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Region 1 - Brixton Sai Centre visit to the South London Synagogue

On Sunday 7 September 2014, Brixton Sai Centre took the opportunity to visit the South London Synagogue in Streatham. Many of us were unaware that the Synagogue even existed, especially after passing its road many times, as the Synagogue is situated behind housing that it sponsors.

We were fortunate to be guided around the Synagogue by the Rabbi and learn from him how a service is conducted. The Rabbi explained that “synagogue” means “coming together”; it is a place of prayer, social and charitable work, and especially a place of study. The old German and Yiddish word used to refer to a synagogue, “shul,” means “school”: this emphasises the synagogue’s role as a place of study.

The part of the synagogue where prayer services are performed is called the sanctuary. Its most important feature is the Ark, a cabinet in the wall that holds the Torah scrolls, with fine mantles and decorations to protect the scrolls. The Ark always faces towards Jerusalem. It has doors including beautifully embroidered curtains called “parokhet”. The opening and closing of the doors or curtains is performed by a member of the congregation, which is considered an honour and all congregants stand when the Ark is open. During the service, the Torah scrolls are taken out of the Ark; the scrolls are very heavy. The decorations and mantles are taken off and the scrolls are held up high for everyone to see. They are carried around the synagogue and with great respect the congregants touch them with their prayer shawls. The scrolls are then placed on the reading desk to be read.

The Rabbi gave a very interesting talk about the Jewish New Year festival, Rosh Hashanah. This year, Rosh Hashanah was celebrated from sundown on September 24 to nightfall on September 26. The meaning of “Rosh Hashanah” literally means "head of the year". The holiday takes place on the first two days of the Hebrew month of Tishrei, which is the seventh month on the Hebrew calendar. This is because Rosh Hashanah, one of four new years in the Jewish year, is considered the new year of people, animals and legal contracts. A common greeting on Rosh Hashanah is shana tovah u'metukah, Hebrew for "a good and sweet new year." In the Jewish tradition, Rosh Hashanah marks the completion of the creation of the world. Rosh Hashanah is the beginning of the Jewish high holy days, or Yamim Noraim (the “Days of Awe"), and is followed ten days later by Yom Kippur, the "day of atonement." The Mishnah (Jewish oral tradition) refers to Rosh Hashanah as the "day of judgment" and it is believed that God opens the Book of Life on this day and begins to decide who shall live and who shall die. The days between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur are viewed as an opportunity for Jews to repent (teshuvah) and ensure a good fate.

The Rabbi also presented a polished instrument made from the horn of a ram or other kosher animal called shofar. The shofar is blown on Rosh Hashanah marking the beginning of the New Year, signifying waking up to the call to repentance. In ancient times, the shofar was used to summon everyone in the event of an emergency. It is customary to hear 100 sounds from the shofar on each day of Rosh Hashanah.

Afterwards, we had the opportunity to ask the Rabbi questions, as well as partake in his hospitality. We had a wonderful time marking Rosh Hashanah and learning about Judaism.

Amanda Sogga