Two years ago, I never would have even thought of stepping foot into a Jewish synagogue. I had no reason to; I was not Jewish by heritage, I had no practicing Jewish friends and I wasn’t particularly interested in experiencing Judaism. Assistant Professor for the Study of Religion and Culture Jim Thrall’s class, however, forced me to step out of my comfort zone and step into a congregation I had never been a part of before, a congregation proud of their culture and heritage.
I visited Temple Sholom, a Reform Jewish temple here in Galesburg, with the rest of my RELS 113 classmates. It was different from any place of worship I had been to before. Since the temple only had a congregation of about 25 to 30 members, the building was not very big and the actual interior decoration was sparse. What stood out, however, was the large opening in the wall called the Ark behind the pulpit that hid its interior with closed sliding doors. Those doors weren’t opened until later in the service, revealing three sacred scrolls containing the Torah on a form of animal skin. Above the Ark were the Ten Commandments on tablets written in original Hebrew, and the Star of David was on either side of the tablets.
The actual traditional service was dominantly in Hebrew, which shouldn’t have surprised me, but did anyway. I didn’t understand most of what was going on, but the rabbi, or rabbi-in-training, was very kind to us mostly ignorant students and tried to let us know when to stand up or sit down. The worship was steeped in the Jewish culture, their ancestral identity being just as big a part of their religion as their belief in God. Learning about the religion and its traditions in a classroom was definitely not enough to prepare me for all the singing, praying and interaction between the rabbi and the congregation. But I don’t think I could have been prepared any more than I already was.
The service was very traditional and had many symbolic elements to it, and I was a little uncomfortable at first. I felt like an intruder more than anything, but I eased into it as the service went on. It was easy to fall into the rituals just by following the rest of the congregation and pretending to be a part of that community.
At the end of the service, I felt like I had been enlightened. The service was a large window into the Jewish culture that shaped these services to educate and teach the Jews about their history, as well as commend their Sabbath day, or Shabbat.
A natural stereotype I had of Judaism was that the religion was based more on their heritage than their actual belief. Judaism had always seemed like a religion closed off to those of non-Jewish heritage. I was quickly proven wrong. One of the ladies I had a chance to talk to had adopted a son who was not culturally Jewish, but that didn’t seem to deter her from wanting him to turn to Judaism. To them, Judaism is the right way to obtain eternal life with God in heaven, and just because they believe they are the chosen people doesn’t mean that it is a closed-off religion to others. The Jews I interacted with at the synagogue seemed more open to the idea of us attending their services than I had been of attending myself.
The people were all very friendly and open to answering our questions. It was nice to sit down with and be educated by practicing Jews who knew their stuff. Whether or not I decide to go again, it was an experience that made me appreciate and have a greater understanding of Judaism not only as a religion, but as a force that ties the Jews together.