Getting familiar with other religions is an exciting experience which helps to understand other cultures and nations better. It is generally recognized that different religions are varying not only in traditions but also in the way a religious service is conducted. For this field trip report, I have visited Temple Israel of Greater Miami. I am Catholic; therefore, I have decided to get insight into Judaism and the religious services and customs of Jews.
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Temple Israel of Greater Miami is a reform congregation located in Downtown Miami. Modern Reform Judaism is considered to be one of the branches in Judaism. It was formed in the period of Enlightenment in the eighteen century, and its beginning is often associated with the name of Moses Mendelssohn, the philosopher whose success inspired those who wanted civil and cultural equality (Plaut, 2015, p. 15). Therefore, this synagogue utilizes many progressive approaches to learning and spirituality. It is considered to be the first reform synagogue in Miami with plenty historical events held within its walls. Many interesting programs are taking place there, attracting all generations of Jews.
The synagogue is considered to be a place for Jews to come together for prayer services. But it is also a house of study where people can read the sacred texts in a special library available only for the members of the community. The children receive their basic religious knowledge in the synagogue as well. Many synagogues practice religious and non-religious activities. For example, Temple Israel of Greater Miami is a home for a musical festival. They also promote charity collecting money for the poor members of the community. It is generally agreed that Catholic churches also have such kind of activities, serving as a place for spiritual music events, educating youth and conducting charity events.
Temple Israel of Greater Miami is famous for its modern architecture, and the newly-built part looks uncommon and creative. All the windows are glazed with stained-glass of various colors, which creates special lighting inside the synagogue at daytime. When you come into the sanctuary where the services are performed, you cannot help feeling awe and interest. Its interior has a slight resemblance to the one of a Catholic church. The ceiling is high and arched; the atmosphere is spiritual and solemn. Still, there are no religious paintings on the ceiling and the walls; the other decorations are also restrained and limited to a minimum. It is stated, that the sanctuary should be directed towards Jerusalem so that one face it while saying the prayers. There are two rows of seats in front of a stage with the Ark where the Torah scrolls are kept behind the closed gates and with two pedestals for the Rabbi and the Cantor to conduct the service. There are also two coaches placed by the sides of the Ark on stage.
I attended the synagogue on a Friday evening and witnessed Friday Shabbat Service. It is stated that “the Friday evening Shabbat ritual held by observant Jews is among the most ancient continuing weekly religious practices/rituals involving families” (Marks, Hatch, & Dollahite, 2017, p. 2). Thus, there were a lot of families including all generations who seemed to know each other and kept greeting those who joined them. Everyone was dressed formally and modestly; many men wore head coverings. The Rabbi and the Cantor had no any special dress except for the scarf. Everyone was provided with a prayer book containing religious prayers both in Hebrew and English, which was very convenient for some guests like me.
The Rabbi started the service with greeting the community and the guests who were encouraged to join the others in prayers. Then the piano music started and the Cantor began to sing in soprano voice some prayers from the book. Two symbolic candles were lit by a member of the community at the stand near the stage. In general, the service contained a lot of music and singing alternating with the instructions towards the pages to read. At one moment, the Rabbi suggested praying a few minutes silently. The prayers expressed appreciation of God through his creations, gratitude for everything that is given to people from above, and for the Shabbat day, stressing its importance as the day of rest and prayers for Jewish families. It is emphasized that “in Jewish tradition, notice and appreciation of excellence and beauty are vital and sacred duties” (Schnall, Schiffman, & Cherniak, 2014, p. 24). The Shabbat prayers did not include any requests because one cannot ask God for something this day by Jewish traditions. There was not any reading from Torah, which was a bit disappointing.
The atmosphere of the service was solemn but mostly informal and joyful. Some members of the community danced to the music for a while, and everybody clapped their hands. In the middle of the service the children were invited to join the Rabbi on stage, and then they sat on the steps together with him listening to the prayers. It had struck me because it looked very different from the practices during the religious services at the Catholic Church.
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In general, visiting synagogue was a positive experience which helped me to learn more about Jewish religion and traditions. I tried to behave as a humble guest, and I did try to read the prayer book to get familiar with the prayers. I was sitting in the empty back raw and had no chance to talk to someone from the Jewish community, though I was greeted with “Shabbat Shalom.” Still, the Rabbi was very welcome to everyone.
Marks, L. D., Hatch, T. G., & Dollahite, D. C. (2017). Sacred practices and family processes in a Jewish context: Shabbat as the weekly family ritual par excellence. Family Process. 3(1), 1-14.
Plaut, W. G. (2015). The rise of Reform Judaism: a sourcebook of its European origins. Lincoln, NE: University of Nebraska Press.
Schnall, E., Schiffman, M., & Cherniak, A. (2014). Virtues that transcend: Positive psychology in Jewish texts and tradition. In Religion and spirituality across cultures, 9(1), 21-45