by Susan Neiburg Terkel
a member of Temple Beth Shalom, Hudson, Ohio
This winter our temple decided to open its doors to anyone in a small Midwestern town who wanted to learn about a Jewish worship service. We are the only Jewish organization for miles around; our own members come from our town and from many little towns nearby. What is interesting about our congregation is that it is liberal -- a member of the Union for Reform Judaism (URJ) -- and that the majority of our members -- at least three-quarters -- are in interfaith marriages and relationships, and many of the Jewish partners have been raised in interfaith homes. That means that not only was this service going to be educational for the Christians and others who came -- it would probably be interesting for many of the people in our own congregation!
We invited people to come to one of our Friday night worship services, which would begin at 7:45 p.m. and be held in the sanctuary of our temple, which is in the historic (1880s) church the temple purchased a few years ago. Even before the sale was finalized, the church allowed us to hold our High Holy Day services there. The church has beautiful stained glass windows on either side of the sanctuary, Just before the building transferred, a member of the church replaced the Christian crosses with a Jewish star and a menorah, a gesture of welcoming that I remember every single time I worship in the sanctuary, mainly because it reminds me that we got off to an ecumenical start there! Other holiday services may have seemed a more likely choice for inviting nonJews to workship with us, but the Temple chose Friday night Shabbat worship for two reasons. First, in Judaism Shabbat is the most important holiday -- more important than Hanukkah, more important than Rosh Hashanah, and yes, even more important than Yom Kippur, our Day of Atonement. The other reason was practical -- we knew we would have room for guests on a Friday night because even though attendance at our temple is impressive for being so small and so liberal -- we get 40 to 60 people for services regularly (despite that our congregation is only about 110 members and/or families). We invited people to come to the service by contacting the individual churches in town and by putting a notice in our town newspaper, which comes out twice a week.
Although Torah is traditionally read four times a week -- and especially on Saturday morning Shabbat worship -- because our rabbi is part-time and our temple only meets twice a month on Friday nights (unless there is a Saturday morning Bar or Bat Mitzvah), we choose to read the Torah at our Friday night service. And Torah reading is something we certainly wanted our guests to experience, since it is so unique and since it is a text shared with our neighbors.
That night was exciting, as more and more people began filling the sanctuary -- we had so many guests, in fact, that we had to set up more chairs in the front and in the center aisle. Many of the guests came with a group of people; others came on their own. Congregants sat among the guests, especially if they knew the guests, but being the friendly congregation that we always are anyway, congregants sat with people they didn't know, too, mingling throughout the crowd of people. Thus, before the service ever began, the night felt special -- and as holy as it is meant to be. What is interesting about Jewish Sabbath -- Shabbat -- is that Jews are supposed to make it holy -- it's not as though it's holy automatically. In more traditional families, Friday is the time for cleaning and cooking to get ready for the festive meal and then, after Shabbat begins, a time of no-cooking and no-working but only of celebrating the joy of Shabbat and the peacefulness of Shabbat, as well. And its not only a time to worship but also a time to socialize. Reform (liberal) Jews usually eat dinner before services, which is why our services are start so late at night and after Shabbat. It's also because we're allowed to drive on Shabbat, and indeed, practically all our members live driving distance away!
Rabbi Sheldon Ezring is a superb teacher, so he was eager to teach our guests about Jewish worship and about Shabbat worship services in particular. Rabbi Ezring explained every single aspect of the service, including how it is divided into three parts, its particular liturgy, scriptural reading and message, and why certain prayers are repeated at each service. Our prayer book is relatively easy to follow once you get used to turning the pages backward (compared to English books) and once you get used to reading Hebrew, which, in our modern prayer books, is also written in an English transliteration (so if you can't read Hebrew, you can follow the transliteration). I think the biggest difference between Jewish and Christian worship service is in the music -- we don't have hymns, per se; rather, we have prayers that we sing (and prayers that we read). Jews aren't expected to memorize the prayers in the prayer book, although there is a familiarity about them. That's because reading the prayer keeps you mindful of what the prayer means, even if you are reading it in Hebrew and don't really understand the words (in our modern prayer books, there is always a translation under the Hebrew prayer). The other big difference in our service is that when we do sing, we have no notes to read and instead, follow our cantorial soloist. Many Reform temples have a choir, but ours doesn't. Practically all of them, except the smallest ones, have a cantor, or cantorial soloist who is up on the bima pulpit, with the rabbi. Our cantorial soloist, who, by the way, is a professor in Chemical Physics and a graduate of Harvard (sounding very Jewish motherly now but 90 to 95 percent of all American Jews get a college degree today and nearly half get graduate degrees) plays the guitar, and on holidays, and sometimes for B'nai Mitzvahs, is accompanied by an organist. Robin Selinger sings some of the prayers solo and leads the congregation in singing others together. For some of the tunes she uses ancient, hundreds-of-year-old melodies; for others she uses new, contemporary melodies, and sometimes, new prayers altogether, such as the prayer for the sick which is sung in our Temple just before the Torah reading and after each congregant who is praying for someone to heal mentions the name of that person aloud (or prays for someone without mentioning the name). But I'm getting ahead of myself here.
Rabbi Ezring explained the first part of the service -- the call to worship. Then he explained the part of the service that proceeds the reading of the weekly Torah portion (the same portion Jews all over the world read that week). The Torah, of course, is the ancient, hand-written (with no mistakes at all) scroll of the Five Books of Moses. For the Torah reading, he invited anyone who wanted to see it up close, come up to the bima to look at the Torah portion written out in beautiful script -- all consonants though -- no vowels!
Rabbi Ezring explained the Torah portion before he read it in Hebrew , then he gave a sermon/lesson about it. He concluded the service, first with the usual Mourner's Kaddish, a prayer that is in Hebrew letters but actually in Aramaic. Anyone who is mourning a death or remembering a Yarzheit (which is remembering the death of a loved one that may have occurred many years ago but is remembered each year on the anniversary of his or her death -- on the anniversary as recorded in the Jewish calendar, by the way and not anniversary on the common calendar) stands up to say the Kaddish-- the mourner's prayer. In many Reform temples, the entire congregation stands with them; in others they stand alone so we can see who they are and perhaps give them words of comfort after services.
Speaking of after services, after this one, everyone shared a piece of Challah while Rabbi Ezring recited the blessing over the bread. Then we all had a little wine and recited the blessing over the wine. Then we ate! We all went down to our Social Hall, where a splendid Oneg Shabbat (the celebration/party after a service; in our temple, we tend to stay hours and kibbutz (chat) and mingle and enjoy one another's company and friendship). The family who provided the food were actually relatively new members but clearly were familiar with Jewish celebration -- because the food that night was quite special, in honor of our special guests. There were dozens and dozens of delightfully decorated cupcakes and of course, soda and coffee, and lots of Jewish pastries and other food to eat.The Social Hall was as full of people as the sanctuary had been.
What was so special about the night was that our guests got a chance to understand our service, to see the Torah up close and to learn about so many of our other rituals, from lighting the Shabbat candles that signify the beginning of the holiday to tasting our special braided Challah bread. The night proved special for the rabbi, too, because rabbi means "teacher" and he sure did a lot of teaching that night. And of course, our cantorial soloist Robin Selinger, loved sharing the joy of Jewish worship music with everyone. And of course, it turned out to be a special night for our guests, many of whom admitted that they had never been to a Jewish service before or never to one where they had everything explained to them. The night proved to be as special to our members, as so many of them learned details about the service they might have not known -- or had long forgotten or taken for granted. It was a true Shabbat -- a holy experience -- for everyone -- so much that we are already looking forward to the next time we invite our neighbors and now, so many new friends -- to the next service. Perhaps it will be a different holiday; perhaps it will be another Shabbat worship service. The nice thing about our services is that even when the prayers are the same, the Torah service varies from week to week. Even when the portion is the same, as it is from year to year, there is always a fresh way to understand it and many contemporary issues to discuss from the pulpit -- and then, downstairs in the Social Hall afterwards.
Our little town is not as heterogenous as, say, Chicago, New York City or even a town near San Francisco or Los Angeles. It is primarily Christian -- out of nearly 24,000 population, we probably have 60 Hindu families, a few Muslim families, perhaps a few Buddhists, and about 50 Jewish families, so most of the people that night were Christian. There might have been a few atheists, agnostics and people unaffiliated with a religion but they would have been in the minority. Mostly, our sanctuary was filled with people used to worshipping one way and learning about another way, a way rooted in five thousand years of history and at the same time, with one foot in the present, with modern prayers, a modern prayerbook, interfaith relationships, and families and friends of various religions and beliefs. Religious freedom -- and religious diversity, but most importantly, the night embodied religious appreciation and friendship with one another, which made it a Shabbat to remember and a memory to cherish.