by Daniel Berk, Madrid
For the first time in my life, I attended a Jewish Friday Sabbath Service with the Kahal Kadosh Beth Elohim Congregation. Their synagogue in Charleston was founded in 1749, and is the fourth leading congregation in the continental United States to establish institutional Reform Judaism. Interestingly, my grandfather was Jewish, and changed our last name from the former Berkowitz to the current Berk. When he married my grandmother, a devout Catholic, both of their families disowned them. My grandfather died when my father was two years old, and Judaism has been lost in our family since. Though Judaism is not a part of my practicing beliefs (or is it? Isn’t Judaism part of the Christian faith?), my history is filled with rich Jewish lineage, tracing to the Holocaust and beyond. Thus, when I entered the synagogue on Friday night, Jews welcomed me with what seemed a handshake from a most distant relative, an intuition into the lives of my forefathers, and a peak into the shadow of reality that is the Christian ancestor.
Shabbat Shalom. Welcome, good tidings, and peace to you and your family on this Sabbath. These two words carry profound meaning in the Hebrew Jewish family. Shortly after I found my seat in the synagogue, I was greeted: “Shabbat Shalom,” with which I replied, “Shabbat Shalom.” I quickly picked up on the greeting response from observing the fellowship between everyone beforehand. Each segment of the service was introduced with Shabbat Shalom, a reminder of the reasons for gathering. Along with the pleasant greeting, many, presumably those closest to each other, gave a kiss on the right cheek. As was custom throughout the Old Testament, and within the Judeo-Christian culture, kissing was a sign of hospitable greeting and relational acceptance with humility (Song 8:1; Gen 27:26, 27, 29:13, 31:28, 55; Ex 4:27; Ruth 1:9, 14; 2 Sam 14:33; 1 Kg 19:20; Rom 16:16, 1 Cor 16:20, 2 Cor 13:12, 1 Thess 5:26, 1 Pet 5:14). After the holy kiss and greetings, with interactive fellowship throughout the synagogue, service began. Such wonderful music! Jewish worship is truly a testament of the Jews devotion to YHWH.
An important part of their worship was to sing in Hebrew, the original language of the Book of the Law. “Baruch Atah Adonai, Eloheinu Melech Ha’Olam.” This is a verse of blessing and praise they sang during their worship. It translates, “Praised are you, the Eternal one our God.” Each time this verse came around in the song, everyone leaned over (we were all standing in unison) and leaned back, then did so again. This is custom in the Jewish culture, as are several other postures or movements, all of which signify some sort of unity or bondage with each other or with God. I probably stood out like a sore thumb, but I tried my best to sing along and join whatever might include me in the unity of the congregation.
Throughout the service, I attempted to balance my observation of the worship with a healthy and true personal worship of Adonai. While Judaism does not believe in the Jesus Messiah, they do believe in the same God, and I was thus in his presence, I believe. Nonetheless, I did make many observations, some that were not surprising, and a few that were striking. All the men wore a kippah (yarmulke), and were dressed in suits. This was something I came expecting. The women were wearing their Friday’s Best, and had all taken a clear and significant portion of their day to attend service, shown in their attire and conduct, another sign of their true devotion to upholding the law of the Sabbath. Because I wasn’t sure about the custom of electricity during worship (knowing it’s generally unpermitted to use electrical appliances during the Sabbath), I put my phone on airplane mode before entering the synagogue. Just then, I noticed an older lady flipping through her smartphone, probably texting someone. I giggled a little inside. My expectations weren’t completely defeated, as I didn’t notice anyone else using their cellphones, so I kept mine in my pocket (I could use a couple hours without it anyways!).
Shabbat Shalom. Before service began, I took several mental notes (some actual notes on a piece of paper) about the conversations around me: the general tone of voice, whether people seemed excited, happy or sad, the apparel and the overall feeling of fellowship. Disappointingly, I overheard a conversation right next to me that hurt my heart. Two older ladies, one with a visitor, greeted each other. One of the ladies told the other lady that her ex-husband had made a fool of himself during some function. The lady replied with disgust, and a bit of relief. “I’m glad to know anytime he does something stupid like that” (paraphrased). The lady that gossiped this bit of information said in a whisper, “But don’t go spreading that around. I probably shouldn’t have even told you.” I agree. She probably shouldn’t have. When the divorced lady went to find her seat, the second lady (the one who gossiped, who was seated directly in front of me) turned to her visitor and said, “She just went through a divorce. They were married for fifty years.” It’s sad and true that many people get divorced, but I felt uncomfortable with the free discussion surrounding this woman’s life, and with the destructive gossip regarding her ex-husband. How sad.
Another conversation directly behind me used a small amount of “acceptable profanity,” something I thought was alarming, especially in a synagogue. However, I tried not to be so judgmental, but to remain objective in my observation, and to continue in service whole-heartedly. Both situations showed an uncomfortable juxtaposition between a politically and spiritually religious people and the contrast of the holy life that they are called to live. I must not be too quick to pass judgment; however, holiness is the standard within the people of God. Often I think holiness tends to be subjectively redefined instead of objectively standardized based on God’s concept of righteousness.
Shabbat Shalom. Throughout the service, I tried my best to become like a Jew. I am reminded of Paul’s philosophy: “To the Jews I became like a Jew, to win Jews; to those under the law, like one under the law—though I myself am not under the law—to win those under the law” (1 Cor 9:20). Throughout the worship, there was quick transition from loud singing, choir harmonics, silence, prayer, chants, and even testimonial reading about political activity in the Charleston community. I learned that Reform Jews are very focused and concerned with the civil welfare of the community they live in; so much so that they spent countless hours (over 15,000) conducting research about school based arrests and discriminatory police stops to approach the Charleston board about auditing the police force. I found this to be very different than a normal worship service, then I recalled a scripture about fasting in Isaiah 58:6: “Isn’t the fast I choose / to break the chains of wickedness, / to untie the ropes of the yoke, / to set the oppressed free, / and to tear off every yoke?” I was reminded that the scriptures in the Torah and Prophets are largely focused with community welfare, and a primary focus is on setting the oppressed (whomever this may entail) free. I was convicted by my lack of concern for the community I live in, which paired nicely with the many things I’ve been learning in this class. The Jews at KKBE spent many hours and gatherings discussing how they might better their community, specifically regarding African American racial segregation and profiling. A large portion of their worship during Shabbat focused on the role they played in making the community a more livable and unified place.
The world we live in is diverse, integrated, and endlessly changing. Far be it for my bubble of churchgoer, Westernized Christianity to forego the dire need to reach out to the community and free the oppressors. God is, and always has been, deeply concerned with those who suffer. He desperately wants his people to reach out to them and set them free; to “save others by snatching them from the fire; to others show mercy, mixed with fear--hating even the clothing stained by corrupted flesh” (Jude 23). I left service contemplatively reconsidering my motives for outreach. The Jews I worshiped with had a deep, intimate, and pure motive to help those that are racially discriminated against, in school systems and in society. They wanted to be a helping and liberating hand to those that are helpless and, as a community, are doing all they can to rally the support in Reform Judaism to see it through until there is lasting change. I left service knowing that I need to focus on setting the oppressed free, and that I need to observe the needs all around me. Like the parable in Matthew 25 about the sheep and goats, I believe God expects us to see the needs. There is no excuse worse than, “But God, I didn’t see any needs. How can I meet the needs that I didn’t even see?” He might respond with, “I’m sorry you didn’t see the needs. Needs were everywhere, always. Away from me.” Compassion and deep love are not optional; rather, all we do must encompass these qualities. Only then can the captives be freed.
Shabbat Shalom. selah
 "History." - Kahal Kadosh Beth Elohim. Accessed April 16, 2016. http://www.kkbe.org/index.php?page=history.