Worship Experience in Jewish space
Over the last few years we've had the opportunity to experience worship services in Reform synagogues both in Israel and America. The similarities and differences have been interesting to observe and experience, as one of us (Vicky) has an American Reform perspective and the other (Muki) has an Israeli Progressive perspective. We're happy to share with you some of our observations.
On the whole, Israeli society is more informal than American society, especially in terms of dress codes. Rabbi's never wear robes and seldom if ever wear suits, while summertime congregants have been known to turn up in shorts and t-shirts. It's also much more family oriented; family is the core of what happens in Israel. These are both reflected at services. American congregations often have family services which attract young children. Some congregations have children's rooms where parents and children can sit together and view the service without causing disruption. But for the most part, there is more of an emphasis on decorum in American synagogues. In Israel, disruption is minimal but it's part of the experience. The sanctuary is often set up with a large open space in the back of the room where children can gather and move around if they are restless. Young children attend Kabbalat Shabbat services with snacks to hold them over until Shabbat dinner. Being able to enjoy services while your children sit with other children is lovely. Not having to worry about feeding hungry children, allowing them to snack while waiting for Shabbat dinner, makes welcoming Shabbat that much sweeter. The prayers continue in the front of of the sanctuary as the young community building continues in the back.
The setup of the rooms is very different as well. A majority of American congregations have stationery seating, while some have seating that can be moved with effort. Israeli congregations have more flexible seating arrangements, which may in some cases be due to the room's multiple usages. This more casual seating combined with the simple lines of a sanctuary with little to no ornamentation create a more open, less formal atmosphere. This simplicity is emphasized by the absence of yarzheit plaques - there are not many displayed in Israeli congregations, while they cover the walls in many American Reform shuls.
There is another key ingredient involved in the worship experience. Hebrew is the traditional language of Jewish prayer. Israelis pray in their vernacular, which is Hebrew - here in America we struggle as we learn or refresh our Hebrew. Of course, there are areas of worship that Americans are more comfortable with, as many Israelis are new to the experience of Reform worship. But our common language, Hebrew, is more readily accessible in Israeli worship.
Share your thoughts with us: have you experienced a Shabbat Service in an Israeli Reform synagogue? Did it change your view of what the experience of a worship service is?
Muki Yankelowitz is an Israeli Educator and Tour Guide as well as a member of Yozma, the Reform congregation in Modi'in. Vicky Farhi is the Co-Director of the URJ's Expanding Our Reach Community of Practice.
Spotlight on Israel: This month the URJ is focusing on itsprograms, resources and discussions that help congregations connect withand support Israel. Visit urj.org/israel for more info.