Sinagoga di Siena: Who knew?

This weekend, I ventured to Italy for the first time!  Since I was staying in Florence, my older sister told me I had to take the bus to Siena for one of the days.  Just as a side note, she studied abroad in Siena two summers ago and was so unbelievably excited for me to visit a place so special to her.  So, I packed my travel backpack with the maps and a paper with a few vocabulary words in Italian that she told me about and I headed for the bus station.  Since being in Siena was a whole new experience for me, I stuck to my maps and made sure I always knew where I was in relation to the bus station.

Siena, Italy

Having an older sibling can be wonderful, especially since they tend to have certain experiences before their younger siblings do.  On one hand, this is great because my sister mapped out exactly what she thought was important for me to see in Siena, but on the other hand, she expected me to do just what she did in Siena.  For example, I was so happy to see Piazza Il Campo, the Duomo, and the flags from the nine neighborhoods in Siena.  However, my sister also wanted me to walk down a small street by Piazza Il Campo and find the hostel she lived in two summers ago.  Well, just like my sister advised, I followed her directions down that little, old, cobblestone street to find her hostel.  Even though I must have walked past it ten times as I went up and down and around and around that street, I never did find the hostel.  But, I feel just as accomplished because I saw a little sign that said “Sinagoga Ebraica.”  I know this is a long introduction, but I had to set the stage for you!  And besides the long introduction about traveling, this is where my blog really begins.

Sinagoga di Siena Building

Since I had about an hour left before I needed to be back to the bus station to spend the night in Florence, I walked down the street to the Jewish synagogue and knocked on the suspected apartment-looking doors.  A modestly dressed woman opened the doors and after I told her that I was touring Siena, she let me in.  Although I learned a lot, and unlike many cathedrals and churches I have seen in Europe so far, this woman made me pay three euros for a tour.  Well, I am so glad that I had this experience because she taught me a lot!

First, this woman told me the outside of the building looks like any other apartment on the streets of Siena because it was built in 1756, well before the Jewish Emancipation of the mid-19th century.  For this reason, a Jewish synagogue would not have been widely accepted in such an area and it was important for the temple to blend in with the surroundings at the time.  However, the inside of this temple resembled most of the traditional Jewish synagogues I am familiar with.

After the informal tour, I asked the woman many questions to get a better sense of Jewish life in Siena, and Italy as well.  She told me that the Sinagoga Ebraica is an orthodox synagogue, the most strict and traditional sect of Judaism.  She continued to explain how the female congregants must sit separately from the male congregants and the male congregants are required to wear yarmulkes (the head coverings).

Interestingly enough, after telling her I am a reform Jew and do not follow the orthodox traditions, she proceeded to tell me how progressive her synagogue has become.  For example, the women there are allowed to have Bat Mitzvahs, but may only read from the Torah during their individual ceremonies.  On the contrary, and as practiced in reform Judaism, men always have Bar Mitzvahs and may read from the Torah anytime after.  My tour guide also mentioned how the female congregants get to sit on the same level as the male congregants, just on the other side of the synagogue rather than sitting upstairs where it is more traditional.  Also, the women must cover their knees and shoulders, but they may wear pants instead of traditional skirts or dresses.  I really liked hearing about these orthodox practices and comparing them to the more informal guidelines of my reform sect of Judaism.  As a brief reference, I do not keep a kosher diet, I can read from the Torah when I please, I can sit anywhere and next to anyone in my temple, I can use electricity on Shabbat (the Sabbath day), and much more.

In contrast to my synagogue and many others I have been to, this temple only has fifty congregants.  In addition, the Sinagoga di Siena is the only Jewish temple in Siena.  I could probably recall at least 100 congregants from my temple, which is much greater in size than the Sinagoga di Siena, and I can name at least three temples within a few miles from my house.  Although it is a small town, Siena, as well as most of Italy, is primarily inhabited with Christian people, so this fact was not too surprising to hear.  What was surprising to me was that Florence, like Siena, only has one synagogue as well.  My tour guide also mentioned that there are about five temples in larger cities such as Rome, but Italy is primarily populated with Christians.

As a Jewish person, and being on an adventure to a city far away from home, I feel extremely successful for the sites I stumbled upon and the history I learned about.  Since I was raised in an area with much religious diversity, being in less diverse destinations like Siena and Florence was quite an interesting and different experience.  I think this past weekend’s trips in and out of the Duomo in Siena, Brunelleschi’s Duomo and cathedral in Florence, and many other churches and these two synagogues gave me a much greater view of Italy’s religious breakdown.

Brick Lane: A Bangladeshi Community

Belonging to a community can be wonderful thing!  After walking through Brick Lane on the East End of London, I was able to observe various things from the Bangladeshi community that unifies them.  According to News and Analysis on Islam in Europe and North America from Euro-Islam.info, compared to other major European cities, London has one of the greatest Muslim populations.  Following Christianity, Islam is the next largest religion in this worldly city.  In addition, on a smaller scale, “nearly 40% of Muslims in England and Wales live in London” and most of London’s Muslim population and their mosques are on East End of this culturally diverse city. (http://www.euro-islam.info/country-profiles/city-profiles/london/).  Clearly, there is a strong presence of people who practice the Islamic faith in London and their community is evident and observable on Brick Lane.

As stated in BBC online, many Bangladeshi Muslims immigrated to London in the 1950s, 1960s, and 1970s.  Creating a pattern of people working for low incomes at unskilled jobs, this Bangladeshi community began to grow and open small restaurants.  This industrial trend has spread greatly and is represented on today’s Brick Lane (http://www.bbc.co.uk/london/content/articles/2005/05/27/bangladeshi_london_feature.shtml).  Mirroring the previous information, I observed many restaurants, shops, banks, and art owned by Bangladeshi Muslims.  It represents this population’s religious practices well.

Bangladeshi Food

Bangladeshi Desserts

International (Bangladeshi) Supermarket

Halal Food

The Islamic existence on Brick Lane is quite evident in their abundance of restaurants, cafes, and supermarkets.  One aspect of the Islamic diet is to only eat food that is pronounced Halal, meaning legal or lawful under the Islamic law (the Guardian) (http://www.guardian.co.uk/theguardian/2010/sep/20/halal-meat-the-truth).  Numerous restaurants and cafes in this area have signs notifying their food is certified as Halal.  I think this is important on Brick Lane because it gives the Bangladeshi people an easier experience in following their faith while dining or shopping in this location.  As a community that provides multiple food options that follow the Muslim dietary restrictions, the Bangladeshi people are working together to follow their religious practices.  The food sold here is one example of how the Islamic religion brings people together.

Ramadan Sign

Another example I noticed on Brick Lane was a sign posted outside of a mosque.  This notice brings the Bangladeshi community together by reminding them that Ramadan, a month including fasting and giving to charity, is coming soon and of their charity-giving duties during this time as faithful Muslims.  Many people will likely see this reminder as they pass by this mosque and are prompted to prepare for this religious responsibility.

I really enjoyed seeing the supermarkets, street signs, and people in this area as well.  The supermarkets, and other locations selling food, were full of food I was unfamiliar with.  For example, the fish, fruit, and desserts stood out to me.  From growing up in a relatively traditional Jewish home and community, I am accustomed to learning about Jewish and Israeli food, Israeli currency, and the Hebrew language.  My own experiences of familiarity with unusual or exotic items broadened my own knowledge of certain items I would most commonly observe and allowed me to appreciate the unfamiliar sites I witnessed on Brick Lane.  Furthermore, although I cannot read Arabic, I love that the street signs were printed in English and Bengali to show acceptance and integration of English and Bangladeshi nationalities (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Brick_Lane).  On a similar note, most of the people I walked by in the stores and on the sidewalks most likely were Bangladeshi Muslims because of their large population there.  Although there was a diverse range of socio-economic classes and ethnicities, I am sure many people I passed are worshippers of the Islamic religion.  I thought it was awesome to observe the community aspect and so many things that are new to me in this faith.

Looking Down Brick Lane

The existence of these foreign foods, the Arabic language, and Bangladeshi people tie this group of people together.  I am fond of the strong culture that exists in the London Burough of Tower Hamlets on the East End of London.  The Bangladeshi community is represented well on Brick Lane and my experience of observing this area helped me notice things valued and followed in the Islamic culture.  I am so glad I took advantage of the opportunity to view this large community in London!  Even though I am not Muslim, I appreciate Muslims’ devotion and concentration of the Bangladeshi culture on Brick Lane.  Using the Bangladeshi community on Brick Lane as an example, I believe it is important for everyone’s mental wellbeing to have a sense of belonging in some sort of community!

The History Behind Bath Abbey

Bath Abbey from the Outside

Just last week, I was given the opportunity to take a field trip and spend the day in the old Roman city of Bath.  This small city was quaint, beautiful, and well preserved.  The people who work in Bath’s historical sites seem to care for and preserve this old city’s buildings and rituals as well as they can.  After touring through Bath Abbey and the Roman Bath House, I was able to see multiple buildings the Romans built up to two thousand years ago; one in particular that is centralized around religion and caught my eye.

A central attraction that I viewed in this old city is Bath Abbey.  Bath Abbey is a Catholic Church that has many distinct qualities unique to Catholicism.  Many of these aspects were intriguing for me to notice because they are quite different from Judaism, the religion I identify with.  Bath Abbey is a Roman Catholic Church that currently stands, however it is the third church built in this location since 757 AD.    Before Bath Abbey, an Anglo-Saxon Abbey Church was first constructed followed by a Norman cathedral. The Bath Abbey has occupied this religious space in Bath ever since.  As part of a city that was created by the Romans, this Catholic Church has been standing since 1499 and has been occupied since 1616.  As a place of worship for people who practice Catholicism, this Abbey has numerous differences and some similarities to other religious buildings I am familiar with.

Peninsula Temple Sholom from the Inside

The main similarity I found between Bath Abbey and my temple, Peninsula Temple Sholom, that was built in the 1950s, was the lighting and the indoor atmosphere.  I was pleased and surprised to see how well lit Bath Abbey was in comparison to the other churches and cathedrals I have observed in England., In comparison to St. Martin in the Fields and Peninsula Temple Sholom, but in contrast to the West London Synagogue, Bath Abbey was illuminated with windows and relatively bright.  With the use of light-colored stone and wood, large open windows, high ceilings, and chandeliers, Bath Abbey appeared brighter and livelier.  On the other spectrum, the West London Synagogue represented more Byzantine architecture, built with smaller windows, dark stained glass, and dark, bold colors.  The Byzantine architecture and designs made the West London Synagogue seem dark and unwelcoming.  I would prefer to gather, learn, and practice my religion at a venue full of light and open space like Bath Abbey or my own Peninsula Temple Sholom.  The light atmosphere of Bath Abbey was welcoming and made me feel comfortable to occupy and observe.

Tombstone inside Bath Abbey

A difference between Bath Abbey and Peninsula Temple Sholom that struck me immediately was the presence of a buried man.  As a Jew, I am unfamiliar with the Catholic custom of burying people anywhere besides underground or being cremated, so seeing a tombstone next to an aisle in Bath Abbey was a new experience for me.  Another thing I noticed in the Christian religion by visiting Westminster Abbey was that this is an act of respect. However, Jewish people do not bury people in Jewish synagogues, rather Jews are buried underground in cemeteries.  I think this difference in ways of caring for the deceased is interesting and I admire both religions’ respect for those who have passed in their desired ways.

Bath Abbey Bell

Bath Abbey Clock

Another difference is the bell tower and clock.  My temple, and other Jewish temples, do not have bells to ring for telling time or clocks for the community to view.  Although I love my Jewish traditions, I find it absolutely wonderful that the people of Bath preserve the bells and clock in Bath Abbey.  I love how they take pride in their past by providing full tours of the Abbey and allow visitors to hike up their 212 steps to observe the original bells and clock.  Being so high up and getting to view these historical objects is interesting.  The darkness of the rooms, old smell of the ropes, and replaced windows surrounding the clock were fantastic artifacts to see. This experience gave me a greater understanding of what it would have been like to be the bell ringer or person who would fix the clock some two thousand years ago.

Learning about Bath Abbey, a Catholic Church of Victorian Gothic architecture, was very different from any other religious experience I have had.  As a main attraction built hundreds of years before my temple was built, Bath Abbey holds a special history that differs from the recent history of my synagogue, Peninsula Temple Sholom.  Neither building is less spectacular or less important than the other based on the differences I noticed.  However, by learning about and observing numerous sites of various religions, I am broadening my knowledge of religious differences throughout the world.  Reform Judaism and Catholicism are quite dissimilar, but the qualities that make these two faiths unique are intriguing and remarkable.  Bath Abbey is a place of worship that holds multiple historical treasures and is preserved by people who truly care about its history.  I thoroughly enjoyed my tour through Bath and its Abbey as well as the Roman Bath House and old streets.

Potential Benefits of Religious Tourism

Religious tourism is the traveling of an individual or a group of individuals of a specific religion or faith to a location that holds religious impact.  This is common in many religions around the world, especially Christianity, Islam, and Judaism.  There are many potential benefits of religious tourism, however they tend to be greater for the tourists rather than the locals.  In general, benefits include observing and learning about the intended religion, people in their group of travelers and from the tourist area, culture, food, lifestyle and customs, and buildings or the environment.  There is so much to learn when one goes on a religious tourism adventure that it is close to impossible for someone to be a religious tourist and not take anything away from such an experience.

An obvious benefit of religious tourism, observing and learning about the intended religion, is something people tend to focus on.  Whether a Muslim person is going on the Hajj or pilgrimage to Mecca, Saudi Arabia, a Christian missionary is going to work or provide service to others in a form such as education, or a Jewish person is traveling to the Western Wall in Jerusalem, Israel, each tourist will gain more knowledge about his or her religion and hopefully grasp a better understanding of what it personally means to practice their faith or religion.  In my opinion, it is much more satisfying to practice a religion that I truly understand and have learned to value rather than observe it as an outsider who was brought into it through family norms.  Being a religious tourist leads to greater passion and belonging into a religion.

Another benefit is learning about the people one is on this adventure with and locals from the desired destination.  Being surrounded by others provides for the opportunity to observe their culture, clothes, food, and religious differences.  One can learn about how others in their religion dress in respect to their religion, eat and drink in regards to how strict they may be about religious dietary restrictions, and the culture in general.  By being immersed into another culture, outsiders are forced to catch on and follow the culture they are presented with.

Similarly, lifestyles and customs are observed as well.  Religious tourists learn the lifestyles of the people around them and start to understand exactly what those people value, whether it is family, making money, or providing knowledge to others of their religion or faith.  Also, foreign customs are learned.  Visitors realize mannerisms of restaurant waiters, taxi drivers, and others working with the public.  The customs practiced within a culture can be quite obvious and often throw tourists off guard.  Along with people’s customs, tourists learn about the buildings and environments in these religiously sacred locations.  They may learn that transportation does not run on the Sabbath day or that the buildings are only tended to when necessary to keep the original design intact.  Also, tourists can realize that people value “going green” and make an effort to reduce their carbon footprints and not let trash collect around religious sites.  There are so many observations to be made that can enrich religious tourists, not only regarding religious benefits.

On another note, the locals are constantly given the opportunity to observe the tourists.  They can notice the tourists’ different clothing styles, eating habits, and how religious they are.  Clearly, the benefits of religious tourism can teach the locals and the travelers.

The influences of religious tourism are present in London as well.  The people from London are effected by the religious tourists from the crowded public transportation, restaurants, parks, and other public places.  Although a negative aspect, the locals who are practicing their religions by praying in churches, for example, are probably disturbed by religious tourists who are walking through churches to observe these sites.  However, they do get the opportunity to see how respectful outsides might be.  Religion is displayed as such a prominent aspect of history throughout Europe that many popular places for informal and formal religious tourism is on this continent.  There are many benefits of religious tourism because people have the opportunity to learn so much about their own and other cultures, lifestyles, and religions.

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Introduction

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Hi!  My name is Stephanie and I am a fourth year Liberal Studies major (studying to get my multiple subject teaching credential) and Child Development minor.  I am Jewish and belong to the same temple I have belonged to for my whole life, where I had my Hebrew Baby Naming, Bat Mitzvah, and Confirmation.  I went to Preschool and Religious School there as well.  Although I do not consider myself very religious, I do have background knowledge of my faith and just completed my first year as a Sunday School teacher for second and third graders.  I enjoy celebrating the High Holidays and other common holidays with my family and friends.  Also, my family sent me on an organized one-month trip to Israel with other Jews when I was a teenager.  I do not go to temple services more than once a month.

 

Although I have been Brazil, Mexico, Canada, Israel, and the Caribbean, I have never been to London, let alone Europe.  I am so excited to be studying, traveling, site-seeing, and observing the culture in this beautiful city.  After being here for just a few days, I am already in love with the art, architecture, history, and everything else in London and I am going to make the most out of my experience here!

 

I am most excited to learn about and visit the touristy venues with the other students on this trip and traveling to a few countries in Europe for the first time without my family.  I am very fortunate to have this experience and my main goals are to create lifelong memories and make new friends!