Judaism is a monotheistic religion that originated in the Middle East and shares close ties with Christianity and Islam, all three of which are known as the Abrahamic religions.
I decided to study Judaism primarily because I’ve always had an interest in the religion and have known many Jewish people over the years. I was still undecided prior to the shooting in the Tree of Life synagogue but that tragedy cemented my choice. Reform Judaism appealed to me because of the emphasis on being able to evolve and adapt to modern times. After reaching out to a few local reform synagogues and speaking with extremely friendly and helpful peopleall of whom expressed their own and their congregation’s collective pain due to the tragedy in PittsburghI settled on Shir Ami in Newtown, PA. Shir Ami simply means, song of my people.
My husband and I attended service on Friday evening, November 2nd at 7:30pm, one week after the devastation in Pittsburgh. Shabbat is the name for a Jewish faith service and means the Sabbath, which is observed from sundown on Friday to sundown on Saturday. Jews keep Sabbath on Saturday, as it’s the seventh day when God rested after the Creation.
We arrived to a very warm welcome of Shabbat Shalom or Peaceful Sabbath. A woman usher wearing a gold nametag greeted us first and told us where to go. Prior to entering the sanctuary, I noticed a wooden box in the lobby that contained yarmulkes (head coverings, commonly worn by males) and tallitots (prayer shawls) for visitors or those who forgot theirs. We didn’t wear these items and I didn’t feel I needed to, as many others I saw didn’t have them.
There were a lot of people inside. Many people who looked like regular attendees were talking with one another as more people flowed in. I noticed two older men standing facing the doors, and appeared to be sort of holding court and surveying who was entering the sanctuary. We sat about midway in the center section of pews. That night, many non-Jewish people and visitors from other synagogues attended as a show of community and solidarity. Bucks county congressman Brian Fitzpatrick was also in attendance. The Rabbi actually remarked how many more were in attendance on that night and how appreciative he and the rest of Shir Ami were for the show of support.
Before the service started, Rabbi Briskin opened up what appeared to be two long drapes that covered an area behind the bimah or the podium and stage area where the Rabbi delivers the sermon. There were several Torah scrolls behind the glass of that space known as the Ark.
The serviced commenced with lovely singing led by the Cantor and accompanied by the resident band, Shir KLEZ! They were lovely; it was like listening to a mini-orchestra. We followed along to the song selections, which took up about 20 minutes of time in the beginning of service. After that, the Rabbi invited all of the youth under the age of 13 to come up to the bimah and deposit one quarter into the S’daqah box. I had to look that up because I spelled it wrong when I was taking notes but I found it online. S’daqah equates to charity and the Jewish obligation to help those less fortunate. No less than ten youngsters came up to drop a quarter in that box.
Prayers were read or sung from a book called Mishkan T’filah: Shabbat: A Reform Siddur. In Hebrew, handwriting is from right to left, so books also open from right to left, which took a few tries to remember. Many prayers and psalms were read but the first one was the Candle Blessing. When the L’cha Dodi was read everyone turned around and faced the doors and entrance to the sanctuary. During the Bar’chu many congregants were bowing, bending and standing straight at different sections of verse.
A young boy was set to make his Bar Mitzvah the next day and was invited up to the bimah to read a section from the Torah, a task the Rabbi later told us involves ten months of training and practice to learn Hebrew. After the boy finished reading, he was presented with his own copy of the Tanak, the Hebrew bible.
The sermon that night focused mainly around the tragedy in Pittsburgh and the burden and pain felt throughout Jewish communities all over the country. The Rabbi called for healing and fellowship and recognized the many visitors who joined in worship. It felt good to be there and stand in unity with them. The Rabbi returned the Torah to the Ark and then invited congregants to stand and say the names of someone who passed away. He also asked for people to stand and say the name of someone they know who is ill or going through hard times.
The service ended with more prayer and some announcements and an invitation to anyone visiting to come up to the bimah and look around ask questions. We were two out of about ten other people that wanted a tour. The Rabbi offered to take the Torah scrolls out of the Ark so we could see it up close and it was amazing! It’s very large and quite heavy. He told us each Torah is handmade and handwritten on parchment and the pages are sewn together with animal sinew. The actual scrolls are wound onto two wooden spindles. The Rabbi informed us that no metal is used in the construction of a Torah because metal is used in instruments of war.
In order to follow the text while reading the Torah a device called a Yad is used; it looks like a long pointer with a hand at the end. This helps track from where the Torah is being read and is important because the oils on a human’s finger can damage the delicate parchment. I asked how many feet long the Torah is and he said that during Hebrew classes for youth they’ll open it up all the way and stretch it along the perimeter of the entire sanctuary before ending at the end of the first row. Wow! It contains over 300,000 letters written in Hebrew. It was truly a magnificent artistic creation and I was grateful to have been given an up close and personal look at such a special and integral piece of the Jewish faith.
After our mini tour with the Rabbi, I thanked him for his generous welcome and extra time to answer questions and he invited us to stay after for fellowship in the hall across the sanctuary where it’s customary after service to mingle with other congregants, have some coffee and a pastry. My husband and I graciously declined the invitation as it was late, dark and pouring rain outside and we had about a half-hour’s drive home.
I thoroughly enjoyed my visit to Shir Ami and would consider going back just to learn more. I’d like to go back on a Saturday evening, as that’s when it’s common to read from the Torah during service.
I learned that Judaism synagogue services, sanctuary and rituals aren’t that different from my own religion of Christianity. People gathered together, sang songs, prayed, listened to a message about community and life and bid each other farewell until the next meeting. That’s pretty much what happens in a Christian church. Aside from some deviations in belief, there is more that unites us, than divides us.