Places of worship – Jewish

The following questions were asked by pupils. Click on each question to see the answer.

What do you call the place you worship in?

I call it a ‘synagogue’ but some people from the Orthodox tradition will call it a ‘shul.’ You can also use Hebrew words, like Bet Knesset (house of assembly) or Bet Tefila (house of prayer).

Can you have more than one Rabbi for a Synagogue?

Good question, yes, it’s possible to have more than one rabbi sharing the work, although it is more common to have one. It depends how big the congregation is. Sometimes there is a student rabbi helping out to learn the job.

Do women and men have separate praying rooms in the Synagogue?

No, we tend to pray in the same hall but in Orthodox synagogues, there are separate areas for men and women, either different sides or the women sit upstairs.

Why do men and women sit separately in some Synagogues?

Jewish people who belong to these synagogues feel it helps them to concentrate on prayers better. Also, it means that anyone who comes on their own without a husband or wife can feel equal. A lot of religions feel that people need time together separately.

Do you have to wash before entering the Synagogue?

No, but we do before eating and after going to the burial grounds.

Why are Synagogues important to you as a believer?

Synagogues are special places for Jewish people. They can be very different in their design. My synagogue is round inside, which is very unusual.

Synagogues aren’t just places to pray. They are also a community centre, where everyone can meet. My synagogue has lessons in Hebrew and Jewish education for children on Sunday mornings, a special get-together for elderly people on a Tuesday and also a nursery for little children during the week.

There are different types of synagogue for different Jewish communities. In Orthodox synagogues, for example, great attention is paid to the commandments about worship that are found in the Torah, believed to be the direct word of God. In Orthodox synagogues men and women sit separately so that the focus is on the worship and prayers, though they can meet together after the service.

I belong to a Reform synagogue. We interpret the religion in terms of modern times. So, we have lady rabbis and women take a full part in the service. We are allowed to have men and women in a choir and also, we use an organ to accompany the singing. Some ladies choose to wear a kippah and tallit to show equality with men. It is not required for women to wear head-covering in Reform synagogues.

The most important part of all synagogues is the Ark. This is where the Torah scrolls are kept. There is always a light burning in the synagogue, usually by the Ark, called the Ner Tamid, a symbol of God’s presence. There is a reading desk on a raised platform called the Bimah, where we read the Torah scrolls. It is a special privilege to be able to take out the Torah scroll from its covering and to put it back afterwards.

As a believer, synagogue is special for me as it is where I most feel part of a religious community. It is very uplifting hearing the choir sing familiar psalms and being in a peaceful place where I can think about God. Being with Jewish people makes me feel part of a big family. Although we have many things that are different, we share our religion, history and culture. There is something very nice about seeing the children in the community grow up and take more responsibility in the services.

How often do you go to a synagogue?

This is a good question. Many religiously observant people attend synagogue to pray on Friday nights, Saturday morning and afternoon for the Shabbat services and also for festivals. However, my local synagogue, which has a small congregation, only holds Shabbat morning services every two weeks and does not usually have Friday night prayers. We have just had Jewish New Year and I attended all the festival services at the synagogue.  It’s worth remembering that synagogues are not just for prayer, they are meeting places and social centres. For example, there are education classes in learning Hebrew and about Jewish beliefs, children’s play groups, teenagers’ clubs and social groups for the elderly. Also, you can pray as a community in a group of ten people – called a minyan. That can take place anywhere, not just in a synagogue.

Do Jewish ladies wear anything special to synagogue?

There are different ways of being Jewish. Some people go to Reform synagogues, like me. In Reform synagogues, men and women sit together. Women can be rabbis and read from the Torah scrolls. Some women wear a kippah and a tallit, like men do. They can choose. Some women just dress smartly, especially for Shabbat and do not need to cover their hair.

In Orthodox synagogues, Jewish women sit separately from the men. They wear a hat or cover their head with a scarf. They dress smartly, especially for Shabbat. They don’t wear a kippah or tallit as they believe those are just for men. There are only male rabbis. Women do not read from the Torah scroll.

People choose what synagogue is right for them.