Temple Beth El of Hollywood is a progressive congregation which is part of the Reform branch of Judaism. This sect has many differences from and similarities to both the Orthodox and Conservative movements of modern Judaism. The commonalities include (but are not limited to) the belief in one G-d, the acceptance of the Torah, recognition of all major Jewish holidays, acknowledgment and support for the state of Israel, belief in a Jewish Messianic coming, a life which embodies the practice of moral and ethical behavior, participation in social action, and a lifestyle of study and the passing on of Jewish history to one’s children. Some of the major differences in Reform Judaism are the belief that the Torah is inspired by G-d but written by humans, the recognition of the Talmud as a history of Jewish law however, not divinely delivered oral law that must be obeyed, an acceptance of Orthodox and Conservative Judaism as different expressions of the religion, a desire to adapt the religion to fit into the modern world, equalitarianism in terms of participation and opportunities for women, the use of English (in addition to Hebrew) in both prayers and psalms, a belief in social justice for gays and lesbians, and acceptance of interfaith families acknowledging the children of a Jewish mother or father provided they are raised in the Jewish faith.
The Jewish population began to emerge in Northern Florida in the late 1700s to early 1800s. It wasn’t until the 1920s when Jews started to migrate to South Florida. One reason for the shiftingof population was the growth of Miami Beach, the development of business, and the thriving entertainment industry. Later, in the 1940s (following World War II), members of the Jewish faith migrated to South Florida in even greater numbers. Thanks to many of the household conveniences that were developed during the post war years, such as air conditioning, living in South Florida became more appealing. However, the greatest boom in Jewish residencies occurred in the 1960s. South Florida saw an influx of elderly Jewish people retiring to the beaches, Jewish Cuban immigrants fleeing repressive Cuba, as well as Jews from the Caribbean, and South and Central America. Today, according to the Jerusalem Post, South Florida has the third largest Jewish populations in the nation following New York and Boston.
The major religious holidays that are celebrated here in South Florida and in Israel are as follows: Purim, Pesach or Passover, Shavuot, Tish’a B’Av, Rosh Hashanah, Yom Kippur, Sukkot, Shmini Atzeret, Simchat Torah, and Chanukah or Hanukkah. I will describe two of the most recent holidays which I also had an opportunity to observe in person at Temple Beth El of Hollywood. The Jewish New Year is known as Rosh Hashanah and was celebrated this past year from sunset on September 13th to sunset on September 15th. It is meant to celebrate the anniversary of the creation of the world. “Rosh Hashanah means “Head of the Year” and is both a celebratory and serious high holiday. It is a time for reflection and consideration of our sins, pursuit of forgiveness, making of amends for our failings, and awaiting judgment from G-d for our transgressions. Rosh Hashanah begins the “Ten Days of Awe”. Apparently, on Rosh Hashanah G-d makes a decision or judgment as to whether, based on the year’s transgressions or sins and our efforts towards repentance, the person’s name should be etched on the “Book of Life” or the “Book of Death”.
The final decision by G-d will be made on “Yom Kippur” which means “Day of Atonement”. This is obviously a very serious Jewish holiday and was observed this past year on September 23rd. Jews are to refrain from work, pray, and to fast (no eating or drinking) from sunset the night before to sunset on the day of Yom Kippur. On these two holidays, even Jews who rarely visit temple seem to realize the importance of abiding by the tenants of their faith and make an appearance at their synagogue. I will elaborate in greater detail pertaining to the rituals, prayers, festive ceremonial occurrences, etc. when I speak about my site visits on those special days.
I chose to visit Temple Beth El on three separate occasions: Shabbat services on September 11th, the first day of Rosh Hashanah on September 14th, and Yom Kippur on September 23rd. On Friday at sundown which is the seventh day of the Jewish week, Shabbat is observed as commanded by G-d. It is a holy day for rest, prayer, observance, and remembrance. Shabbat is a joyful day and is welcomed with greetings, songs, blessings, and ritual. Some Reform Jews celebrate Shabbat at home on Friday evening and at synagogue on Saturday morning. Others attend Shabbat services on Friday after sunset and continue the celebration with family at home. When I attended the Shabbat service on Friday, September 11th, it began with greetings by Rabbi Tuffs wishing the congregation “Good Shabbos” or “Good Sabbath”. Two of the first religious symbols which were present were two candles and several small silver goblets of wine, known as Kiddush cups, located on a small table next to Cantor Silver’s podium. I have described in my journal entry the ritual of lightning the candles which ushers in Shabbat that was performed by the wife of a young married couple. However, there was also a blessing known as the “Kiddush” which was said in two parts. The first part of the “Kiddush” prayer was said over the wine prior to drinking. The wine symbolizes the joy and celebration of the Sabbath. The second part was meant to actually sanctify the day of Shabbat and welcome it. During the Shabbat service I observed the attire of both Rabbi Tuffs and Cantor Silver were black suits with white shirts. Members of the congregation wore nice business like but not extremely formal attire. Men tended to wear white shirts and dark pants while women donned either dark pant suits, dresses, or skirts with blouses, sweaters, or jackets which covered their shoulders. Both members of the clergy, men and boys (even several women) wore kippot or yarmulkes, which are small skull caps meant to serve as reminders of G-d’s constant presence above us. Prayer shawls or tallitot, which are rectangular material with tzitzit on all four corners are usually worn for morning services however, both Rabbi Tuffs and Cantor Silver wore them for Friday Shabbat. The purpose of of the tallit is actually to hold the tzitzit which are specially tied (knotted) fringes on all four corners of the prayer shawl meant to remind Jews of the many practices and non-practices (some 613) described in the Torah. “Speak to the children of Israel and say to them: They shall make for themselves fringes on the corners of their garments… And this shall be tzitzit for you, and when you see it, you will remember all the commandments of G-d, and perform them” (Numbers 15: 38-39).
Rosh Hashanah began at sunset on Sunday, September 13th and ended at sunset on Tuesday, September 15th. Even though these are High Holy Days and often tickets are sold due to the large crowds and quite frankly a means of gathering revenue for the synagogue’s many annual expenses, I was invited to attend. Due to the fact I had classes on those days and would not be able to attend the entire very lengthy service, I was allowed to remain in the back of the synagogue and leave quietly at a time that would not be disruptive. The first differences I noticed upon entering was the large crowd of members dressed in their finest, mainly white, attire and numerous members of the congregation were wearing tallitot. Rabbi Tuffs and Cantor Silver were wearing long white robes with tallitot for both services. The temple was decorated with flowers, there were numerous ushers, and the prayer books were different to those I had seen on Shabbat. During the Shabbat service a siddur or prayer book was provided with both English and Hebrew translations which read from right to left. At the bottom of this siddur, which was called Mishkan T’filah, were readings which actually helped explain the prayers. During the services for both the High Holidays of Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur a special holiday prayer book called the Machzor was used which contained not only the prayers but the Torah readings as well. The Rosh Hashanah service began with a greeting from Rabbi Tuffs of “Shanah Tovah” which means “Good Year”. He was joyful and celebratory in his speech, discussing the glory of the High Holy Days and the hopefulness for the year to come. I noticed the bimah or platform was full, as opposed to the few members of the congregation during the Shabbat service. The Rabbi introduced them as the members of the Board of Directors. The service proceeded with many readings by the distinguished Board members, numerous prayers, and a wide variety of joyful psalms sang by the Cantor only at times and the entire congregation at others. One striking difference was during the Rosh Hashanah service the Holy Ark, a beautiful wooden cabinet with stained glass doors which had Hebrew writing adorning them, was opened. Prior to its opening, those on the bimah faced the Holy Ark, sang a series of very serious prayers from the Book of Psalms, bent their knees at times, slightly dipping, and bowed repeatedly. Several select members from the congregation then opened the doors to the Holy Ark revealing the 5 Books of the Torah. The Rabbi proceeded to very carefully hand, one by one, each book of the Torah to a congregation member on the bimah. Once all 5 books had been retrieved from the Holy Ark, the members, including the Rabbi, walked with great pride and reverence down the different aisles of the synagogue in “The parade of the Torah” while very festive songs were sang in Hebrew by all. As the books of the Torah passed by those in the congregation, members reached out with their prayer books or the tzitzit of their prayer shawls, touched the Torah, then kissed their prayer book or tzitzit with great reverence. This was extremely moving and for some reason brought tears to my eyes. I did not feel it was appropriate for me to emulate congregation members however, I was later told that it would have been permissible. The liturgy presented focused on the supreme power of G-d, remembrance of their Exodus from Egypt and safe delivery to Israel, the purpose of Rosh Hashanah, the writings in the “Book of Life” or the “Book of Death”, a need for atonement, and the decisions made on Yom Kippur which dictate our future. Later in the service two men approached the bimah, one of them was a Broward County Judge and former City Commissioner of Hollywood who had actually once visited our home. They each carried a Shofar, which is a ram’s horn that is hollowed to create an instrument. The Shofar is blown on both days of Rosh Hashanah and in particular meaningful sequences. The Rabbi explained that the blowing of the Shofar is a reminder of how G-d spoke to the Jewish people at Mount Sinai and how G-d speaks to us now. He explained that G-d speaks not in words but in sounds, in a primordial way that surpasses words and appeals to our soul. The culmination is one long blast for as long as the honored Tokea or blaster can blow. Its sound is meant as a call to awaken the soul and begin the process of repentance or atonement.
On Yom Kippur or “The Day of Atonement”, Jews do not work, fast from sunset the night before until sunset the night of, abstain from bathing, and refrain from marital relations. “…In the seventh month, on the tenth day of the month, you shall afflict your souls, and you shall not do any work … For on that day he shall provide atonement for you to cleanse you from all your sins before the L-RD.” (Leviticus 16:29-30). The services began again with a greeting from Rabbi Tuffs of “Tom Kal” which means “Easy Fast”. Later he also said “G’mar Hatimah Tovah” which translated from Hebrew means “May You Be Sealed for a Good Year” referring to the sealing of your fate in either the “Book of Life” or the “Book of Death”. The tone and demeanor of the Rabbi was much more serious and solemn on Yom Kippur. This is a day to atone for the sins between man and G-d, the sins between humans are to be reconciled prior during the “Days of Awe”, this is a formal day of reckoning and judgment. Many of the prayers and psalms were the same as on Shabbat and Rosh Hashanah. I did however notice that some of the psalms sang by both the Cantor and the congregation were more serious and somber. Again the bimah was filled, this time with very distinguished members of the community who were former Presidents of the Board of Directors. One such member was Dr. Abraham Fischler, a former President of Nova Southeastern University among many other prestigious positions in academia. This is an entire day devoted to prayer, reflection, remembrance, and affliction on the soul. I attended the morning service however, there was an afternoon service that followed, then finally, at sunset a time to rejoice and celebrate with a Yom Kippur feast. The focus of the liturgy was about the difficulties we face in life and how it can often lead to cynicism. The Rabbi discussed a returning to innocence free of cynicism, materialism, with open hearts, not naiveté but lacking in judgment and arrogance. There were numerous times when the Rabbi asked the congregation to either reflect or even confess silently. One of the most moving moments of the service was when a young girl who was a violinist was invited to play on stage. She played the theme from Schindler’s List which was one of the most moving performances I have even seen and heard in my life. You could feel the anguish, suffering, and emotion which has been experienced by many Jews throughout history.
Given these were High Holy Days I was not able to speak with Rabbi Tuffs or Cantor Silver, however because the synagogue was filled with Jewish members of the community I encountered several people who I knew and was able to discuss a variety of issues and ask numerous questions. My pediatrician, his wife, and two children were present and opened the Holy Ark for removal of the Torah scrolls which is quite an honor, particularly on Yom Kippur. My optomologist, his wife, and daughter read from the Torah during the service yet another honor. Our former neighbor, an elderly woman who had lost her husband and lived alone with her children living far away and a friend from middle school were also members of the congregation. Basically after speaking with all of them about subjects such as: the meaning of participating with their families in these rituals, being part of the Jewish community and this synagogue, and overall their feelings towards the meaning of being a Jew, I came to the same conclusion. Living a life as a Jew gave them a sense of belonging, community, family, direction, tradition, guidance and comfort. They all explained they felt different and unique from their non-Jewish friends and shared a sense of sameness with the fellow Jewish brothers and sisters. This was something I observed in the synagogue and felt on each and every visit. It was a powerful and moving sense and brought comfort to even myself. My experience was rewarding, fulfilling of the soul, eye opening, comforting, and joyful.
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