Beth Shalom

http://www.bethshalomseattle.org/beth-shalom-front-door

This morning (5/31) I got up extra early to attend a minyon at Beth Shalom.

I’m going to have to go back, because I didn’t realize that a minyon is just a prayer service, and there really wasn’t a lesson of any kind being taught, so I can’t grade the synagogue based on this experience.

I was invited to a Bar Mitzvah this weekend, but I don’t think I can make it.  I’m going to have to visit it another week.

But even though I won’t be giving it a grade, I do have some observations.

I got there a little early, just as the person leading the minyon was arriving.  He unlocked the door and we went in.  He seemed like a pretty nice guy.  We didn’t go into the main sanctuary, but into a study room that was kind of like a library with some chairs lined up like pews in front of a table.

He told me to grab a yarmulke and something else I can’t remember or pronounce, and I hesitated.  “I’m not Jewish,” I told him.

He looked a little surprised and said, “You’re not Jewish?”  I then explained what I was doing.  He seemed to think it was a pretty neat idea, and then told me that this service probably wouldn’t get me the information I was looking for.  For one thing, the prayers are all in Hebrew.  But he encouraged me to stay anyway, and showed me the book with the prayers in it and the English translation, and told he he’d let me know what page to turn to so I could follow along.

It was really nice.  Others arrived, and there was an issue about a quorum.  Since I’m not Jewish, I don’t count towards the ten folks they’re supposed to have there, and apparently if a smaller number shows up, then the ritual is different.  Fortunately a few folks showed up late, and so all was well.  I think we had eleven, plus me.

The men wore a shawl as well as the yarmulke, and a strap wound around an arm, plus a little boxlike thing they put on their foreheads.  The leader (he has no title, and is a volunteer for the synagogue) began by chanting a prayer and the gathered congregation chanted a response, all in Hebrew.

When I say “chant” … I really mean “sing.”  Because that’s what they were doing.  It was very musical, and very nice to hear.  The men with their deep base punctuated with some higher notes from the women, in response to the sing-song chanting coming from the leader.

It was remarkably like the Catholic Mass I had attended the previous morning.  At Mass, the Priest would chant something, and then the parishioners would chant a response.  The Catholics weren’t as musical, but it was really the same kind of thing.

So, too, was the content of the chanting.  The prayers were, mostly, chants about how great God is.  I kept thinking that the Jews would feel right at home at Mass.  And, providing they could grok the language, I think the Catholics would have felt at home at Minyon.

The Jews were very surprised when I said that.

From what I read of the English translation, the prayers seemed to be about 90% “Hey God, you’re really awesome, keep being awesome,” about 5% “Hey Moses, you’re pretty cool too,” and about 5% “Protect us from our enemies, mmmkay?”

In the Catholic church, the focus was on books of the New Testament, particularly Mark and Luke, and in the Synagogue, the focus was on Exodus and a little Isaiah.  There was more, and I’m sure I missed some stuff, but I didn’t jot notes down, because I think that would have been rude.

A woman who had recently had some hip trouble got up in the front of the group, and they brought out the Torah, and chanted a bit, and she spoke a little about how her injury helped her understand her father better (he had had similar issues in life).

Then there was some singing of Psalms and some more chanting, and then we were done.

I actually didn’t know what the Torah was.  I mean, I know what the Torah is, but the thing they brought out of the cabinet looked like a velvety bagpipe with silver bells on top and a wooden handle sticking out of the bottom.  I asked someone afterwards what that thing was and she explained that Torah was in there, a very long scroll, wrapped around a rod, kept safe.

It is such a basic part of their faith, that I think they were surprised that I didn’t know what it was.  I guess it’s like someone walking into a Catholic church and asking who that guy is hanging from the tree by his hands.  And it made me very conscious of the fact that I know so little about Judaism.  I know even less about Islam.  It wasn’t my intention to learn about religious ritual when I started this, but I’m already a lot smarter than when I started.

The conversation afterwards was really quite nice.  I think I stayed longer talking than the actual prayer service lasted.

So, it was a pleasant visit, and I’ll be back.  And I’m going to give them a score.

One person person I spoke to said that their Rabbi often talks about the things that I have in my criteria.  We’ll see.  I’ve been mildly disappointed by the lack of that sort of thing so far.

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4 thoughts on “Beth Shalom

  1. I had the same reaction, “you don’t know what a torah is?” That’s pretty revelatory to me, I rarely think about how much private knowledge there is in growing up with a religion. I haven’t read any of your posts here until now, but now I’ve all of them and I’m going to keep up, it is very interesting. I don’t know what the strap or the box are, but the shawl is a Tallit (ta-leet). I have one, and would like if you wouldn’t mind me showing it you and telling you about it (about mine personally, not them in general) next time we get together. It might be an excuse to get me to finally come down and game with you. 🙂

  2. The boxes that go on the arms and forehead are known as tefillin. Each box contains small printed prayers that are especially important in Judasim. Another difference between Judasim and Christianity is that the Sabbath, known as Shabbat, is Friday night to Saturday afternoon in Judaism, as opposed to Sunday, so make sure you go on a Saturday morning. Great write up! I’m looking forward to reading the next one!

    • Hi, thanks for the info. I did visit them again, a few weeks later on a Saturday morning 🙂 The post is a little further up the line.

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