I mentioned last week that I’m tagging along with my friend, Elisabeth, on her quest for spiritual enlightenment. (My words; not hers. Hi, Elisabeth!) Last Friday, we visited a synagogue in Charlotte. I wrote about it for a freelance assignment, and next week I’ll have a story about our visit to a mosque.
Here’s story 2 of 3: Our visit to the Jewish synagogue
I never thought the first thing I would see walking into a Jewish synagogue would be a middle-aged woman with pink hair. She smiled, and a man nearby greeted a friend and I with a cordial “Shabbat shalom.” I wasn’t sure how to respond to his wishing us a peaceful Sabbath, so I said “hi” and hoped that was OK.
Inside, people gathered around a table, filling small plates with pita chips and cheese. Many of the men wore yarmulkes of different colors and patterns.
It was Friday evening and I surveyed the digital announcements outside the sanctuary. My favorite was for a weekend retreat called “Re-New, Re-Jew.” I saw another for a Torah yoga class.
The sanctuary was an auditorium that reminded me of college, but without the tiny desks. I’d worn a long skirt and three-quarter-length sleeves to be sure I was dressed modestly, and I felt pretty comfortable as a guest. A small boy in front of us had a yarmulke that covered almost his entire head.
Since I studied the Old Testament in seminary – the New Testament is not part of Jewish scripture – and because I had a Jewish professor (who had become a Christian), I was familiar with parts of the service. I’ve also heard a few Jewish speakers, plus Jews play a big part in my own faith as a Christian. It was nice that Jewish custom wasn’t totally lost on me.
I had, however, forgotten that the prayer book used would be backwards since Hebrew is written from right to left. The book said “Mishkan T’filah – A reform siddur” on the front and is used in Reform Jewish congregations.
According to the Union for Reform Judaism, Reform Judaism embraces innovation and diversity while promoting peace and justice for all. Reform Jews were the first to ordain female rabbis.
One thing I appreciated was blending the old with the new. As the service began, projector screens up front displayed the announcement: “And on the seventh day, the children of Israel turned off their cellphones.” Yet the majority of the service consisted of songs, prayers and readings in Hebrew – and sometimes English. I was bad at pronouncing Hebrew and regularly lost my place in the prayer book, but I enjoyed the upbeat songs led by a man at a keyboard. I think if I knew Hebrew, it would have felt a lot like my own church.
I also got a sense of community as people chatted, laughed together and sat with their families. I was surprised that some people clapped during songs and that some came in shorts. I had imagined a more somber atmosphere.
The rabbi was relatively young and wore a suit with a white tallit, or prayer shawl, around his shoulders. He led us in singing Psalm 133:1 about living in unity and led the lighting of two Shabbat candles. We read: “As these Shabbat candles give light to all who behold them, so may we, by our lives, give light to all who behold us.” Christians also talk about being a “light” to others, meaning, for one, reflecting the truth and goodness of God. I presume a similar meaning for Jews.
At the front of the sanctuary were two flags: an American flag and what looked like an Israeli flag, although I couldn’t see the whole thing. Being July 4th weekend, the rabbi read part of “This Land is Your Land” and talked about living as Jews in America. He talked about Israel’s struggle for independence.
“Freedom requires something of us,” he said, adding that they have a responsibility, as both Jews and Americans, to fight for peace and justice not only in America but in Israel as well. Although Jewish views on Israel vary, many support the nation as it was promised to them by God.
At one point, we turned to face a stained glass Star of David, a symbol of Judaism, at the back of the sanctuary. I’ve been to churches where we face a cross, but that’s usually at the front.
People also bowed toward the front when we said “Baruch atah Adonai,” a blessing to the Lord. It took me a while to figure out when to bow, so I missed them all.
Later, we sang about deliverance and I thought about our differing views of Jesus. While Christians believe Jesus to be the Messiah who delivered them from their sins and provided a way to eternal life, Jews believe the Messiah has yet to come – that Jesus did not fulfill all the requirements like bringing peace to earth and fulfilling prophesies of his victory. (I’ve wondered about their view on Isaiah 53, but didn’t get a chance to ask.)
Toward the end, as we read the mourner’s kaddish for those who lost loved ones, I looked out the big windows up front. The green grass was wet with rain and birds flew between the trees. It was a beautiful reminder of God’s creation even as we thought of those no longer with us.