Dickinson College Humanities Program in Norwich

Synagogues in London: Some Thoughts

September 19, 2010 · No Comments

As you all probably know, the Jewish high holidays, Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur were over this past week and a half.  The combination of these days and being in a new place has, along with making me more than a little homesick, made me curious to explore Jewish communities in London.  I was lucky enough to encounter three very Jewish communities here: the West London Synagogue, which I attended for Rosh Hashanah services, the Liberal Jewish Synagogue, for Yom Kippur services, and The Central London Synagogue, which we visited as a group.

As with the various Jewish communities in the States, these three synagogues were drastically different from one another.  The Central London Synagogue (where I did not attend a service), is Orthodox.  I could tell the moment that we walked in, based on the layout of the sanctuary, with separate seating for men and women.  The West London Synagogue is Reform, but I did not experience the type of Reform Jewish service that I am accustomed to at home: it was over all more “traditional reform,” with less music, and even less Hebrew than I prefer.  The Liberal Jewish Synagogue’s service was easily my favorite, probably because it was the most like the synagogue that I grew up attending.  There, the audience sang along with the choir and the rabbi.  Some folk music was incorporated, and I heard and read along with more Hebrew than at the Reform service, although many prayers were still said in English.  I finished a very personally fulfilling Yom Kippur by taking a walk in Regents Park and talking with my family on the phone.

But what struck me more than the disorientation I experienced as I explored the various synagogues, was how much felt familiar. Fundamentally, I experienced the same prayers, similar music, a few people conspicuously wearing mesh sneakers with their dresses or suits, so as not to wear leather on Yom Kippur, and many congregants greeting each other enthusiastically with “Shana Tovah,” (have a good new year).  (Even many aspects of the Orthodox synagogue were very familiar, though I do not agree with much of the Orthodox viewpoint.)  It made me think of what I was often told by adults when I was younger, but never gave much thought to: wherever in the world I go, I can find something familiar by visiting a Jewish community.

Despite (and maybe because of) the familiarity, I was startled near the end of the first service I attended to hear a prayer for the queen.  I wondered if it was historically based, maybe something required in all religious services in England during a certain time period.  But this added prayer turned out a difference that demonstrated another similarity.

Our guide at the Orthodox synagogue that we visited explained a stained glass window that honored the Queen by telling us that a prayer for the Queen is added because the safety of the Jews always depends on the safety of the country in which they are living.  Therefore, the prayer for the Queen corresponds to the prayer briefly said at my synagogue at home for peace within “our nation.”  So saying a prayer for “our Sovereign Lady Queen Elizabeth,” is just a very English way of following a custom that I have seen in services for my whole life.  I wonder how many other differences in Jewish customs and synagogues worldwide can be traced back to the same ideas as one another.

Categories: 2010 Emily · Uncategorized
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