Saturday, June 17, 2006

The Two Synagogues

Chrissie and I had the blessing of being at two synagogue worship services on Friday night. The first one was at Birmingham’s Conservative Synagogue, Temple Beth-El, the second was at the Reform (liberal) Synagogue, Temple Emmanu-El.

There was a significant difference between the first synagogue and the second. The first was a place where Scripture was clearly at the center. The second was much like Unitarian churches in belief, while it maintains the Hebrew ethos of Judaism.

It was interesting to see that the Conservative congregation was more like our contemporary worship in style (the rabbi even repeated a lot of verses), while the Reform synagogue was very formal.

We witnessed a vital, loving congregation in the Conservative synagogue. It was small enough that everyone knew everyone else’s name. Part of the service included members standing to share a blessing they’d had the week before. There were also acknowledge birthdays and anniversaries. The rabbi blessed each member with an encouraging word, along with encouraging words from the Bible. Children were invited several times up to the “bema” (the pulpit area) to get a candy, or some juice. There was a lot of laughter.

The dignity of the Reform Synagogue worship was impressive. The cantor was a woman with a beautiful soprano voice. There were ritual movements and moments done much, much more formally than those in the previous synagogue. While we sang Scriptures (in Hebrew) there were no readings of or comments on Scripture otherwise. There were children in the synagogue, but they were not acknowledged in any way. There were announcements that included recent deaths and ‘Yahrzeits,” which are the 1st year anniversary remembrances of a death. The congregation was passive in this service, more like pew-sitters than participants.

Naturally, we felt out of place in both places. We didn’t know when to stand or sit, when to turn around (!), or bow or anything else. It gave me some insight to how people who come into a church—any church—for the first time must feel. I’m wondering how we can make the Kirk and its worship services more welcoming and comfortable, whether in traditional or contemporary worship.

How do people see us when they first visit the Kirk? Are we a vital, warm, welcoming congregation? Do we go out of our way to welcome people in? Would we help them in worship if they seemed uncomfortable or confused? Our experience here in Birmingham made these questions very real to me—as they should be to us all.

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