Westminster Abbey. Holy Trinity Brompton Church. Saint Paul’s Cathedral.
All three of these places of worship that I have visited so far in the program stand out amongst the buildings in London.
Adventuring the small side streets of the city, I didn’t quite expect the West London Synagogue of British Jews to reside in the crooks and crannies of the urban sprawl. Then again, I didn’t really know what to expect at all since the little information I knew about Judaism was from my religious studies lecture the day before and from what I could recall from the movie Fiddler on the Roof. My prior knowledge doesn’t even compare to what I gained during my experience at the synagogue.
I thought that the building blended in with its surroundings. It was completely unlike the bold, definitive exterior of St. Paul’s Cathedral and Westminster Abbey. Families continuously brushed past us, coming and going as they pleased. I thought it was neat that this building, which resembles a hole in the wall from any outsider, is so welcoming and popular for its worshippers. It almost felt like a secret sanctuary that only people who knew what they were looking for could find it.
I soon realized it wasn’t simply a secret sanctuary, but more so a secret treasure. Once we entered the synagogue, the building seemed to unravel with each room we went through. The head teacher, who was our guide for the day, took us through the layers of the synagogue. There were venues for events, parties, lessons, and a large sanctuary for prayer. This atmosphere definitely contrasted the large, open halls that we observed when we first entered St. Paul’s Cathedral, Westminster Abbey, and the Holy Trinity Brompton Church.
There were many traits of the synagogue that differed from the churches. The aspects that I personally connected to the most rested above me.
First, our guide pointed out the Eternal Flame that hung above her. The Eternal Flame is a feature of many synagogues that is hung above the ark of Torahs. In an article by Rabbi Adam Zeff in The Jewish Exponent, he explains that, like any symbol, it withholds a unique meaning to each Jewish individual. It is originally known to be the flame that had to be kept burning on the sacrificial altar in the ancient sanctuary. However, to other Jews it can also represent “the persistence of God’s sheltering presence” or “the protection and inspiration of the Divine that is with us” during troubling times. While contemporary temples now keep their Eternal Flames alight by electric candles, I thought this physical symbol was unlike anything else I’ve seen yet in a church. I think it’s comforting to always have that familiar warmth of a flicking light hovering above you in a place of worship.
The second significant trait that stood out to me was the three Stars of David positioned at the highest point in the sanctuary ceiling. The Star of David is a six apex star which became the accepted Jewish symbol many centuries ago. While most affiliate it with Judaism, the Jewish Star also holds meaning for other cultures and peoples. It shines for us all and is thought of as “an earthly symbol of God’s heavenly stars”. The stained glass version at the West London Synagogue gave the three stars a colorful, illuminated look. They also hold an importance for celebration of holidays. Only until three stars dot the sky can any holiday of the Jewish calendar commence. Our guide informed us that the three star design was a unique trait to the West London Synagogue. It was very unlike the Holy Trinity Brompton church that had looming, dark paintings on the ceilings. The tall ceilings and dark figures in this church made me feel small and intimidated. On the other hand, the Stars of David bring your eyes upward towards the heavens and seem to shine in the brightly lit synagogue.
Recollecting on my time at the West London Synagogue, I feel that there was a certain theme prevalent throughout the tour:
Encouragement of questions.
Not simply in the way that you would ask the tour guide a question about history of the building, but rather to question the ways of one’s faith. Questioning what is stated in the Torah or how something in the Jewish religion works is greatly encouraged. This is something that I found very unique to Judaism.
I asked my Jewish friend, Stephanie, about this and she confirmed that, “questioning and wondering about religious prompts is highly valued in Judaism.”
Having open discussions about the Torah, like at events such as Torah on Tap, has allowed different interpretations to be accepted. I admire that they create an open learning environment not only for Jews to understand their own sacred stories, but for outsiders to comprehend as well. I feel like the best way to better understand one’s self and one’s traditions is by asking questions about it.
Exploring the West London Synagogue was like finding buried treasure. The little things about the synagogue were the aspects that stuck in my mind and helped me gain a better understanding of the Jewish culture and tradition.
The Jewish tradition of encouraging exploration and questioning is an intriguing and enlightening way to find the buried treasures within life.