I’ve just come back from our congregational visit to the nearby progressive synagogue.
It was an interesting experience. About 15 of us turned up, we went to their normal Saturday morning Shabbat service, there was a kiddush (blessing of bread and wine, and then a spread) afterwards laid on by a couple celebrating their 63rd wedding anniversary. Finally, the President of the synagogue took us back into their worship space where we looked at the Torah scrolls and he answered some of our questions.
The synagogue itself is incredibly unassuming on the outside, and beautiful but modern on the inside. (It is designed to look like an office block deliberately as a security precaution.) The people were very friendly and made us feel quite welcome.
Learning from others
I observed a few things.
- Their service style is very liturgical, with lots of sitting and standing, and whilst in both English and Hebrew, it was probably about 70% Hebrew.
- Aside from the larger number of children (who were mostly in religious classes), the demographic attending was much like ours – more likely to be older than younger, and more likely to be female than male.
- The sermon was a good length (probably 5-10 minutes) and covered current affairs (Al-Qaeda, bin Laden), the (mixed race) anniversary couple, and the Torah reading.
- The special prayers were in celebration of the founding of the state of Israel. They focused on the vision of its founding fathers, and that all its inhabitants and the surrounding region might live in peace and equality.
For me, I enjoyed the service. There were a few elements that would have fit right into Unitarian worship – particularly the opening words. The communal unaccompanied chanting of Hebrew was beautiful and occasionally familiar. There were times when I felt quite worshipful, which is something given the unfamiliarity of the service. Their attitude to the bible, and to ethics in general seemed to have many similarities with Unitarianism.
On the other hand, I couldn’t remain solely in a religious community that only took inspiration from one tradition. There was little space for non-God worship. It felt to me like there is a different emphasis between birthright and chosen faiths – and I feel that an explicitly chosen faith is the only way (for me) to go – and between faiths that seek to absorb strangers, and those that only welcome them.
Unitarians through others’ eyes
One of the things that was most interesting was how they seemed to view Unitarians. We were most definitely considered to be simply liberal Christians. We were implicitly expected to be familiar with bible stories in a way that I haven’t seen since I left my (Catholic) primary school. I found that a little frustrating, both because I don’t identify as Christian and also because our diversity is so important to how I view our faith communities.
I hope that even the Christian Unitarians don’t try to portray us as simply another branch of Christianity. It’s not that it’s given us a bad name, just an inaccurateone.