Upon entering Temple Beth El in Hollywood, I sensed the history, sacredness, and warmth, which existed there. I chose to explore the religion of Judaism and specifically this temple as it was close to my home and I had passed by it most of my life. My journey began by contacting the synagogue via their website with a heartfelt plea to visit for the purpose of this project and a request for advice and instruction as to protocol for a visit by a non-Jew. I was surprised when I received a simple email with a link to the very website from which I had sent my email. I took this as an invitation and decided to begin my visitations by attending the September 11th Friday evening Shabbat service. I had begun research prior to reaching out and knew that Temple Beth El is a Reform Jewish temple with a progressive congregation. Unlike Orthodox Jewish Synagogues, which are very rigid and strict, Reform Jewish Synagogues have a dress code that is somewhat relaxed. Nonetheless, I chose to wear a dress to my knees that had sleeves, and was navy blue in color. Because I was unable to arrange a contact person I urged my Mother to accompany me. She has spent most of her life in both Southern Baptist and Catholic Churches as her parents were of different Christian denominations. I was relieved to know she would join me because aside from my christening and a year spent in Catholic preschool, I have not been an active churchgoer.
When we arrived, a bit early at that, we noticed attendance seemed very sparse. Several gentlemen who appeared to be ushers greeted us in the front lobby type area. I quickly explained we were visitors, which they readily seemed aware. They were standing next to a table with small caps known as kippot or yarmulkes. A pleasant elderly female worshipper must have noticed I was mentally examining them and explained that they are worn as a reminder that God is above watching over us. She went on to say that mainly men and boys wore them, but women were permitted. She wore a delicate lace covering on her head however; during the service I only saw one other female, who was also elderly, wearing one. As we entered, I noticed the beautiful stained glass windows, giant marble columns, rows of theater style chairs, a front stage type area, a small table with candles, several podiums, and an Ark with stained glass doors adorned with Hebrew writing which held the Torah. We were invited to sit wherever we chose and since there were only about fifty people present, we daringly sat towards the middle. I had read that in Orthodox Synagogues men and women are separated, women cannot participate in rituals, only men (and boys) can don a kippah, most of the services are in Hebrew, music is not predominate, and many other strict distinctions. In this Reform Synagogue, those restrictions very obviously did not apply. Men and women sat together as part of the congregation, several women later participated in the service, attire seemed much less conservative, English was spoken through much of the service, and music was very significant.
Given this was my first visit and due to the fact that it was inappropriate to take notes, photos, video, or audiotape, I will say it was all mostly a blur. The Shabbat service began with several short songs/prayers sang by Cantor Silver. Even though I didn’t know the words (as they were in Hebrew) and suspect many others did not as well, there were parts where everyone hummed along and clapped gleefully. From the bimah (a formal podium) Rabbi Tuffs wished his congregation “Good Shabbos” or “Good Shabbat”. He also interchangeably said “Shabbat Shalom”, which means “Peaceful Sabbath”. This was both familiar and unique to me because in Christianity it is said to “Remember the Sabbath and keep it holy”, yet I don’t ever recall hearing a priest or preacher express “Good Sabbath”or “Peaceful Sabbath”. What ensued was an invitation by the Rabbi for a young married couple in the congregation to join he and the Cantor to preform the blessing of the candles. There was a small table with two candles; one represents “remember” and the other “keep”. She lit the candles, circled her hands over the flames toward her face, then covered her eyes and said a prayer in Hebrew. I later learned that the symbolic moving of the flame toward her face was an invitation of G-d and his holiness, the prayer that is said is known as the “Barchu et Adonai” and is said as a call to worship and to welcome holy Shabbat. I tried to locate them in the prayer book, known as the “siddur”, but found I was missing the moment therefore, I stopped in order to take in the essence of the ritual and it’s beauty.
If you recall I mentioned it was September 11th, fourteen years since that horrific day when so many lives were lost during terrorist attacks. The Rabbi felt it was important to address this tragedy and the Iran Nuclear Agreement, which was signed just the day before. He started with prayers of atonement for the anger and hatred many Americans felt on that day. He continued with prayers of forgiveness for those who supported and committed those heinous acts. He then prayed for those who past, their families, and our nation as a whole that we may all find peace. Finally, he felt it was significant to educate his congregation about the Iran Nuclear Agreement for which he has very strong feelings. I found this a bit unusual and noticed many of the elderly in the congregation were a touch lost. He ended by having us all stand and sing “God Bless America”.
There were numerous other prayers, readings, psalms, and rituals that transpired which I will discuss, as well as my visits for Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, in my final paper. Overall, I found the experience to be inspiring and educational, the congregation welcoming and open, and obstacles practically non-existent. The assignment of this site visit project provided the impetus to partake in something I might never have considered. Thank you!