For Jews and Baptists, Christmas Eve has sweet significance

Monday, December 23, 2013 | 6:07 p.m. CST

Every Christmas Eve, church-goers at First Baptist Church in downtown Columbia are greeted with a special treat: tables laden with desserts and hot apple cider, prepared with love by members of the Jewish community.

For the Jews, it's an expression of gratitude. For the Baptists, it's something to express gratitude for. For both groups, it's a sweet reminder of a long-standing relationship grounded in giving.

Secret Kiss Cookies

Recipe courtesy Judy Feintuch

1 cup butter, softened

1/2 cup sugar

1 teaspoon vanilla

1 3/4 cups flour

1 cup hazelnuts, finely chopped (You can also use walnuts or pecans)

Hershey's kisses (about 50)

Powdered sugar

1. Cream butter, sugar and vanilla in a large bowl. Gradually add flour and nuts; beat at low speed until well blended. Chill dough overnight or until firm.

2. Heat oven to 375. Mold approximately 1 tablespoon of dough around each unwrapped kiss and roll into a ball. Place on ungreased cookie sheet. Bake 12 minutes or until cookies are set, but not very brown.

3. Cool slightly; while still warm, roll in powdered sugar.

Kellie Moore writes: Judy Feintuch said she can get about 70 cookies out of one batch. I tried making these, and I got about 40. Regardless of how many you get, they are melt-in-your-mouth delicious.

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It all started 14 years ago, around the Jewish High Holy Days – the 10-day period from Rosh Hashanah, the start of the Jewish new year, to Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement. It usually falls sometime in September or October.

Congregation Beth Shalom (CBS), Columbia's reform Jewish congregation, was growing. The congregation was established in 1974; next year marks its 40th anniversary. Since its founding, the congregation had been using the building on University Avenue that belongs to the Hillel Foundation, which primarily serves university students. But by the end of the 1990s, that space was getting too tight — especially during the High Holy Days.

It's the way Christmas Eve is for Christians, said Judy Feintuch, the wife of Rabbi Yossi Feintuch: "You have all these people show up who usually would need a GPS to find the church."

With no synagogue of their own and not enough space in the Hillel building, CBS members needed another place for these special services.

First Baptist Church welcomed them in, opening up both the sanctuary and social hall for their use.

John Baker was pastor of First Baptist at the time; he pastored the church for 13 years, though he's not there now. He's always been interested in interfaith relationships. The way he sees it, the more ways we can find to understand one another, the more we'll be able to reduce the tensions behind so many of the world's conflicts.

At first, not everyone understood why the church was doing this favor, but looking beyond the differences with an eye toward peace, harmony and trust, he said it made perfect sense. And after all, he added, Judaism is the forebear of Christianity and Jesus himself was a Jew.

"They've bent over backwards with us," CBS member Mary Hardigan said.

Church members prepared their sanctuary by covering up the crosses; it was a way of showing hospitality by being sensitive to the beliefs of their Jewish guests. "No one asked them to do that," Hardigan said, but people were touched by the thoughtful gesture.

Judy Feintuch wanted to do something in return. "I'm going to have an oneg for them," she told her husband.

And that's what she did.

"Oneg," which means "delight," generally refers to a short reception with food, following a service. This oneg would be a little different – it would be right before the Christmas Eve service.

Feintuch recruited volunteers to make treats, and when worshipers arrived that Christmas Eve, they were surprised at what they found.

"They thought it was terrific," said Ed Rollins, the associate pastor at First Baptist. "It was such a beautiful gesture."

Since then, CBS has moved into its own space. In 2002, the congregation bought a farm house on Green Meadows Road to use for regular services and meetings. They still used First Baptist for the High Holy days until 2007, when construction was completed on a new multipurpose building next to the farm house, which they use for services, meetings, social functions and religious school.

It's enough space to hold the roughly 135 families currently involved, though the Jews hope, someday, to have a stand-alone sanctuary just for religious events. But that could be a while off, as their operating budget and building fund are entirely dependent on congregants' yearly financial pledges.

Even with the multipurpose building, there are still some things First Baptist is better equipped for, such as the annual corned beef sandwich fundraiser the Jews hold every April. The church has more refrigeration and work space than the CBS building does, so it's become the hub for sandwich assembly.

For First Baptist, sharing its space fits naturally into its identity. In a previous interview, the Rev. Carol McEntyre, who became the senior pastor in summer 2012, described the church's history as one of "progressiveness and inclusivity," noting the high value the church places on both ecumenical and interfaith relationships.

For CBS members, Feintuch said the Christmas Eve oneg is one way to put the values of Judaism into practice.

There's no proselytizing in Judaism, but one Jewish value is being out in the world, rather than being cloistered among themselves.

Feintuch also brought up another important concept in Judaism: "tikkun olam," or "repairing the world."

"The world has chaos and sadness, and we have commandments to ameliorate those things," Feintuch said.

She paraphrased a saying from Pirkei Avot, a section of a fundamental Jewish text. The saying goes something like this: "It is not incumbent to finish the work, but neither are you free to refrain from it."

In other words, Feintuch said, we as humans can't solve all the world's problems – but we can, and should, do our part to help. That's something the Jewish community strives to do throughout the year.

On Sundays, CBS members serve at Loaves and Fishes, an interfaith ministry that provides meals to homeless and low-income families. During months that have five Sundays, they prepare the fifth Sunday meal for the ministry. They also adopt a family for the Voluntary Action Center's annual holiday drive. This year, they'll be taking care of the laundry at Room at the Inn, a homeless shelter open every January and February.

Rollins said CBS members have also volunteered to help in the nursery at First Baptist on Easter, since it's such a holy day for Christians.

And every Christmas, the oneg continues – with no plans of stopping.

"We plan to keep going as long as we possibly can," Hardigan said.

Feintuch goes to the church in the afternoon every Dec. 24 to get the cider going in slow cookers, and she and the other servers from CBS make sure to arrive well before the church guests.

"We need to be the first people there," she said. After all, they are hosting.

Over the years, church-goers have learned to arrive early so they have time to enjoy the refreshments before the service begins.

The spread of treats varies, as different people get involved each year. Hardigan always brings something chocolate. Feintuch brings Secret Kiss Cookies, dough baked around a chocolate kiss. She’s given her recipe out to at least 20 people at First Baptist through the years. And for those who want an alternative, there’s also a tray of nonsweets.

During worship, CBS members pack up the leftover snacks in goodie bags, so people can take treats home. Each bag is a little different. Feintuch enjoys watching people make trades with each other: "You hear things like, 'Gladys, doesn't Bob really like fudge?'"

Beyond the exchanging of goodies among church-goers and the exchange of sweets for space, the oneg represents something more for all those involved.

"Even though you don't see them much, you develop what feel like lifelong friendships," Rollins said. Although the oneg was originally started as a gesture of thanks toward the Baptists, Rollins feels like the church now needs to do something more for the Jews.

Looking back on his time at the church, Baker said, "It exemplified the way two very different faith traditions can build bridges."

"It means everything to us," Feintuch said.

Kellie Moore is the editor of Columbia Faith & Values (, a local nonprofit religion news website and a media partner of the Columbia Missourian.

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