Temple Beth-El (Reform Judaism) – San Antonio

photo 2-21    Friday #36 – Temple Beth-El (Reform Judaism), 211 Belknap Place, San Antonio, TX

Why this Synagogue?

As the oldest synagogue in South Texas, this one remained a “must-go” on my list of churches, synagogues, temples and mosques. Founded in 1874, the congregation’s current temple, located at the corner of Belknap and W. Ashby, has a towering copper colored dome that beckons to passersby. Known, according to Wikipedia, as one of San Antonio’s more contemporary places of worship, Temple Beth-El is also liberal in support of the LGBT community.

At the start of this journey, I didn’t realize that Judaism has three different divisions: Reform, Conservative and Orthodox. Those in the faith told me that Orthodox would be considered the most traditional form of Jewish worship, while Reform would be the most liberal. I’ve since learned that another Reconstructionist division can be lumped in with those other three, and still other Jewish branches have developed off of those. I found a great description of all of these various divisions at the Jewish Outreach Institute website. So it looks like I can add a few new places to worship to my list: Congregation Beth Am (Reconstructionist), then maybe a Jewish Renewal and Secular Humanistic Judaism service, and of course there is always Congregation Rodfei Sholom, but I understand I can’t go into an Orthodox Synagogue unless someone invites me. Anyone know of any Orthodox Jews in San Antonio that want a tag-a-long?

Preconceived Ideas about Reform Judaism

My ideas, taken purely from the descriptive words “liberal, relaxed and contemporary” led me to believe that this service would be:

  • Much less conservative in dress – (that notion was shattered by seeing a few suits and only a young boy in shorts and one couple wearing jeans)
  • A much more relaxed service – (again, that notion was dispelled as I encountered a much more reverent approach than I’d experienced at the conservative service)
  • Filled with a spattering of those representing the LGBT communities, as well as more races — (m the LGBT community stood out, but I did see a few African Americans and Hispanics)

So my concept of Reform Judaism got turned on its head. Yet, what I experienced was nonetheless beautiful and inspirational.

Service Had Already Begun

Ooops….late again! We pulled into a covered walkway area, but two cars blocked the thoroughfare: an unattended cab and one van that had just pulled in to help someone in a wheelchair out. With nowhere to go, we waited patiently while time ticked by — not  a big deal; I’m used to walking into unfamiliar services late, but not sure what my companion thought.

After being directed down a long hallway into the Wulfe Sanctuary, we passed a table with extra yarmulkes (yes, yamika’s are optional here). A woman handed us each a thick blue Prayer Book. While everyone stood (I know you guys never thought I’d say this, but thank goodness people stand while they sing), we walked to the middle of the large sanctuary and took a seat on a pew. Oddly enough, this sanctuary offers something out of the norm with regard to seating – all the pews (except the one we sat upon) had chairs located within the pews.

I took a moment (since I was completely lost from the beginning) to take in the vastness of the Moorish architecture. Constructed in 1927 for a cost of just over $90,000 dollars, this splendid building is a sight to behold. On the main stage area, where the rabbi and cantor stood singing, I saw two lecterns connected by a long altar. Immediately to the back of them sat high-backed chairs for the service leadership. Then behind the chairs was an enormous marble façade with a sheer curtain in the middle behind which stood the Torah.

photo 1-24  This Torah area looked more like a trophy case. The Torah or Torahs (wasn’t quite sure why there were three) had gleaming silver tops and lots of shiny objects around them.

photo 2-24  Light from the evening’s sunset trickled into  three stained glassed windows on each side of the nave.

A huge dome capped the nave portion of the sanctuary, but due to size, I couldn’t snap a photo of it. As I glanced behind, I saw a small balcony that held the pipe organ above the congregants. Then, I noticed how the floor slanted from back to front, like other auditoriums. That made it much easier to see around the people in front of me. More churches should do that!

Okay….back to being lost

Once again, the prayer book was read from right to left, but this time my Hebrew navigation skills had improved as this service, almost entirely in Hebrew progressed. Since much of the service was sung or spoken in Hebrew, I found it less easy to follow than the Shabbat service I attended at Congregation Agudas Achim. I didn’t mind being lost, because in this Shabbat service, the musical voices from the rabbi and cantor were so beautiful that I could close my eyes and drink in the peacefulness and serenity.

That’s where I noted the differences between the Conservative and Reform services. In the first Jewish service I attended, the service was awash in joy and energy, with clapping and tapping to almost every song. Children quietly chattering and occasionally running down the aisles increased the noise level slightly. This Jewish Reform service held a completely different and unexpected atmosphere of reverence, respect and veneration.

So as congregants, we stood, we sat, we sang in Hebrew during this service, all the while marveling at the musical talent of the rabbi and cantor. Then at some point, someone pulled back the sheer curtain of the Ark to remove the Torah(s)? With a lot of clanging, the synagogue leaders pulled down these velvet-encased scrolls with shiny tops. With the way they were held, my first thought was that they might be special bagpipes. Then these bagpipe-looking scrolls were marched down both aisles of the sanctuary. As the service leaders progressed, congregants would touch their Prayer Books to the Torah then kiss the Prayer Book. While standing at the front of our pews, we all followed the direction of the procession with our bodies, turning 180 degrees during this portion of the service.

Once the procession returned to the altar area, the Torah’s velvet covering was removed along with its shiny top and other paraphernalia. Then the rabbi placed the scroll on the altar.

Then the Temple President gave a few announcements. Now here’s where it got interesting. The Cantor unrolled the Torah and, I believe, she began to sing from Deuteronomy written in Hebrew on the Torah. She actually sang the words in Hebrew, and I wish I had caught it on video, but I was too mesmerized to think.

After that prayers of healing were recited, followed by silence for personal prayers of healing. Afterward, the Rabbi, Cantor and President placed the Torah back in the Ark, closed the sheer curtains, then slid wood doors in front of the curtains to seal it off.

Then the rabbi gave her message that started off with a remembrance of 9-11, followed by the Mourner’s Kaddish and finally the dismissal. Shabbat service goers then proceeded to the Barshop auditorium for the Kiddush Reception where wine and Challah bread was served in observance of something or other. Still trying to figure that all out. I stopped to ask this rabbi what it all meant, knowing that it had nothing to do with Christianity and the sacraments found therein, but her explanation was a bit different than the previous rabbi’s from the Conservative service. So, that will take some more investigating on my part. But let me just say that wine sure tastes good and the Challah bread beats the Baptist chiclet crackers and Episcopal wafers hands down for taste.

photo 4-15

Post Service Thoughts

While this service didn’t turn out as expected, I truly enjoyed the serenity, peace and reverence felt while worshiping in this service and with these people. The building is certainly worth the trip to see. Plus, I think worshiping with those who use a different language and traditions so different from my own is always enlightening. What I came away with from both services is that the Jewish are truly a peace-loving people. As I think about it, some other cultures and people may feel the Jewish often separate themselves from others, but perhaps this is due in part to the persecution the Jews have endured throughout the ages. What are your thoughts in that regard?

What’s Next?

I must get in two services this weekend, because I’ll be out of town next weekend with little time to make a Sunday service. So tomorrow, I’m off to a Baha’I Faith meeting. It appears that neither the Jews nor the Baha’is accept donations from those outside of their memberships, so this week I’ve chosen to send my weekly offering to a distant family member who has great financial need right now.



2 comments on “Temple Beth-El (Reform Judaism) – San Antonio

  1. […]   Awwww……I was quite honored and will read it, but only the English part. I’m afraid I’m a bit rusty on my Arabic and Persian. Okay, well, I only ever learned to write my name in Persian, so rusty isn’t even close to accurate, but I am getting the hang of reading from right to left, thanks to a few trips to Shabbat services. […]

  2. mhn125 says:

    Thanks to Rabbi David Young of Congregation B’nai Tzedek in Fountain Valley, CA for sharing his thoughts privately in an email, then agreeing to me reposting them here for all to see.

    Thank you for sending me this link….what a fascinating journey through faiths you must be having.

    I particularly enjoy how surprised you were at the reverence in the Reform service. This is often one of the difference that strikes me among our movements. In the Reform movement, those who go to services tend to take it more “seriously.” Sometimes that can be a drawback (less-than-quiet children might get dirty looks from other worshippers and be implicitly discouraged from attending occasionally), but as far as being able to get lost in the music and chanting as you described, it can be very nice.

    A couple of FYI’s:
    – Not every Reform or Reconstructionist service is the same. The more you go into Conservative and Orthodox, the more formulaic you get, but some Reform services are indistinguishable from Conservative, and some look like they belong around a campfire. It all depends on where you go, and usually which week of the month it is. In San Antonio they happen to run concurrent services most nights–the one you went to as well as a guitar-led, casual service in their chapel. I imagine you would experience quite a difference if you went back and chose a different room. There also happens to be music before services, starting 15 minutes early or so. Sometimes it pays to be punctual. 😉
    – The word “rabbi” is a title, and does not need to be capitalized when not attached to a person’s name–same with cantor, priest, imam, president, etc. It should be treated like the word “doctor” in that regard.

    NOTE: The information in the text now reflects this change. Thank you, Rabbi Young! You make me a better writer by taking the time to point out where I’ve gotten it wrong.)

    – The associate rabbi at TBE San Antonio, Rabbi Elisa Koppel, happens to be a friend. I couldn’t tell from your video if you experienced her leading services, but she is terrific.
    – The silver on the Torah is probably the crown (either one over both posts or one on each), breast plate, and yad, or “pointer.” The crown and breast plate adorn the Torah along with the mantle and band underneath to remind us of the priests of the Temple (capitalized because I am referring to the one in Jerusalem from pre-70 CE), who wore similar headdresses (though not silver), as well as colorful tunics with matching belts. They also wore breastplates decorated with representations of the 12 tribes. Since we no longer have priests offering ritual sacrifices, the central part of the service–the Torah and its readings, are dressed up to remind us of them.
    – You can go into an Orthodox service uninvited (I have actually never heard that particular bubbe meise before), but you will not be able to sit with the men unless it happens to be a “Modern Orthodox” synagogue. Orthodox worship is conducted with a mechitza, a separation between the men’s and women’s sections. Men lead the service and worship together. The women’s section is very different at different places. Sometimes it is separated by a curtain and the women can sing and pray together with the men. Sometimes it is an upstairs balcony or a completely separate room with a lattice or window in between. Occasionally it is a subtle, inobtrusive divider that is there simply as a marker that worshippers may heed or ignore.
    – I recommend speaking to the prayer leaders at the 50 houses of worship you attend. It might help alleviate some preconceived notions, or answer some questions you might have so that your observations come backed with information.

    Thank you again for sharing this with me. Feel free to ask questions if anything I wrote needs clarification.

    Kol Tuv,
    Rabbi David N. Young
    Congregation B’nai Tzedek

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