Dickinson College Humanities Program in Norwich

Sin, agog.

September 22, 2010 · 1 Comment

The fact that the high holy days of Judaism fell during our time in London gave me an opportunity to visit and pray at several different synagogues. On Rosh HaShanah (the New Year), I first went to the Central London Synagogue in the morning. It is the Orthodox Synagogue which we visited as a class. Most of the congregation wasn’t participating in the service so it didn’t really feel very spiritual. Part of the celebration of Rosh HaShanah is to hear the shofar blown. A shofar is a hollowed out ram’s horn and it has been used to communicate in Judaism for thousands of years. I was able to hear the shofar at the Central Synagogue so I was glad I went there for that. Later in the day I headed out to the Northern suburbs of London. I attended an afternoon service with one of my flat mates from my year in Israel. His synagogue was also Orthodox but I felt a lot better about that prayer experience because everyone was participating and seemed very focused.

For Yom Kippur I had a unique opportunity to attend the only Independent synagogue in the UK. The Belsize Square Synagogue was originally founded by German immigrants but has since evolved and incorporated a number of other types of Jews. However, it still hangs onto its origins in the German Haskalah. Haskalah means enlightenment and it is the name given to the beginnings of the Reform movement. The movement began in Germany and was later adopted in the United States and elsewhere. Reform Judaism holds that a Jew should be entirely educated about the whole of Jewish law but then should be allowed to choose those elements of practice which are individually meaningful. In the United States, this is often perceived as a lax sect of Judaism and so, in most congregations that I have experienced, the members end up being mostly secular Jews and largely uneducated about Judaism in the least. At Belsize, however, I met a strange and unexpected contradiction. The service had the most obvious characteristics of a Reform service in the U.S. It had both a choir and organ and was given to churchy tunes at times. You see, the origins of the Haskalah were in a desire for German Jews to emulate their German Christian counterparts. This is evident not only in choir, organ, and tunes, but also in things like synagogue architecture and design. A Reform shul is far more likely to have pews instead of chairs, for instance. At first glance, Belsize Square appeared to be akin to Reform, in fact, the synagogue belonged both to the Reform and Liberal streams of British Judaism at different times but eventually decided it had to be independent. As I sat in services Friday night and all day Saturday, it became obvious why it was so different. The synagogue and community are amazingly traditional in their practices and attitude towards the service. I also noticed how well Jewishly-educated the whole of the congregation seemed to be. While I don’t usually go for the choir and organ, I was able to find more respect for it in the context of this shul because it seemed supported by more than just a desire to remain Jewish while acting as Christian as possible. The service was informed by a desire to remain close to the roots of the immigrant community which founded it but also to remain inextricably tied to traditional Judaism. I’ve never come across a synagogue and community like Belsize in the United States.

Categories: 2010 Daniel · Uncategorized

1 response so far ↓

  •   Karl // Sep 23rd 2010 at 09:11

    Interesting and informative, but we could use some tags and hyperlinks so that we can find more information on the parts we find confusing or interesting.

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