Congregation Agudas Achim – (Conservative Jewish)

photo 2-18    Friday Service #29 – Congregation Agudas Achim, 16550 Huebner Rd, San Antonio

Why this Synagogue?

I’ve had a few questions as to why I’d not yet headed to a Jewish service. Well, I’ve been holding them in my back pocket for when I had a conflict on a Sunday. No conflict this week, but because I missed two Sundays recently due to travel, I needed to double up for a couple of weeks. I’ll attend another service tomorrow morning.

I also had requests from my friend Kim Bell Thibodeaux who was interested in the Jewish faith and from Mike’s sister, who converted to Judaism. Why I chose this particular service was a no-brainer. I emailed an address on the website and asked about the Friday service versus the Saturday one. I was told that the Friday service was about an hour in length; the Saturday service would be no more than three hours. Well then, that’s settled – Friday it is!

From my sister-in-law, I learned that I could attend several different types of worship services: Conservative, Reform, Orthodox and what someone told me on Friday – Ultra Orthodox. This one is a Conservative congregation; the rest will remain in my back pocket until needed.

Arrival

I walked from the lot through two doors that had been rolled back for those entering, I noticed that the doors could also be locked into place. My thoughts took me back to the Al-Madinah Mosque I’d recently attended and how similar both seemed to be in the way of a compound feel versus a stand alone worship building.

photo 1-18          I walked straight through to a courtyard and then through more double doors, where I found the place of worship. Two people stood handing out flyers outside the doors. Instead of an “order of service” bulletin, these gave information about things going on in the synagogue during the week. The woman told me that it would be easy to follow along. (Well, that was partially true. Would have been a lot easier if I read and understood Hebrew.) I don’t.

As I entered the large worship area with a three-sided balcony above, I saw a group of people sitting in several rows of cushioned pews deep in conversation. I just marched myself around the side and sat next to them, knowing that I might be asking a lot of questions during the service.

Though I didn’t hear exactly what the group spoke about, I did hear the words “ISIS,” “Afghanistan,” and “Iraq.” My eyes fell on an elderly woman with a cane, I noted her most unusual neck-to-toe dress made of silky material. The white and blue striped fabric had Stars of David running between the stripes and all over the dress. She was definitely proud of her Jewish heritage and it’s likely the others probably had explained that she’d stick out like a sore thumb in other those parts of the world.

After introducing myself to Marilyn seated next to me, I grabbed the blue, hardbound Siddur Hadash from the back of the pew and opened it. No, I don’t know what Siddur Hadash means, but I do know it’s something between a prayer book and a hymnal.

[ADDED NOTE: The Siddur Hadash means “New Prayerbook.”]

photo 5-4    Only one problem with the Siddur Hadash, it’s read from right to left, so the book is completely backwards to me. It’s weird…when someone tells you to turn to page 20 it’s so ingrained to flip forward instead of backward. Ooops.

[ADDED NOTE: The book moves from right to left because Hebrew is read from right to left.]

I loved watching the men stroll in sporting yamikas in different colors and fabrics.

[ADDED NOTE: The Yiddish word is yarmulke. The Hebrew word is Kippa.]

Some were made of velvet, while others were made of a thin material, while still others were quite ornate. One even looked crudely made with the word D-A-D painted on with fabric paint. Awwwwww. I also saw a few women with small lace pinned to the back of their hair. Forgot to ask about that. Most yamikas are pinned in place, so of course you know I’d develop a nagging question: How do bald men fasten their yamikas? (Sorry, didn’t get the answer on that one.)

[ADDED NOTE from reader: Most balding men would wear a different style of kippah that fits more tightly to the head, called a Bucharian kippah. If we just have a bald spot, we put on a kippah that is larger and fits to the curve of the skull better than the smaller knitted ones. In Conservative and Orthodox shuls, women will cover their hair in some way (although in Conservative shuls it’s usually a token covering as you saw).]

As people streamed in, I focused on the architecture. The backdrop of this Jewish sanctuary had a complete wall of white limestone.

[ADDED NOTE: The Rabbi has since shared that the limestone wall is meant to look like the Western Wall in Jerusalem.]

Large Harry Potter-like chandeliers hung from the wooden ceiling

photo 3-16       and a large, wooden double door decorated with some emblem in brass took prominence in the middle of this stone backdrop.

photo 4-11

I asked about it and was told that’s where they keep the Torah. To the left and right of the stage were an American flag and a Jewish flag. In front of the backdrop of stone stood three podiums – two smaller to each side and one large one in the middle, covered in a drape of crimson velvet fringed in gold.

Rabbi Jeffrey Abraham, who had just moved from NY to San Antonio came down the aisle and gave the Shabbat Shalom greeting to everyone before the service began. Seems that everyone gave those same words for “hello” and “goodbye.”

[ADDED NOTE: Shabbat Shalom is said to wish each other a “peaceful Shabbat.” Shabbat is a Hebrew word used for “hello,” “goodbye,” and “peace.” ]

Service Begins

The Rabbi opened the service and we were asked to greet one another by placing our arms around someone’s shoulders nearby for the first (Malachi?) song. This song was my favorite and I was sold on the music immediately. People swayed from side to side to this tune and I immediately felt part of the community. I’d go again if only for the music. A man played on a grand piano while another man sat behind playing a bongo drum. The worship leader, clad in some type of prayer scarf or shawl (sorry, I never asked about his title), had a voice of an opera singer and I was mesmerized by his voice.

[ADDED NOTE: The “song leader” is called a Cantor  (Hazzan in Hebrew) and he is also a clergyman. I’ve changed this reference throughout the remainder of the blog.]

At this point, I noted the happiness of these people. You actually felt the lightness in the room.

Children, even the youngest, took off on scampering feet – one even toddling onto the stage. No one seemed to mind as mother’s got up from their seats to usher them back. At one point, the Rabbi picked up one of the toddlers and my guess is that this was his son. The little boy pulled the Rabbi’s ear as he sucked on his pacifier. Even the smallest boys wore little yamikas in a variety of colors to coordinate with their clothing. The overall dress was business casual, and even though I saw only a few suited men, no one wore jeans or shorts. I even felt a little out of place with my uncovered arms, though I did see a few other women dressed like that. Phewww.

[ADDED NOTE by blog reader: If you go to an Orthodox synagogue, you will need to wear long sleeves, a long skirt (not pants) and cover your hair. Anything less will be considered offensive. Also be aware that Orthodox synagogues usually segregate men and women into two separate sections of the worship area inside the synagogue. An ultra-Orthodox synagogue is one you should only go to if you have a guide who is already a member of the synagogue; their dress requirements for women are even stricter.]

Lots of singing in a Jewish service and the whole Shabbat service follows their prayer book. I followed best I could, because much of it is in Hebrew and sung in the language, but the congregational responses are usually in English.

photo-26

A few songs in, everyone sang another one as they turned to face the back of the room. I understood this to be something or other about “meeting the bride.” (I was totally confused by this.) I expected maybe the Torah to be brought to the front by some people, but no one came down the aisle and then we eventually turned back around.

[ADDED NOTE from the Rabbi: Since Judaism focuses on one God, we use visual imagery throughout our prayers, but don’t have actual “characters” so to say come into the service.  That is why we have a prayer where we welcome our Shabbat Bride or Queen but it is meant to be visualized without anyone actually coming in.]

The Rabbi’s Message

The Rabbi spoke about the #1 prayer that all Jewish people know — the Shema, or often written Sh’ma.  He wanted to make key points about this prayer, which is typically the first prayer that Jewish children learn:

  1. There is one God.
  2. God is unique.
  3. The Jewish people have a special relationship with God.
  4. With that relationship are commandments and duties they must follow. (I may have gotten that last one wrong.)

Then he made a final point that they should teach these to their children.

Service Continues

One can get completely lost by all the foreign words in this service, but I followed along as best I could. During the next few songs, the congregants bowed while singing at various points. Then at one point, the Rabbi and Cantor turned around, faced the double doors and sang with their back to the congregants.

After that, came yet another song. At one point, the Cantor hits some pretty high notes. Then I see him place his thumb and index finger at each side of the bridge of his nose. At first, I thought maybe he had the start of a bloody nose, or perhaps, a sinus headache. Then I look to my left and see the Rabbi is doing the same thing. Then I notice that all the worshippers were doing the same. Hmmm…..should have asked what that was about, but I didn’t.

[ADDED NOTE: The Shema prayer where this occurs speaks about there being one God, so the Jewish people cover their eyes so that they are only focusing on their one God and nothing else around them.]

Then, guess what came next? BINGO….you got it….more singing. Now the kids were asked to come to the front for a song. Amazing how happy they all seemed to be. One could tell that they weren’t dragged to church; they actually seemed to like being there.

Then some time after the kids participation, the Rabbi asked for names of others that needed prayers of healing, then proceeded to name those and a whole list of others. The list was so long that I began wondering if the three-sided upper balcony would be overflowing, if all these people had their health and had come to the Shabbat service.

Then we rose for another song, in which the Rabbi and Cantor faced the doors at the front and bowed several times. Oddly enough, no offering was taken. Not sure how that works with the Jewish.

[ADDED NOTE by the Rabbi: In Judaism we don’t take any offerings, but we do have specific prayers where we take time to bow to God as if God is the King.]

[ADDED NOTE from blog reader: Why there was no offering: most synagogues are supported by monthly regular pledges from members, or memberships in the temple, which they pay for either monthly or yearly. It is not considered polite to take money during any service at most synagogues.]

After that came a few church announcements and an invitation to go to the Rotunda for something in Hebrew that I can’t remember, but I noted that it looked very much like Communion in a Christian church. Trays of small plastic cups filled with wine and grape juice filled the table and to one end, a basket of bread could be found. I wasn’t sure about the meaning, so I stopped to ask the Rabbi before leaving. Not sure if I’ll repeat this correctly, but the wine represents the fruit of life and the bread has something or other to do with wandering around in the wilderness and what they left behind. After I got that explanation, I went for the wine. Picked a small cup up and drank…ummmm SWEET. I like sweet wine! Oh wait…..oh no….I must have picked up the grape juice. DRATS!

[ADDED NOTE from reader: …you probably did get wine – kosher wines tend to be very, very sweet wines.]

[ADDED NOTE from the Rabbi: The blessing over the wine is called “Kiddish” which means sanctifying the wine.  The wine represents the fruit of life, meaning we celebrate the luxuries in life by blessing God for something sweet like wine. The blessing over the bread is “Hamotzi.”  The bread in Judaism is called “challah.”  We have two loafs of challah at every meal on Shabbat in order to represent the double portion of manna we received in the desert on Shabbat during our 40 years of wandering.]

And then I left, while everyone went in for a potluck supper. I had another errand to run, so I couldn’t join everyone.

Post Service Thoughts

While totally confused and lost have the time, I came away from this service with a better perspective of the Jewish people. At least within this church, you very much feel a sense of community and immense joy and happiness among the people. It’s a delight to see and experience. I’ll be anxious to try the other Jewish services to see if they offer the same feeling.

And all my Jewish friends, please feel free to fill-in-the-blanks on my missing information and clarify anything I didn’t understand. Maybe by the time I make it to a few more, I’ll understand it all a bit better and can choose the right cup of wine!

What’s Next?

Since I’m only one service behind now, I’ll go to a local church nearby on Sunday. It is a Foursquare Church. Not sure what that means, but did look it up. Still don’t know what it means but is some take off of Pentecostal.

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9 comments on “Congregation Agudas Achim – (Conservative Jewish)

  1. Kim Thibodeaux says:

    Really enjoyed this entry.

  2. Adam says:

    I’m in the process of conversion to Judaism, so I can answer most of your questions about the service (not all).

    “Siddur” – a siddur is a book of prayer. Almost all prayers are sung, in the Jewish traditions, so it is *not* a hymnal. “Hadash” – this is the Hadash publication of the Siddur (there are several different siddurim; this congregation uses one that is pretty standard for the Conservative movement). It’s written from right to left because Hebrew is written from right to left, so of course you start at the “back” of the book and move through the book the opposite direction.

    The stage at the front of the synagogue is called the bimah. The cabinet is called the Ark, and it contains the Torah scroll, which is sacred. When it is open, people stand and show respect. The singer who led services is called the cantor, and he is a clergyman, just as the rabbi is.

    “Welcoming the bride” – Shabbat is often seen as a bride. We are happy that it is Shabbat, and we welcome its arrival as we would a bride. Think of the joy associated with a wedding as the bride arrives – in Judaism, that kind of joy is associated with the coming of Shabbat every week. Shabbat is a Big, Big Deal for most religious Jews.

    I can’t explain the gesture with the hand on the nose. I will ask at my shul (synagogue) the next time I attend services. I have not seen that done, so it may have been something specific to the day you went.

    The prayer is called the Shema, often written Sh’ma. It is probably the first prayer most Jewish children memorize, and it is said constantly – before bed, when waking, and at shul. The transliteration is “Sh’ma, Israel, Adonai Eloheinu, Adonai Echad.” Some congregations may say HaShem (The Name) instead of Adonai; it depends on the movement (Conservative, Reform, Orthodox). It means “Hear, O Israel: The Lord our G-d, the Lord is one.” It is *the* statement of the Jewish faith, more than just about any other prayer. Judaism was the first religion to introduce monotheism, and it is one of the main reasons it has suffered such persecution over the centuries.

    About the hats the men were wearing: the word is “yarmulke.” That’s the Yiddish word for it and that word is most common in the Northeast and in Europe. The Hebrew word is “kippah,” and most people in that synagogue would probably call it a kippah (plural: kippot). Most balding men would wear a different style of kippah that fits more tightly to the head, called a Bucharian kippah. If we just have a bald spot, we put on a kippah that is larger and fits to the curve of the skull better than the smaller knitted ones. I tend to wear a knitted one and hold it on with a couple of clips, myself. In Conservative and Orthodox shuls, women will cover their hair in some way (although in Conservative shuls it’s usually a token covering as you saw).

    The “dress” the lady was wearing, if it looked like a longish shawl, was more than likely a tallit (plural: tallitot), or prayer shawl. The one the cantor was wearing definitely was a tallit.

    The grape juice or wine was for kiddush, which is NOT a “communion” service (that’s a Christian rite only). And you probably did get wine – kosher wines tend to be very, very sweet wines. The rest of the food was for the oneg, which is an after-service meal.

    Many of the people on the prayer list were probably the family members of synagogue members, who had passed on, and the prayers were being said for their yarzheit (day of their death, a memorial). Very likely the Mourner’s Kaddish was recited or sung; that’s a common thing when there’s a minyan (at least 10 adult Jews for all but the Orthodox communities, which require 10 adult male Jews for a minyan).

    Why there was no offering: most synagogues are supported by monthly regular pledges from members, or memberships in the temple, which they pay for either monthly or yearly. It is not considered polite to take money during any service at most synagogues.

    If you go to an Orthodox synagogue, you will need to wear long sleeves, a long skirt (not pants) and cover your hair. Anything less will be considered offensive. Also be aware that Orthodox synagogues usually segregate men and women into two separate sections of the worship area inside the synagogue. An ultra-Orthodox synagogue is one you should only go to if you have a guide who is already a member of the synagogue; their dress requirements for women are even stricter.

    Finally, please – a synagogue is NOT a church. It is a synagogue. I know this may seem like a minor thing, but it’s not. Churches are where Christians gather. Jews are not Christians. Please call it what it is.

    If I find out about the nose-pinching gesture, I’ll comment again.

    • mhn125 says:

      Adam, thank you so much for adding some explanation to my questions and clarification on many points. Along with Rabbi Abraham’s, I’ve also added a few of your comments in the blog post text. I’m so appreciative of your comments that help readers understand even more about the Jewish faith.

  3. Adam says:

    Oh, also – “Shalom,” or “Peace,” is a common hello and goodbye. “Shabbat Shalom” is specific to Shabbat (sundown Friday to sundown Saturday). It means “Peace of the Sabbath.”

  4. Dena says:

    Many women in Conservative shuls actually don’t cover their hair. I used to attend a very large conservative congregation and most of the women did not, I was in the minority. It may depend on the area of the country where you attend, I don’t know.

    And a Jewish congregation if Reform, not Reformed. That’s a common mistake, I’ve even heard Jews say it!

    I hope you enjoyed your first synagogue visit.

  5. […] the start that these people were a true community. In fact, I’d say that this group rivaled the Congregation Agudas Achim for the happiness award. These people were […]

  6. […] Once again, the prayer book read from right to left but this time, I was a bit more adept at navigating as the service progressed. Yet, this service was almost entirely in Hebrew. Songs were sung in Hebrew and basically the service was less easy to follow than the Shabbat service I attended at Congregation Agudas Achim. […]

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