Friday, February 14, 2014

Day 278 - Visiting a Synagogue

I have never been to a Synagogue. As a part of one of my ongoing “I have never...” goals, making a visit to a Synagogue represents the last experience in my effort to connect of the major forms of faith I have never experienced before this year. Although I had intended to experience Judaism for the first time much earlier in my “I have never...” year, the timing of other one-time events and opportunities for other religious experiences prevented me from fulfilling that objective. As a result, I made a firm commitment to follow through on my intentions to experience Judaism during the month of February.

With a firm deadline set for the experience, I began searching for potential events at local Synagogues that I thought would provide the fullest experience. At the recommendation of my friend, David, this search ultimately led me to a Madison Synagogue, the Beth-El Temple, which openly welcomes individuals from outside Judaism that are interested in learning more about the faith. To my surprise, the Synagogue offered a variety of weekly services that each offered a unique appeal; however, I ultimately decided that the Friday evening choral Shabbat service would likely provide a well-rounded look at the practices of Judaism. That decision made it easy to pinpoint this evening as a perfect time to make good on my objective, which set the course for a moving and incredibly uplifting experience that was, in many ways, completely unexpected.

After stopping home this evening to pick up Rachael, the two of us headed to the Beth-El Temple with plenty of time to spare before the service began. When we arrived, we met a relatively large group of people filing their way into the building and casually congregating in a large open room just outside the temple’s inner hall. The jovial spirits and welcoming nature of those in attendance was immediately apparent as Rachael and I gathered our bearings and prepared for the forthcoming event. Moving from the coat room to the central gathering place we were greeted with warm smiles and animate greetings.

“Shabbat Shalom!” each person enthusiastically stated as our paths crossed, leaving Rachael and I a bit taken by the openness of the group. Although I knew everyone in attendance saw my face as unfamiliar, I did my best to blend it by returning the greeting to passersby after Rachael and I took up a position near the entrance of the meeting room. As the room filled up around us I was stunned by the convivial essence that flowed through each person and filled the room around us. Each glance across the room was certain to fall on a smiling face, and the stories people shared with one another made it feel as though Rachael and I had been welcomed into a large, happy family gathering. The experience was already amazing and the Shabbat service had yet to begin.

Amid the stirring crowd of happy faces a man eventually appeared and made his way toward a table holding two massive silver candles and a chalice. The robe draped over each of his shoulders made it apparent he was the temple’s Rabbi, but his demeanor showed no signs of authority among those in attendance. He was equally enthusiastic and congenial as he interacted with all of the smiling people around him in his path toward the table. Upon reaching his destination, he turned toward the crowd and bellowed over the stirring crowd, “Shabbat Shalom, everyone!” The crowd responded in kind before the Rabbi continued, “Welcome! It’s great to see all of you here tonight. If we are ready I would like to light the candles and begin our Shabbat service.” In response, the group around us all turned toward the Rabbi and nodded in approval. I smiled at the sight around me in anticipation of the experience that was just moments away. I could simply tell it would be an evening to remember.

Against the backdrop of a guitar played by one of the people in attendance, the crowd sang along as three members of the group moved to the rear of the table and prepared the space. At the conclusion of the song, the trio immediately led the group in a prayer as they lit the candles and prepared to sip wine from the waiting chalice. Although the content of the prayer was foreign to me, the rolling, quiet movement of the Hebrew passage was beautiful to me in a way that is hard to describe. Unlike other forms of prayer I have experienced, the opening prayer this evening wasn’t solemn. It didn’t ring of obligation. It was outwardly expressive and thankful, and it seemed to draw each of us in attendance closer together.

The temple

When the prayer drew to a close, the Rabbi turned to the crowd with a smile and lifted his arm. “Please, if everyone will join me in the temple, we will get the service underway.” Happy to oblige, Rachael and I moved into the temple chamber with the rest of the group and took a seat among the benches contained therein. As we did so, the woman playing the guitar met a small choir with an upbeat, melodic song that swelled into the space around us.

The prayer book
Joyful, the Rabbi looked on as the choir sang and people found their seats. Eventually finding his place behind a podium at the front of the room, the Rabbi followed the music with a welcoming message before leading the group into a series of prayers. Balanced between passages of recital and hymns, each prayer offered perspective on the intended message of the evening and of the faith as a whole, but unlike the forms of prayer I have experienced prior the prayers maintained the uplifting, celebratory theme that was apparent since the start of the evening. With up tempo music and song abundant, the service was bright and vibrant, and the consistent focus on finding hope in struggle and overcoming adversity through reliance on peace and love was powerful. I sat in awe of the spirit that came with the Shabbat service and the warm sense of emotion it evoked.

As the Rabbi pressed deeper into the service this focus never wavered. When leading the chamber through prayers for loved ones, the Rabbi reminded everyone of the passage of time and our need to make the most of each moment before he moved to the body of the passage. As he spoke, he moved away from his podium and down into the rows of pews where he invited members of the crowd to call out names of loved ones for prayer and remembrance. It was unlike anything I have witnessed in a religious ceremony before, but it was wonderful and touching. It created a feeling of togetherness and understanding that reached deep and it gave everyone a chance to know they had help carrying their heaviest concerns. The brilliance of it all was astonishing, which made it impossible not to feel lifted by the happenings around me.

The Torah
The conclusion of the prayers led the group into more traditional songs led by the choir as the Rabbi moved to prepare for the evening’s Torah reading. Carefully removing the massive scrolled document from a chamber at the front of the building, the Rabbi moved through a series of rituals before carrying the document through the rows of seated worshippers. As the document passed through the group, each person offered their respects by grazing the scroll with a personal book of worship and then gently raising the book to their lips. The energy still flowing through the room carried this process with relative speed, which resulted in the Rabbi taking to the podium at the front of the room and opening the scroll to locate the section for the night’s reading.

In response, a small elderly woman moved from the pews to the stage and took position in front of the Torah. As the music filling the room fell to silence, the woman looked over the Torah carefully and raised a small guiding stick to the scroll’s aged paper. Quietly, she began to sing lines of text from the holy document, guiding the group through a segment of the story of Moses and the Ten Commandments. Although the soft melody carrying the Hebrew text was entirely foreign to me, the words held a strange sense of meaning. As a result, I grabbed a prayer book from a small shelf on the back of the pew in front of me and hurriedly located the translated text for the passage the woman sang. The result was a passing moment of connection in a subdued moment of praise, which left a resonating impact as the reading ended and the service began to draw to a close.

The post-service gathering
Following some final remarks and blessings of the service, the Rabbi invited the congregation out to the gathering room for some food and companionship to wrap up the night. His remarks caused me to check the time as the temple began to empty into the adjoining room. To my surprise, nearly two hours had passed since the start of the service when it had only felt a brief period in time. The only conclusion I could reach from that discovery was that the exuberance of the service and its consistent focus on strength and will through faith were so engaging they left me unaware of the passage of time. To me, that says a lot about the approach and the meaning of tonight’s experience, and it makes it easy to determine I would gladly join another Shabbat service in the future.

Before Rachael and I headed home for the evening, we took some time to join the members of the temple in breaking bread and carrying on in conversation. As we did so the Rabbi made a point to come and speak to us. “Shabbat Shalom!” he said as he walked near our location. I responded in kind, surprised by his continuing enthusiasm. Introducing himself as Rabbi Jonathan Biatch, he welcomed Rachael and I to the temple and asked us what brought us to the night’s service. I offered a brief explanation for our time at the temple, which cause Rabbi Biatch to smile. “Well, we are happy you came,” he said, “What did you think?” I paused momentarily in response to his question. “It’s hard to describe,” I said thinking, “I guess... if I had to describe it, I would say it bright... The brightest religious service I have ever encountered, actually. It inspired joy and hope, and I can always use more of both.” In response to my remarks, the Rabbi grabbed my shoulder and said candidly, “Now, that I can gladly accept.”

We chatted with Rabbi Biatch a bit longer before deciding it was time to bring out time at the Synagogue to a close. After grabbing our coats and heading for the door, I took a brief moment to look back at the temple. Hurrying to escape the cold, Rachael continued in her path as I stood before the building recalling the experience in my mind. “That was something special,” I said to the open air, pulling my coat collar high on my neck. Thinking about the experience, I knew that was really the only way I could describe my first experience at a Synagogue. It was special for all the right reasons and enlightening in the best ways possible. I couldn’t have hoped for a better night. In hindsight, I know there is little doubt this experience will stay with me for some time.

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