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19. Chapter 8d: Jewish Geography: Synagogue (Shul)

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IV.     Synagogue (Shul)

          Jewish communities are almost always literally centered around the synagogue; and a visit should be a high priority for you, and a continuing one.

          And so before your Jewish explorations have taken you very far, you'll probably find yourself in a shul, typically on a Shabbat, the likely consequence of invitation or self-generated curiosity.  And you should be there, even if the sequence and meaning of the prayers are lost on you for now. That perplexity will be relieved soon enough; but first you must enter.

          A synagogue is how you can become connected to the Jewish community in your area.

          In the synagogue you will find other Jews who will welcome the opportunity to integrate you into their community, will almost always ask if you would like to share a Shabbos or Holiday meal with them, and it is where you will find out the various goings on in the community.

          But you can’t be shy.  People in the synagogue will reach out  to you if you reach out to them. They will be happy to find you a seat, an appropriate prayer book, show you the place in the prayer book, explain what is going on and make sure you get some honors that are normally given out in the synagogue. But initially you may need to ask for their help.  

          The primary function of a synagogue is as a communal setting for obligatory prayer services which take place three times daily: morning service - Shacharis, afternoon service - Mincha, and evening services Mariv. Although a Jew may recite these prayers almost anywhere alone, it is preferable to pray with a minyan (a collection of at least ten men). Jewish tradition tells us the Almighty is more inclined to accept the prayers offered from a minyan and being part of the minyan enhances one’s concentration and inspiration. Also, there are parts of the service, which may only be recited in the presence of ten Jewish males e. g. the Kaddish (memorial prayer for a deceased relative) and Torah reading (from a Torah scroll). , All this attesting to the collective spiritual life our faith encourages.

          But the synagogue is more than the site at which the technical accomplishments of the minyan are engineered.  In a very real sense it serves as spiritual center as well, a space in which Jew communes with Jew in a synergy of purpose that girds them for the decidedly more profane world outside.  Inside it is possible to be only Jewish; the identities of occupation and class do not matter when one stands in prayer before God. If in the synagogue you are in, wealth and its trappings do matter, you must find yourself another synagogue.

          Make sure the synagogue you choose is the genuine article.  Like computers, synagogues come in all sorts of configurations these days, and as with computers, it is best to get one with certain service guarantees.  Look for a synagogue ruled by Jewish law - and that means in the first instance a place in which the genders are separated.  Jewish law absolutely requires such a demarcation, and don't let anyone tell you otherwise.  A synagogue is dedicated to prayer, not to flirtation and gossip.  The manner in which the genders are partitioned may vary with the synagogue, however; in some the women are situated in the balcony, emulating the practice in the Temple in Jerusalem; other places interpose a physical divide - called a mechitza - between men and women when the latter sit at ground level.

          Once you've found your shul, it's time to acquaint yourself with your new spiritual environment. If you're a man, it's wise to enter with a yarmulke, which should be positioned on your head, not in your pocket. Once inside, take a look around. Ideally but not necessarily, the synagogue in this part of the world faces east, because Jewish law bids us to pray toward Jerusalem. Toward the front of the shul you'll find a small lectern, called the amud, at which a designated leader prays a part of the service, often heightening his voice to lead a collective phase, or so doing to simply apprise the congregation about the progress of the prayers.  In addition, a small, bounded-off platform in the center of the synagogue - the bimah - is one of the three physical focal points of the service, the place at which the cantor conducts other parts of the liturgy, and where the Torah scroll is read.

          The synagogue's rabbi often looks out at his congregation from a seat near the ark in which the Torah scrolls are stored, but this is not the universal practice.  Indeed, some synagogues, particularly small ones, may have no rabbi at all.  In fact, no aspect of the service requires a rabbi's direction, and in practice the rule is for him not to conduct any part of it.  The several phases of the service are almost always apportioned to practiced laymen; the rabbi instead often speaks during a selected break in the service.

          Once stationed in your seat, you may find the service more than a little daunting. It is, after all, pronounced entirely in Hebrew, which may in turn be Greek to you.  Thus you would do well to learn which synagogues in your area keep prayer books with English translations, information which can be turned up by phoning the relevant shuls during the week.

          Still, an English prayerbook, or siddur, is no fail-safe shortcut to comprehension of the service.  The best solution to following the service is by studying its various parts beforehand with a Rebbe or more learned friend. The lack of such a resource however, should not keep you from shul.  During the actual service or at its conclusion, muster a little gumption and ask a shul veteran about the prayer itinerary, or even approach the rabbi himself.  He'll likely be able to point you toward some kind, informed soul who'll be glad to walk you through the text.

          In summary, a synagogue is an almost indispensable tool to find out more about Judaism and to become integrated into its society.

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COM_EASYBLOG_GUEST Saturday, 21 October 2017
Last updated on: 10/21/2017
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