This past weekend saw some friends from the Ailsa Craig Community Quilt Festival committee and spouses attending a tour of the Or Shalom Synagogue in London. I don't know how many people ever think about another's religion, regardless of whether you are religious yourself. I don't know how many people know there are actually three synagogues in London. Beth Tefilah which is the Orthodox Synagogue, Or Shalom, more conservative and Temple Israel which is liberal.
The idea of a tour came about when we were having a meeting with members of the Jewish community in London, making preparations for the Quilts of Israel show, would it be possible? The Rabbi, Catherine Clark, was at the meeting and said yes, without hesitation, and so it was arranged.
The tour was given by Fred Ball, who has been instrumental in helping us with the Festival this year, he has contacted people with a view to sponsoring a quilter to come over from Israel, holding meetings at his home and generally making sure we have the help we need. We turned up at the synagogue on a wet Sunday afternoon, and Fred took us into the Sanctuary, I had three children with me, who, without prompting, asked some very interesting questions. The first one was, do you take Communion? An excellent question, and Fred was able to explain the difference between the Jewish faith and the Christian faith. They certainly don't deny that Jesus existed, just that they don't believe he is the Messiah.
Fred then took us to the Ark. This is the area where the Torah, the Jewish scriptures are kept. The children were asked to very carefully open the iron doors, which were about 12 feet tall and push them back against the wall. Then, they very carefully slid the doors open to reveal the Torah's. It was a stunning sight, the synagogue actually has 13 of them. They are rolled as scrolls and have two finials at the top which have beautiful silver decorations. We took the Torah to the lectern, and we stood the silver finials on the two posts which stand next to the lectern. The Torah was very carefully opened, and Fred explained that they were handwritten in Hebrew and probably take six months to write, they are written on parchment and cannot be touched as the oils in our skin can damage them, so, if they need to follow what they are reading, then there is a little pointer called a Yad which is used.
After returning the Torah to its spot in the Ark, Fred then showed us a Prayer shawl and the Tefillin. Now this is something I have seen, but thought that it was only used by Orthodox Jews. It is something that you may have seen in photos of Orthodox jews at the Wailing Wall in Jerusalem, and is the little square headpiece which is worn during prayer. Fred explained that there are actually two Tefillin, one is worn on the arm and has to be placed close to the heart and then the strap is wound round the arm a specific number of times, and then around the hand and fingers in a specific way, then they place the other tefillin on the head. The Tefillin actually contains a piece of the Torah.
We also looked at the Pentateuch, their equivalent of our Bible, and prayed together. There are also 614 Commandments compared to our 10! And they try to live their lives in accordance with these commandments.
It struck me while we were listening, that we really don't know much about other religions and that if we made more of an effort to find out, we might have a better understanding of each other. I have hundreds of questions that there was no time to ask, we were there for two hours and could have sat there for at least another two it was so interesting!
So, when you come to Festival to see the Quilts, give some thought to the faith of our quilters, the meaning behind some of the quilts, and think about what it means to be Jewish. As Fred said, they've been around for 3,500 years!