The project I undertook was to visit a service at a synagogue and interact with a member of that congregation. I selected this particular faith and service because it is one with which I am largely unfamiliar, and I wanted to gain at least an initial insight into how a Jewish person today perceives the faith in their life. To fulfill the project’s requirements, I located a synagogue accessible to me and determined the times of the services. I attended one of these, and during that time sought to identify a congregation member who I felt would be agreeable in discussing the experience with me. This occurred as I had planned and, following the service, a woman I will call Mrs. X was kind enough to talk with me for half an hour, and share her views on the subjects I introduced.
With regard to the synagogue and the service, I selected one of the Jewish Reform faith, chiefly because I believed this branch of Judaism would more reflect community involvement. The synagogue itself is very modern in style. There is a large, central space, with seating in benches in a kind of half-circle arrangement. Three separate seating areas, more exactly, of about ten long benches each, are angled to face the bimah, or sacred table. There is virtually no artwork to be seen on the walls or windows, and the entire space is very white and architecturally modern. Jutting partitions, for example, break up the ceiling into interesting levels, as the windows are long and narrow. The service was a Saturday morning event and lasted approximately two hours. It was, to my eyes, a combination of a solemn and almost casual occasion. The Rabbi blessed all in attendance formally, but then made a few comments regarding various community issues, and he also referred to global situations. Then there were readings from the Torah, and these were broken up by interpretations from the Rabbi. He asked many rhetorical questions of the congregation, and there were moments when actual discussions occurred between members. These were encouraged by the Rabbi. Lastly, there were brief ceremonies marking the conclusion, with blessings given over wine and bread.
Following this, Mrs. X sat outside with me for a while. As she is a senior citizen, I was particularly interested in her feelings regarding the casual nature of the service. I had already understood through research that Reform Judaism is today actively seeking to engage its congregations into a broader acceptance of others in the community. With Reform, there is a strong impetus to reach out to previously isolated community members, such as gays, lesbians, interracial couples, and Jews converted from other faiths (Schechter, 2000, p. 26). I asked her how she felt about this, and she confessed to divided feelings. On one level, she likes very much that new people are coming to the services, and she believes it is crucial that even more young people attend. At the same time, she admitted that she is “old-fashioned,” and prefers Rabbis who more reflect tradition. Mrs. X said that, as she sees it, even Reform should only go so far in moving away from ancient procedures, because the Jewish faith is in danger of becoming lost. She made a parallel with how she sees Christian services today weakening the Catholicism of some of her friends.
Mrs. X’s feeling here seems to reflect a concern many Jews have with Reform. More exactly, while pluralism is embraced and seen as a revitalizing agent for the faith and the synagogue, there is as well what is known as “low tension,” or changes that, in accepting others, diffuse the essence of the faith. Put another way, the “low tension” synagogue congregation does not perceive itself as remarkably different from its environment (Kaplan, 2003, p. 3). I asked her if that was her perception. Mrs. X then said that she is increasingly unsure of where her faith is going, and that she fully understood the “environment” point I mentioned. Her conflict, again, was in the need to keep the faith active and the need to preserve its integrity. I then asked her why, if this was her feeling, she attended Reform services instead of Orthodox. Mrs. X replied that, in her mind, there was no real choice. The Orthodox services, she said, attracted very few and usually only the elderly, and her preference for tradition was not so strong that she would make that choice. Finally, Mrs. X also, and proudly, said that the synagogue did a great deal of good for the neighborhood and the community. This, more than anything, kept her attending the Reform services.
In reflecting on what I have learned from this experience, I feel a kind of duality. On one level, I was made very aware that I am extremely ignorant as to the Jewish faith. There were moments when, frankly, I did not understand what was occurring, as when the final blessings were begun. At the same time, I had a strange sense of commonality here, as even this service that was new to me reminded me powerfully of others worships. When the Torah was read, for example, I felt as though I were in a Christian service simply because the Bible was the source. Even as the synagogue was so modern and the faith itself unknown to me, I had a striking awareness of the innate similarities in contrasting faiths.
Beyond this, I came away with a very strong idea of community. It is difficult to explain, but the congregation I witnessed seemed more committed than others I have observed or participated in. Even the very young people were present in an active and involved way, as though the service were actually a community – or even political – gathering. There was good feeling present and no tension, but there was as well the level of heightened investment. It seemed to me that most of those there took the faith very personally, and as a living component in their lives. It seemed to be a part of their identities in a way I do not perceive with other members of other faiths. I should add that these impressions may have been influenced by my own degree of attention, certainly to an extent. Nevertheless, my time at the Reform synagogue ultimately provided me with a sense of a faith that is absolutely determined to be a force in its congregation’s lives.
- Kaplan, D. E. (2003). American Reform Judaism: An Introduction. Piscataway: Rutgers University Press.
- Schechter, D. (2000). Synagogue Boards: A Sacred Trust. New York: UAHC Press.