When I visited my first Jewish synagogue, I expected it to be very different. My previous experience with religious ceremonies was limited to a few visits to Baptist churches. The most surprising thing for me at this one was, oddly enough, its similarity to Christian services and rituals. I went into the religious visit expecting an enormous difference in the customs and perhaps even in the attitudes of the people attending the service. What I found instead was a religious ceremony very reminiscent of the Christian ones I’ve been to before.
To begin, I was nervous about attending a service for a faith to which I did not belong and which was not even part of my heritage. Previously when I had attended Baptist worship, I had gone along or with a member of my family, who belonged to the church. I wasn’t sure how people of a different religion would react to having someone who was not of their faith visiting their place of worship. However, as soon as we walked into the synagogue, the people there were very friendly and not at all unused to having visitors.
There was a collection of pamphlets set out for anyone unfamiliar with the Jewish religion and with Sabbath services and there were nametags for us to wear. The people were very friendly, asking us if we would like to know anything more about the synagogue. There were people standing in small groups too talking and catching up with the happenings of the week before. Overall, the interior of the synagogue reminded me very much of a church. The sanctuary was round or possibly octagonal, with the seating also set up in a semicircle.
Inside of the sanctuary the atmosphere was different from that in the lobby, more serious I would say. I thought that it was lovely, and smaller than the chapel of any church I’ve ever attended. We were given prayer books as we entered, and when I leafed through mine I found that it was printed from right to left instead of left to right. This threw me off a little, in part because the text inside (the English translations of the Hebrew) were still printed left to right, though the book itself was read from right to left.
I sat near the back, a good thing because it was mostly the people participating in the service who sat at the front. I noticed that several of the women had a tallit, or prayer shawl, and only knew the significance of them because of our readings and lessons. Many of the men were wearing a yarmulke as well, though not all of them were. As I looked around the room I noticed the Ark, which holds the Torah scrolls. As I continued to scan the room I also notice the menorah (candelabrum).
The rabbi began the service fairly casually, greeting the congregation in English. After the English greeting came a more traditional greeting in Hebrew, and then a song to greet the Sabbath, or Shabbat, which is the word that was used at the synagogue. The Hebrew might have been strange to me, but there were English translations for just about everything in the prayer book, along with the prayers and songs written out in Hebrew. My personal favorite part of the service was the singing. There were two singers, one male and one female.
All of the songs were beautiful, and caused me to consider the fact that many religions use songs and music in order to convey their messages. I believe that this is a good practice, because music is a common language, one that everybody can understand regardless of whether they speak Hebrew, or any other tongue. Although I’m not Jewish, I could appreciate the songs at the synagogue for their simple tunes and for the feelings and beliefs that clearly went into their writing and their performing. Also interesting was the way the rabbi tied many everyday events and circumstances into the faith.
He discussed baseball in relation to the seder, talking about how his father had loved both things and had given him his own love of baseball and of the traditional supper. Again, though I don’t share the religion, I could understand and relate too much of what he was saying, because our parents shape the way that we all grow and learn and change. After the service, we were invited to share in the refreshments that were provided for congregation members. All of the people present were very willing to answer questions and to discuss the religion and were very open and friendly toward me at all times.
My experience at the Jewish synagogue was very fun and enlightening. I gained a lot of firsthand knowledge of a religion I had only studied academically before. I’m not sure that I’ll ever have the chance to attend other types of religious services, but I may attempt to do so in the future. In my opinion, a visit like this one to another religion’s place of worship is the best possible way to learn more about a particular religion, no matter whether it’s for a class or simply to further one’s own personal knowledge.