When one must embark on a new journey that will bring uncertainty, one might question if it is a smart choice to seek. A mission was assigned as a way of opening ourselves to uncharted waters we have never sailed. Us researchers most likely would’ve never travelled this route if not directed. Our misconceptions, expectations, and fears drew us away from voyaging the open sea, however, we would never know how it would alter our minds and lives unless it was followed. A leap of faith was taken and the course that was chosen was known by many as “Reform Judaism.” The route would lead me to an unknown location by the name of Temple of Israel of Greater Miami. Here lied the key that would unlock the door to the world of Reform Judaism. By entering this sanctuary, one would learn the foundations, customs, and lifestyle Judaists encompassed themselves with. This paper will be exploring those aspects and report the findings on what was witnessed.
The Temple Israel of Greater Miami has been standing as the oldest synagogue of the city for 95 years. A study conducted by the Greater Miami Jewish federation revealed that over the last decade, the Jewish population has flourish to “more than 123,000” residing in Miami-Dade alone. It makes this community of Jews the “11th largest in the United States.” (Carmona). As our society changes and grows, so does the Jewish community. The answer as to why the religion is here in our city is easy, it is because it is kept alive by those who believe in its ways. Those who followed Judaism invested their time in the Torah, the Jewish Bible, and surrounded their way of living on the 10 commandments Adonai (God) gave to Moses on a tablet on Mount Sinai. When walking through the synagogue, the masterpieces of art that decorate the walls of the sanctuary are hard to miss. In the first set of stained glass windows that is on both side of the sanctuary is the Star of David in the middle of the mosaic colors. During the Nazi regime, the organization labelled the Jewish with a symbol that subjected them to a world of persecutions, the Star of David. They showed the prisoners their contempt for their culture by making this symbol an image of humiliation by having them wear it on their clothing at the concentration camps. However, once the Nazi’s prime fell, the degraded symbol became one of honor for Jews around the globe (Greene, Peacock, 80+). The second symbol was the menorah, the seven lampstand that symbolizes light and wisdom in the Jewish culture. The third symbol was the tablet holding the 10 commandments. Interestingly, the fourth symbol was the American Flag. The American flag is significant in Jewish-American synagogues as it represents the union of both cultures. Not only is the nation’s flag on the window as art but it also stands on the podium along with the Israeli flag. It shocked me because mixing religion and government is an idea that should be separated, not united. Yet it isn’t so much as government, but the culture. The Jewish and American culture have influenced the other and because of this is honored by showing both flags together inside the synagogue.
The most important holiday that the Jewish centralize their life around occurs every week, Shabbat. It celebrates the day of rest that Adonai has given to his people. To commence the Shabbat service every week, two candles are lit at sundown by a different congregation member each week. Before the candles are lit, The Candle Blessing Kiddush is sung by the congregation. Afterwards, a prayer is read by everyone. Once that finishes, a song to welcome Shabbat, the holy spirit, bride, and queen of all, begins and the crowd claps in unison to the beat. “We have some spiritual activists with us tonight,” jokes Rabbi Tom Heyen as members dance along. Towards the end of the song, the congregation stands and faces towards the direction of the doors and bow to welcome the Presence of Shabbat. It is custom to greet everyone in the congregation by saying “Shabbat Shalom,” which means hello, goodbye, and peace. The program continues with more prayers that are sung or recited, like Hashkirelinu, a prayer for peace. After this specific prayer, the congregation face an alter that holds the Torah to stand before God. Because it was Sukkot on one of the occasions visited, a special prayer for the festival was said and a song that was never heard before called “Sukkat Shalom” by Beth Schafer was vocalized by the cantor. After the praise for Sukkot by the congregation, the people were allowed an intimate moment to choose any prayer they wanted to be said in silence. This was the only time observed every service when the people’s actions varied from the other. After this, the Rabbi gave a sermon about nation’s issues like mass shootings, natural disasters, and DACA. “It is Jewish tradition to love one as you love yourself!”, exclaimed the Rabbi. Because our nation is enduring a time of hardship, it is critical for the community gather to help campaign for social justice in cases like DACA. Sermons like this are given to animate the congregation to help others in need. To continue, a ritual that occurs at the beginning of every month is one that blesses those celebrating a birthday or anniversary. All those participating that month would stand under a talit, a shelter of blessing, and dance under it as a prayer is said. To end the service, the Rabbi offers benediction to all and everyone gathers at the center of the sanctuary to sing Kiddush. With a circle of bodies together hand in hand, the Shabbat service concludes. As previously mentioned, on the last Shabbat service that was attended, the Festival of Sukkot was taking place. It is a week-long event that rejoices and gives thanks to God for protecting the Israelites during their migration out of Egypt. A “sukkah” is a temporary structure that God gave to his people in the desert during their long trek (Rubenstein). Leviticus 23: 42,43 explains “You are to live in sukkot for seven days; every citizen of Isra’el is to live in a sukkah, so that generation after generation of you will know that I made the people of Isra’el live in sukkot when I brought them out of the land of Egypt; I am ADONAI your God.'” The Israelites continued to do this for 40 years until they reach the promised land “Canaan”. The Jewish community continues to follow this ritual that was command by commemorating from 15-21 Tishrei. Ry recreating the structure God protected his people with. It is also their version of Thanksgiving. The sukkah is built outside their homes under the stars and is decorated with hanging fruit and ornaments. Because Sukkot landed on a Shabbat service a special prayer and song for the occasion was recited. 5 days before Sukkot, the absolute holiest holiday Yom Kippur occurs. It is the Day of Atonement on 10 Tishrei when Jews purify their soul for the wrongdoings they have committed. 8 days before Yom Kippur, the Jewish New Year called Rosh Hashanah takes place. On the last day of Sukkot, 21 Tishrei, an even bigger festival that finalizes the new year’s destiny is called Hoshana Rabbah floods every city as the Jewish community opens the Ark that holds the scrolls of the Torah to be taken out and danced and chanted with (Hopfe, Woodward 267-269).
The ideology on the body being an envision of holiness is a common theme in world religions. From ancient to modern times, the association on the body being something sacred has not changed. Risqué fashion choices tend draw all eyes on the model. For this reason, dressing in a way that does not arouse desire and attention towards the anatomy of the body is key in Jewish cultures and more. When inside the sanctuary, it came to my attention that the clothing the congregation wore was nothing out of the ordinary. Following the Jewish customs, everyone was dressed in a semi-formal modest attire. Women would wear skirts or pants. Men would wear button-down or collared shirts. No one would outshine the other in anyway by wearing extravagant clothing or colors. One would believe that they are following the traditional clothing code, however, they were not. By Orthodox Judaism dress standards, 21st century clothing styles are a controversial topic because it is seen to follow the belief of Deuteronomy 22:5: “A man’s item shall not be on a woman, and a man shall not wear a woman’s garment…whoever does such a thing is an abhorrence unto Adonai (God)” (Tilsen). If a man or woman was seen wearing the other gender’s attire, one would believe under false pretenses that they were pursuing homosexuality (Marion 297-307). However, Reform Judaism has universalized traditional values and has given followers more freedom to the standard. “Unisex” apparel was more evident in Jewish culture when they integrated with American society. Cross-dressing is not a symbol of immorality, it is a symbol of identity. This idea was popular in American culture and was quickly adopted by those of Jewish faith. Clothing allows a person to express a piece of who they are to the world, which is why it is not condemn by the Reform synagogues. In the Reform synagogue that was attended, men and women have the option to wear the “yarmulke” (head cover) and “tallit gadol” (prayer shawl), special items worn to honor God, for the Shabbat service. The gender roles that apply to Orthodox and Conservatives synagogues do not apply in the Reform as both gender was treated equally when it came to what they wear. The cantor, who is a woman, and rabbi both wore the yarmulke and tallit gadol for the service. It was heart-warming to see that no sex is superior to the to the other. Apart from clothing, during the Shabbat service, the cantor and the rabbi both share the stage. They both sing and recite prayers together or one at a time. But one never captures the entire spotlight. When the cantor was to sing or speak a specific prayer, the Rabbi would sit down and listen to her beautiful voice. When it was time for the Rabbi to give his sermon, the cantor would sit down and listen to his wisdom. There was an even number of men and women in the synagogue in general. The entire sanctuary was symmetrical in every aspect. Everyone shared the same role. If the congregation wanted to sing or speak a prayer along with the ones leading the service, it was allowed. In all my years, I have never observed such balance in a vicinity. The word favoritism was unknown, unheard of in this house of worship.
The people that were come across were ones that had zeal, joy, and positive attitudes in their souls. Every congregation member was excited to meet the new visitor that had entered their home. They constantly asked questions about myself and were genuinely interested in knowing the person I was and vice versa. They had welcomed an outsider into their family with open arms. Many told me stories about their backgrounds, asked me to join the weekly Hebrew classes that would take place in a couple of weeks, and invited to their first ever Jewish movie night. My heart fell every time a goodbye Shalom was exchanged to such amiable human beings. Individuals who were full of life and happiness. Stepping out of my lifestyle and entering someone else’s was an unforgettable experience that will remain in my heart till the end of my days.
Greene, Dana M., and James R. Peacock. “Judaism, Jewishness, and the universal symbols of identity: re-sacralizing the Star of David and the color yellow.” Studies in American Jewish Literature, vol. 30, 2011, p. 80+. Religion and Philosophy Collection.
Tilsen, Jon-Jay. “Cross Dressing and Deuteronomy 22:5” BEKI, Congregation Beth El-Keser Israel.
Marion, Jonathan S. The Routeledge Handbook of Contemporary Jewish Cultures. London, 2015 Print.
Rubenstein, Jeffrey L. “The symbolism of the sukkah.” Judaism: A Quarterly Journal of Jewish Life and Thought, vol. 43, no. 4, 1994, p. 371+. Religion and Philosophy Collection.
Needel, Yale M. “Rethinking ‘Sephardic’: Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur observances among the Jews of Bombay.” Shofar, vol. 26, no. 2, 2008, p. 59+. Religion and Philosophy Collection.
Carmona, Sergio. “Community Sees Population Gain.” Jewish Journal, Sun Sentinel.
Brown, Alexis. Personal Interview. 6 October 2017.