West London Synagogue- An Outsider’s Brief View into the Jewish community

 

 

 

I never thought I’d find myself walking through a Jewish temple, sitting in their seats, listening to personal experiences of an attending Jew, and attempting to read their holy Torah. There we were absorbing Jewish life in London and spending time in one of their places of worship. I felt a little out of place and almost disruptive as we walked through their holy grounds, which goes back to the religious tourism aspect of traveling.

Last week our class visited the West London Synagogue and experienced their sanctuary, walking through their facilities. I was very intrigued by the trip- getting a chance to gain an inside perspective, especially since I’ve never had any type of exposure to Jewish culture and practices. Besides what we learned in class lecture, everything I absorbed was news to me.

I understand that there is a full range of versions and interpretations of Judasim and the ways a temple chooses to practice, just as there are in other religions. I learned that Jews can identify anywhere from Orthodox/Conservative all the way to Liberal/Reform, just as Christians in my faith communities can identify anywhere from Catholic or Conservative all the way to Pentecostal/Evangelical. For this temple specifically, it was eye-opening to see and hear their own ways of practicing their faith on a regular basis. West London Synagogue is a Reform Jewish congregation and their facility was founded in 1840, making it the oldest Reform synagogue. It is one of the oldest among the 409 synagogues in the UK. Some highlights from my observations of this experience include:

• Hebrew readings and writings

• head coverings

• the uses of the Torah

• symbolism on their walls and ceilings

Anne, our “guide” for the morning, explained how if you were to chisel on stone with your right hand, it would be awkward to go left-to-right (how we are used to reading), and that carving/chipping right-to-left (how their books and documents are written out) would’ve been much easier. Once realizing this, we see why their Torah and Hebrew texts are written and documented this way. This temple still maintains the tradition of head coverings in their sanctuary even when a service is not going on- so the males were asked to wear a kippah for our time inside. I was surprised to learn that no one may ever touch the original Torah copies, which are kept in scrolls with protection and adornments, up at the back of the stage. Lastly, different symbols painted and carved onto the temple walls and ceilings almost all had complex meanings or symbolized something. Anne pointed out the three stars of David (layered over one another) and explained how Jewish festivals and events start the night before the day of the event, after the first three night stars are out in the sky.

These are only a few of the things I saw and learned at the West London Synagogue but they were very interesting for me to experience. I see this class’ quick view into the Jewish culture as a snippet of what there is to learn from this community.

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African Jews

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Member of an African Synagogue

Growing up in a predominately white Jewish community I often had friends ask me if there were ‘black’ Jews and my response was always Yes, just not many here in Danville, CA. There were a small handful of African families that attended the temple in my hometown as well as a local synagogue in San Luis Obispo where I worked. Yet, people in the United States do not always associate Africans with practicing Judaism, however, African Jews do exist and there are communities all over Africa that practice traditional Jewish customs.

Jewish communities in Africa date back more than 2700 years. They are some of the oldest Jewish communities in the world. African Jewish communities also have ethnic and religious diversity which contributes to the richness of the groups.

Some African groups have not maintained contact with the global Jewish community but rather descent from ancient Israel. The Beta Israel of Ethiopia is recognized as historically Jewish. Not all African Jews practice traditional Jewish customs but many of their practices are similar to Orthodox Jewish customs. The Jewish population in South Africa is run by many organizations. The United Communal Fund-Israel United Appear is a major fundraising body for the group. The Union of Orthodox Synagogues maintains the orthodox community and there are Reform and Zionist organizations involved as well. A Jewish educational system is in place and over 80 percent of Jewish children are enrolled in the Jewish day school. The Jewish day schools provide a similar structure as the Jewish day schools in the states.

African Jewish communities look different than the Jewish communities within Europe and North America. They use different languages, different music, and enjoy different traditional foods. However, Jewish communities all over the world share many of the traditional Jewish religious practices. The pray service itself is very similar, the language of prayer is similar, and the traditional clothing attire is the same as well (head covers, prayer shawls) in synagogues all over the world.

I have only been in London for one week yet have already been impressed by not only the size of the Jewish population but also the diversity. As I was leaving the airport I saw one family on the tube wearing traditional Hassid Jewish attire. The father was wearing a tallit and his tzit tzit were showing, all the boys were wearing kippot and the mother had her shoulders and knees covered. The 2001 UK Census 9% of the South African population in London is Jewish, only 2% of total Londoners associate with the Jewish faith. It was refreshing to see this diversity; the world is such a diverse place and it is easy for people to forget that, to become trapped in their own little world, afraid to venture out and experience how other ethnic groups and religions experience life.

After researching African Jews I came across the following article on The Jewish Federations of North America. The article written by Donna Halper discusses the complexity of being black and Jewish. There is so much bigotry involved. People are intolerant and ignorant towards African Jews. Being in one minority group can be challenging, let alone two.

I can relate to being a part of two minority groups; being a Jewish female. Although society has come a long way, females still face forms of discrimination. Between athletics and job opportunities, boys are still thought of to be better than girls.

Hopefully with more time and education, individuals will stop being afraid of people who are different.

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