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Cultural Immersion: Part C Leonard T. Thomas II Georgia State University Professor Maria Azuri (SW 3000)


Having visited a Buddhist site for my last immersion, I decided to change gears and visit a Jewish synagogue this time around. For this assignment I visited, The Temple. The Temple purports itself to be the oldest synagogue in Atlanta having been established in 1867. It is also unique because it is part of the Reformed Jewish tradition, and is located in North Atlanta. The synagogue itself was extremely ornate, with vaulted ceilings and an impressive chandelier hanging from the ceiling. It is interesting to note that in traditional synagogues (Orthodox synagogues) the front wall of the synagogue faces east towards Jerusalem. The Holy Ark which contains The Torah also usually occupies this eastern facing wall. The bimah also faces the wall so that the rabbi who is speaking as well as the congregation are all facing the same direction. Men and women are usually separated in seating arrangement and the word temple is never used in the name. However, in reformed synagogues like The Temple, men and women are mixed and the rabbi faces the congregation. I happened to go on what is known as Shabbat. Shabbat is the 7th day of the week for Jews much like the Sabbath in Christianity. However, observance of Shabbat starts on Friday evenings; therefore I was in attendance on a Friday at around 6:00 in the evening. While I was at The Temple, as part of what Im calling the opening ceremony there was what is called a Shabbat Candle Blessing. In this ceremony, the speaker on the bimah and accompanying musicians on the exterior of the stage sang a song in Hebrew so I have absolutely no idea what was being said but the song itself was very melodic and beautiful. After the song, a sermon took place and much like sermons in Christian churches, an uplifting message was given to the congregation. In my church, Im used to the pastor telling us to flip to a particular book or a particular passage, but in this situation the rabbi started to speak from what is called a siddur and it was exceptionally difficult to keep up. The message itself in conjunction with the prayer book was drawn off a more anecdotal foundation more so than a profoundly divine one. I found this all to be quite interesting; however there were some confusing components to the service that I had never experienced before. It was hard to know whether I should say Amen, and there were also particular times when the entire congregation would bow and Id be caught off guard (and quite embarrassed at being the only one not bowing). There was also a great deal of standing, much more than Im used to going to church. I later found out that day that Jews stand at particular times such as when the Ark is open and when the Torah is making its way around the sanctuary. Speaking of The Torah, on this particular day it was carried around the room and the congregants kissed it with their hands. In preparation for this experience, I contacted Rabbi Dave Silverman and he purposely did not give me any opinions or unfairly spoil what was going to happen at the service. I will say that I expected a lot of elaborate ceremonies, and Im not particularly sure why, but it was cool to see a different way of doing things in a different religion. I did have a chance to catch up with Rabbi Silverman and ask him a few questions which he was happy to oblige. Our conversation goes a follows: LT: Thanks so much for taking the time to grant me this talk with you Rabbi Silverman. RS: Its no problem Leonard, thank you for coming. What did you think of the service? LT: As a person doing an assignment for school, I didnt know what to expect, but I thought overall it was very uplifting and warm. I especially loved the singing!


RS: Im glad you were able to experience something a little different for a change. LT: Me too, so if you dont mind my first question is, what makes a person Jewish? RS: Without being overly technical or long winded, a Jew for our purposes is a person who is a spiritual or physical descendent of Jacob. Any person whose mother is Jewish or any person who has gone through the formalized process of conversion is considered a Jew. Orthodox Jews tend to establish validity on Jewish children by a different set of standards. LT: Interesting, because there always seems to be some confusion with that. My next question is what exactly are your beliefs? RS: One set of beliefs that all Jews hold important as Im sure youve learned in your courses is the thirteen principles. I see you have them in front of you, so I wont run them down again. Other than the basic acknowledgment of God, we dont have any official beliefs on the nature of life after death, God himself, or the universe. Judaism is more about actions than beliefs or anything else. We more or less focus on the relationships between Jews and God, God and mankind, and so on. Orthodox Jews wholeheartedly believe that Gods laws are finite and cannot be changed. We on the other hand choose to adapt the same laws to a changing world and sometimes we rule out laws that we believe are no longer able to be honored in our ever changing society. LT: I know were running short on time, so this will be my last question. Whats the controversy surrounding Jesus all about? RS: Well, we dont think of it as controversy per se, however as Jews we acknowledge God as the one true singular God. Jesus is of many false messiahs that have lived. Unlike Christianity, we dont believe weve entered what we call the Messianic Age. Also, our tradition prohibits any worship of a person because we equate it to idolatry, and since Jesus was just a man, it is impossible for him to be the Messiah. We also believe in a certain timeline of events that have yet to come about. Consider, for example the return of Jews to our original home, the rebuilding of our Temple, and an age of peace. These events have yet to come about, and since they didnt happen in Jesus lifetime, we say that its impossible. I do not wish to offend your personal beliefs, but that is what the so-called controversy is all about. LT: Thank you so much Rabbi, it was wonderful to sit down and talk with you on such short notice. RS: Like I said before its no problem, I do hope you do well in this class. Its good to see diversity in the assignments given nowadays. Please let me know if you need anything else to add. LT: I will do, and thank you again. Overall, I do recommend that people take part in the Jewish religious experience, because the ceremony is very beautiful and isnt pretentious. The people I encountered were very nice and accommodating. I wish a friend had gone with me, but I had fun all by myself and I was surprised to notice how positive the energy was, there were no talks of going to hell if you lived a certain lifestyle, and the rabbi didnt seem to be threatening or attempting to scare congregants like pastors Ive known in my lifetime. It was eye opening, and I may even go back for a second visit if time allows.