My Experience at Congregation Beth Shalom
Just the thought of a dark-skinned, strong willed, exceptionally sassy, plus-sized Dominican & Puerto Rican woman who was raised in a strict Christian home with exceeding Pentecostal beliefs, sitting in a room amongst Jewish people in a synagogue was a barbaric, blasphemous, and impossible for me to even comprehend. And not only did that terrifying thought become a reality, worst of all, this 5’7 Hispanic Goddess was taller than more than half of the congregation!
I, Ruth Noemi Luna was the huge gigantic Amazonian in the room. I looked like the last Coco Puff in a cereal bowl of milk.
It was a regular Saturday sunshine morning in Florida. The sun was in the empty blue sky. Birds cheeped and churped from within the huge surround Oak trees. Squirrels rushed down the Oak trees to cram their cheeks with all different sorts of acorns. The leaves were still green considering since it was the end of summer, yet some of the trees had already given up the fight and released their leaves to the earth. Beth Shalom is located in Deltona, about an hour and a half commute from my spec of a hometown called, St. Cloud. when I stepped foot into Beth Shalom, where Winston Weilheimer is the Rabbi. At first glance, he looked very healthy due to his large round belly that flopped over his belt buckle. He smiled, “Oh Allen, is this the guest you were bringing for today?” This meeting was completely planned. My senior undergrad year fall semester, I was required to take a Global Music Course in order to complete my credits. The course required students to explore the community in order to conduct a field study observation of music that is not popular or Western classical style. Since my recent trip from Israel, I’ve acquired a sharp curiosity and decided to explore Israeli music. I figured I’d to stick with the typical research paper style to begin my investigation of Israeli music. I never thought in a trillion years that I was actually going to visit a Synagogue.
Rabbi Weilheimer slowly crouched over to get out of the navy blue draped chair. It took him a few seconds, which felt like hours to me. “You must excuse me, I pulled my back while getting out of bed this morning.” I shook his cold slightly hairy pale hand. I turned my face towards Allen just as he was gesturing to me where to sit. I now had my own navy blue draped chair as well. “Kooken, show her where the book for the service are.” I always laughed at the name Kooken, and Allen would turn give ma a sour look and turn red from me laughing. I’ve known Allen since my first year at Rollins College. He was always willing to help me, and he hasn’t failed me yet.
An awfully sweet British fellow named Sheldon greeted me as I walked to my seat. He was either charming because of his accent or he was just excited to see an extraordinary person in their service that morning. I was given a blue book about the same girth as the Bible. Interesting enough, instead of opening it from right to left, we opened from left to right. It felt very awkward; it was as though I was reading the book backward. Rabbi Weilheimer kindly explained that Hebrew text is read right to left, beginning on the right page and the English translation was located on the left page.
Right next to the altar, a very short lady wearing wore New Balance shoes that were white as snow, but were currently tearing at the corner of her left shoe. To complete her wardrobe along with the disastrous shoes, she wore a slightly faded jean skirt with silver stainless steel jean buttons running down the front middle, and an obviously old T-shirt due to throwing it in the washing machine a million times. As she began singing, the congregation followed. It seemed as though her melody was a Rabbi Weilheimer would recite the Hebrew text and sounded as he was chanting. He would begin with eighth notes then without warning turn into quick sixteenth notes. He would read so fast, a congregation member had to point to their finger in my book to show me which section he was in. The overall service is vocal and in orthodox settings only men are allowed to sing and lead the service. In the synagogue, it is the duty if each Jew to perform the order of prayers by himself. The entire performance is vocal and only men participate actively.
The duty of prayer, in its liturgical sense, is not mandatory for women, who sit in a separate gallery. There are five sections within the service. There are the Sephardi traditions. Sephardi’s are the Jews from Spain and North Africa. Their traditions consist of beginning the service with, psalms and other biblical texts. This was where Rabbi Weilheimer began reading the Psalms of David, which lead into the second section. Shema Yisrael, which is the Benediction (Hear O Israel). This is the main statement of the Jewish monotheistic credo, believing that there is one God as the creator and ruler of the universe, without rejection of a revelation.
The core of the Orthodox synagogue services is the collection of Berakot (blessings) generally known as the Amidah (standing) the third section of the service. Everyone in the congregation is standing while reciting. The fourth section is Seder Tahanunim (order of supplications). This when they take the Torah (the five book of Moses which is divided into 54 portions) and is placed inside the Holy Ark, and taken delicately out of the Holy Ark, carried by a member of the congregation where the Rabbi marches around the synagogue and the Torah carrier follows.
Once the Rabbi and other congregational members arrived at the front of the altar, they lay it on top of a table covered in religious fabrics. The Rabbi opens the scrolls to where everyone will be reading which concludes the fifth section. In Beth shalom, during the Sabbath service, the Torah appeared to be enclosed in a television entertainment center where the Torah occupied the space where the television is supposed to be. Rabbi Weilheimer had a member of the congregation carry the Torah and march around with that member as Rachel sang a song of worship.
Most of the sections are separated by the Qaddish, which is the sanctification of God’s name, a prayer in Aramaic and in Hebrew. Which was something we did a few times. They explained that if we performed this service as the Orthodox Jewish communities do, the Qaddish would last more than forty-five minutes long.
It arrives at a conclusion where there is a melodious moment in where there are moments when their prayers sound as though they are singing, it’s considered a way praying. It sounded as if he was chanting when the Rabbi conducted his prayer/blessing. It’s absolutely beautiful to hear him sing and the congregation respond! IT’s a wonderful communal experience. Weilheimer wasn’t the best singer to our standards, but listen, every note had a meaning to every syllable he said in Hebrew. Usage of trills (two pitches sung together at the same time very quickly) that descended into microtones, sounded very peculiar at first. Once I closed my eyes and began to meditate, the pitches made complete sense! The majority of the vocal chanting, Rabbi’s prayer, and blessing were absolutely beautiful. When the service ended I was able to talk to Rachel. She explained she’s not a fully trained cantor. She confessed that she never wanted to become a professional Cantor, the majority of them are men. She can receive a Masters degree in Sacred Music which would allow to her enter into a school of cantor, but it would be very difficult for her to find a temple where she will be able to hold a true professional position as a cantor. She explained that the office of the Hazzan, which is the synagogue cantor, was appointed after the 15th century. The Hazzan, “That is, the musically gifted” individual can also fulfill other duties within the synagogue. Hazzans are “teacher of children, scribe and ritual slaughter”. Generally, the cantor singing is learned and passed down by family relations. Cantor singing was available for amateur singers, “a tradition that was orally transferred from one generation to the next and no formal training developed.” Rachel explained that by the 19th century in German, education of cantors in professional musical skills become the concern standards for being the training and duty of being a cantor.
By “20th century developments, especially those after 1950, are characterized by many innovations in American Jewish musical content and liturgical performing practice.” Due to the massive migration of European Jews into the U.S in 1920, brought certain worship along, Jerusalem- Sephardi. Simplified to the term Sephardi, is a style developed in 20th century Israel. “This style is based on the Arabic modern Middle Eastern urban music”. Sephardi incorporates older musical traditions from Turkey and Syria combined with the new modern melodies adopted from current Egyptian art and popular music. It wasn’t until 1947, the School of Sacred Music at Hebrew Union College, in New York opened their doors strictly for Jewish members only. Following it closely was the Cantor’s Institute in 1951 at the Jewish theological Seminary. Similarly, in both institutions, all cantors were taught in Sephardi style. Not to mention, women were not allowed to participate until after WWII began due to the draft of men.
The pursuit of professionalism in cantor singing led to the establishment of cantor association where they were able to continue professional training and publish musical scores and journals. Once into the early 20th century. Sephardi cantors were able to participate in schools of cantor offering formal degrees and courses in solfeggio and voice training. This became the norm in the United States and Israel. This also caused the new element of Progressive Judaism. The distinctions between the Progressive and the Orthodox are observed in the form of temple service. The English language is used for parts of the Progressive services, which often features a mixed choir. Progressive services are adapted and shortened and are conducted with somewhat less modest than Orthodox services, which often accommodate individuals praying and occasional conversation. Men and women sit together in the Progressive Temple, both participate in all aspects of the service, and women Rabbis may officiate, whereas women are not permitted to participate in Orthodox services nor be Rabbis. Orthodox Jews believe keep both genders separated. When I visited the Wailing Wall in Jerusalem, both genders were segregated. Women congregated towards the right-hand side of the wall.
As I approached this huge ancient wall, the blocks that seemed as small as the red bricks on Park Avenue in Winter Park, quickly turned into these massive French vanilla ice tainted blocks! They stretched passed my waist, and were floor length, over seven feet long! It blew my mind to observe everyone in my surroundings and attempt to mental reenact the vision of moving these huge blocks. For hundreds of years, the Jewish people have fought to keep this wall standing.
These people believe that this is one of the essential ways to connect to the divine. I went not because it was one the most famous landmarks to visit in the country, but because I wanted to get a taste of what it is to connect to the divine. I read many articles about feeling the divine connect. I wanted to know what I had to do in order to experience it. Following the Jewish laws and rules are an essential part of connecting to the divine. In the orthodox belief, you must visit the Wailing Wall and pray during celebrations and certain holidays.
Yet in Beth Shalom, a small temple constricted in a business plaza located in the corner of a dead road in Deltona, Florida, Rabbi Weilheimer says, “ We don’t have money to fly over to Israel for every holiday and celebration. It’s a bit extreme to have to go to the Wall for every ceremony. I’m glad that we’re a Progressive Reformed congregation. It’s new to me… well new to everybody.” Rabbi Weilheimer explained the congregation didn’t really have a place of their own. They were congregating within the classrooms of a local Catholic church. At that time the congregation had more numbers, but it split due to the disagreements of Rabbi Weilheimer and the head Rabbi of the whole congregation. Rabbi Weilheimer was encouraging women to participate in different sections of the service, whereas the head Rabbi completely disagreed, he believed that both genders were allowed to sit mixed together in the congregation, but that women were not allowed to participate in the sacred service. Many congregational members agreed with Rabbi Weilheimer left with Rabbi Weilheimer, causing him to find a new location and opening Beth Shalom.
“We’re very happy here. We feel at peace and that’s how the service and members are supposed to feel. Women play a vital role within a Jewish man’s life, therefore they are just as important in the service.” Hearing those words, I left Beth Shalom feeling at peace, and yearning to experience other ways of connecting to the divine.
Hanoch Avenary and Ury Eppstein. “Jerusalem.” Grove Music Online. Oxford Music Online. Oxford University Press. Fall 2016, pp. 22-34
Edwin Seroussi, “Jewish music.” Grove Music Online. Oxford Music Online. Oxford University Press. Spring 2008, pp. 7- 38.
Heskes, Irene. “Miriam’s Sisters: Jewish Women and Liturgical Music.” Notes 48.4 Summer 1992, pp. 44- 65.
Marks, Essica. “Formal and Informal Methods in the Transmission of a Jewish Sephardi Liturgy.” Yearbook for Traditional Music 40. Fall 2008, pp. 89-103.
Stern, Rabbi G. “What Is the Most Fundamental Difference between Reform …” What Is the Most Fundamental Difference between Reform Judasim and Orthodox Judasim. Reform Judasim, Spring 2011.
Eliyahu Schelfer, “Jewish music- Psalmody.” Grove Music Online. Oxford Music Online. Oxford University Press. Spring 2008, pp. 44- 51.
Shelemay Kaufman Kay, “Jewish Music, The Role of Cantillation.” Grove Music Online. Oxford Music Online. Oxford University Press. Spring 2008, pp. 7- 15.