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.