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Visiting The Synagogue

I sat in my car waiting to walk in the door. I was only the second car in the parking lot and wondered if this might be a bad decision. Instead, I made peace with my nerves and walked inside. Rabbi Gideon Estes was already in the foyer ready to welcome me to the Congregation Or Ami, a conservative synagogue in a rough part of downtown Houston. I could tell he was trying to get a read on my intentions. When I asked what I needed to do in order to prepare for the service, he told me I needed a kippah and showed me many colorful options. Then, he handed me a prayer book and a copy of the Torah in Hebrew, with English translated in the margins. Grabbing my arm, he said, “Jon, you do know that you are going to be sitting through a long service, right?” I thanked him for the warning, then shrugged it off considering I grew up Pentecostal and “long service” was our unofficial motto. “It starts at 9:30,” he continued, “and ends at noon.”

Much of the liturgy felt familiar to me, as the Rabbi walked around the room, asking people to do certain things throughout the service, such as read or sing texts. My neck began to stiffen. Everyone seemed to have the Hebrew parts memorized, as the prayer leader would start singing a text and then suddenly start whispering a longer portion at a rapid speed, and then amplify his voice in a call-and-response fashion. I was nervous until one of the older gentlemen walked over to my seat and assured me that they were reciting a doxology, “kind of like the Lord’s prayer for you Christians,” he said, “except without the Jesus part.” And after an hour, I picked up on the cadence of the words and the Rabbi even sat next to me during the service a few times to ask if I was learning anything or if I needed help with clarification.

Even though it was a Saturday that the Rabbi would normally only have a discussion around the Torah reading, he decided to give a short sermon. Rabbi Estes had spent the night before wrestling with the events in New Zealand. He then turned from being this sort of bookish Rabbi to this fire-breathing Pentecostal preacher, screaming at the top of his lungs and imploring his congregation to stay awake and never forget that this world is filled with evil intentions. He cited a “spirit of Amalek” in the world that was constantly challenging the rule of Adonai and that it was up to the people of God to not make peace with fallen Kings, just like Saul had, and make war with love, not with hate, racism, or fear. I was stunned how similar this sermon was to many at my own church.

After another song, the Rabbi sat down next to me and asked if I was going into pulpit ministry. When I said that I was, he told me that whenever tragic events take place, the man of faith is supposed to scrap his sermon and address it. I agreed. It reminded me of the Tikkun Olam prayer we spent so much time discussing in class, and how the need for things to be put right through faithful responsibility towards the world was one of the primary ways God acts in the earth. The congregation then began a two-part discussion on giving a voice to the voiceless. One man said that he was willing to leave another man bleeding on the sidewalk if he threatened his grandchild, and when he was done talking the Rabbi made sure that he knew it was against his Rabbi’s teaching to assault people in public.

It was for three whole hours I spent participating in the service. The most powerful piece of it being the procession of Torah. They each rubbed the tassels from their prayer shawl on the scrolls and kissed the tassel that touched the scroll. One woman insisted that I touch the smaller scroll with my copy of Torah, which I obliged. I found out later that the smaller scroll was more famously called the “space scroll” because it had been taken up to space by an astronaut who was a member at their synagogue. This was a fact confirmed again by the Rabbi. When this same woman asked me what kind of Christian I was, I told her, “Anglican.” She then confessed that she has been an Episcopalian until she married a Rabbi. We laughed and ate together for a Shabbat meal after the service.

I’m glad I attended the Shabbat service. It was one of the most enlightening services I’ve ever attended, Christian or otherwise. We had much in common and discussed the need to be faithful to our traditions in an age of secularism. They then asked if I wanted to drink vodka shots (not kidding), and the Rabbi said I didn’t have to do so if I didn’t want to. The Director of Israeli Economic Development sitting next to me just laughed and asked me what I liked to read. Oh, I enjoyed my visit!

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