generation opportunity to beautify this building. We’re very grateful for that,” he said. “With how difficult 2020 has been for a lot of us, this has been a great opportunity to set aside concerns and stresses and have a re-energizing moment. It’s been an inspiring story for a lot of people.”
Organizers say it’s not too late to contribute to the project. People can make a donation at gofundme.com.