A Muslim’s first visit to a synagogue

templesinai

My foot on the gas pedal, I looked at the GPS on my phone and then glanced at the clock.  Please God, let me make it in time!  I had left a little past 7pm for the Shabbat service at 8pm, 40km away.  It was a Friday night, but I was confident that rush hour would have died down by this time.  It was my lucky night, as I easily weaved through the traffic, changing lanes and highway ramps.

As I turned on to Wilson avenue, I soon saw the rectangular sign that read “Temple Sinai.”  Turning into the parking lot, I saw Rev. Cheryl sitting on a bench by the temple entrance.  She gazed towards the stream of cars coming in, and waved once she spotted me driving in.  I was glad she decided to join me.  I had received her email a week before the scheduled visit.  She expressed how she wanted to accompany me to the Shabbat service, and I gladly agreed to have her on board.

As I walked through the entrance with Rev Cheryl, I noticed the wooden panels lining the hallway, and the mostly elderly congregation walking towards an open door.  Feeling a little apprehensive about walking into the prayer sanctuary, I braced myself for questions and stares.  After all, it was my first time here, and most of the congregants were regulars.  But to my surprise, I was greeted just like everyone else before me, with a “Shabbat Shalom,” and a book containing the night’s prayers.  I was a bit puzzled.  Did the gentleman and lady at the door not wonder what I was doing here?  Did they think I was part of the congregation? Did it matter to them that I was a non-Jew sitting through their service?

The reverend and I walked in and sat ourselves in one of the back pews.  It was a large auditorium with very high ceilings.  To my right were beautiful glass mosaic windows from the ceiling to the floor.  There were several pews for worshippers, all containing copies of the Torah in the pockets that lined the backs of the benches.  On the left side of the room, I saw a large piano.  There was a big stage area facing all congregants with two podiums with a colorful mural between the two.  Below them was another podium with one of three candles lit.  It was such a beautiful prayer hall, that I hoped to get a photograph of it for memory.  But since I was a guest, I wasn’t sure if it would be allowed.

I walked up to the lady greeting everyone at the door once more, and told her that I was visiting the synagogue, that I had spoken with Rabbi Emanuel over the phone and emails about coming here for my interfaith blog.  To my surprise again, she didn’t change her behavior with me.  She simply welcomed me, but told me that I should’t do any photography at this time as service was about to begin.  I respectfully agreed and asked her the name of the rabbi leading the night’s service.  Rabbi Michael Dolgin would be leading.  I decided to wait till the end of the service to introduce myself to him. I had no idea what he looked like.

As I sat back down, I looked around at the people sitting and those coming in.  Almost everyone was elderly or at least in their 50’s.  Nobody cared to stare at me or the reverend that night.  I’m so used to being stared at in mosques, that it felt a bit strange to be left alone for a change.  Nobody stared at anyone for that matter.  Nobody cared to examine what other people were wearing.  People either sat down quietly, or greeted their loved ones and friends with great warmth and joy.

It felt a little strange to feel more comfortable and ease at a synagogue that I do at most mosques.  There was definitely a great energy of companionship and brotherhood/sisterhood at Temple Sinai.  It seemed like everyone was part of a machine, doing their parts in harmony with others.  It felt good to be sitting among such a strong community.

There was another surprising aspect about the sanctuary.  As I paid attention to the glass mosaics lining the wall, I noticed that some of the mosaics were actually depicting people.  Although the people were devoid of facial features and expressions, I was still surprised at the fact that there were pictures of people inside the prayer sanctuary.  I was always under the impression that Jews never kept any pictures in their spaces of worship.  Perhaps there are some major differences in how reform Jews worshipped and interpreted their faith compared to Orthodox or Conservative Jews.  I decided to ask about the mosaics once I met the rabbi.

As the service began, I noticed that Rev. Cheryl often joined in, singing the Hebrew prayers with the congregation. A man sat at the grand piano, playing a soft melody to accompany the hymn.  To my surprise, Rev. Cheryl told me that she often worshipped at synagogues. At church, she had to both work and worship, while at the synagogue, she just worshipped.  She explained that she often sat through services in synagogues in her area.  Wow! I didn’t even know how to respond to that.  It seems to me that she obviously was able to transcend her creed, and saw it completely normal to bond with God in prayer through another faith community.  I hoped that some day I could be as strong as her.  Perhaps coming in tonight was a start for me.

I tried following the translations included in the prayer booklet.  One of the lovely prayers said that night was the following:

God fills the heavens and the foundations of the earth, but divine glory is greater than the skies, a surpassing, palpable strength.  Our God is near at all places and times – a true commanding presence.  Nothing exists apart from God.  As it is written in Torah, “When you return to your heart of hearts, on that day you will know that the Eternal is God.  Nothing in heaven or on earth exists apart from God.”

On the margins of a page in the prayer booklet, I found another interesting quote.  It made me smile, because it is something all Muslims are also taught from a young age:

This phrase, “we kneel and bow” recalls what Mordechai refused to do before Haman (Esther 3:2).  The presence of these words in this prayer reminds us that as Jews, we serve only the Most High, not the most recent or the most popular.

I got up and sat down, following the cues from the rabbi, just like the congregation.  As the rabbi said prayers, he sometimes would bow his head in some sort of bouncing motion and continue with the prayers.  Although most prayers were in Hebrew (with English translations in the booklet), there were a few in English.  Many of the prayers were sung by a man and a woman at the stage.  There was also lighting of the candles, and within about forty five minutes, the service came to a conclusion.

Rabbi Dolgin told the congregation to head out of the sanctuary towards another room, where there was a special treat for everyone: a symphony concert.  As people streamed out, the reverend and I stayed back to introduce ourselves to the rabbi.  He smiled, welcoming us while shaking our hands.  The lady who sang during the service was next to him and also welcomed us.  She asked if I had any questions so far, and I used the opportunity to ask about the people depicted in the windows.  The rabbi explained that the people did not have any distinct features, which still made it within the boundaries of Jewish tradition.

We headed to a room with chairs arranged in a circular format.  The symphony orchestra contained four individuals and played mostly pieces from the 1920s.  It was really wonderful to experience live symphony music, as I had never before done so.  Following the music, the rabbi invited everyone to go into another hall where we could help ourselves to complimentary coffee and cookies.

After having a few cookies, I decided to head out, as it was past 10 at night.  I looked around to see if I could find the rabbi to say goodbye, but could not locate him.  I could see that many people at the temple were busy that night due to organizing and running the concert. I did not want to bother him, so I simply headed home.

What I took with me that night, was a greater appreciation of the Jewish faith.  And although I knew Jews were monotheists, actually being there for the prayers only confirmed the fact that we are indeed brothers and sisters in faith.

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