From North American Reform Temples to the Ancient Temple in Jerusalem and then back home again

By Rabbi David Wilfond, Director of Education, NFTY in Israel

Yesterday I had the privilege of accompanying a NFTY in Israel group on a visit to the archeological excavations by the Western and Southern Walls of Mount Moriah, the site of the ancient Temple in the Old City of Jerusalem. Our NFTYites hail from Temple Emanuels, Beth Shaloms, Bnai Israels and the like. Today’s Reform Temples in North America aspire, on some level, to re-create the spirituality, community and holiness once  experienced by our ancestors at the Temple in Jerusalem. Our kids are familiar with their home Temples, but a visit to the site of the “Original Temple” in Jerusalem affords them an opportunity to learn about how many of today’s Reform Jewish customs have  their origin  in the  ancient Temple in Jerusalem.

At the Southwestern corner of the Temple Mount was found a huge stone with a Hebrew inscription (that our NFTY-ites were able to decipher.)  It says “Here is the place of the Shofar blowing!”  One of the favorite traditions of Rosh HaShana and Yom Kippor, the blowing of the shofar, was a practice that began at the Temple. The original stone from 2,000 years ago designating the exact spot of the blowing is still there!

At the Southern Wall our students leaned about the practice in Temple Times of singing Psalm 126, “Shir Hama’a lot,” (The Song of Ascents) as they ascended the steps up to the Temple.  Today at NFTY summer camps and at NFTY events it is our custom to sing “Shir Hama’a lot” with the Birkat HaMazon (Grace after meals) on Shabbat. Symbolically we are saying that being in Shabbat is like being in the holiness of the ancient Temple.

Many of our students learned for their Bar and Bat Mitzvah to lead services beginning with the Barchu prayer, “The call to worship.”  This call and its response by the community began as the manner of starting services at the ancient Temple more than 2,000 years ago.

In many of our Reform Temples today  the Rabbi recites the Birkat Cohanim, the Priestly Benediction,  either at the close of the service, or to the Bar or Bat Mitzvah while standing in from of  the  Aron haKodesh, the Holy Ark. The Rabbis says “May God bless you and protect you.  May God’s face be lifted up to you and shine upon you. May God’s countenance be raised to you and grant you peace, shalom.”  These are the exact words that were said to our ancestors by the Cohenin when they attended services in the ancient Temple  for the Chagim, the Holidays.

The greeting “Chag Sameach,” as the wish “Happy Holiday,” is familiar to many of our NFTYites. Here they learn that the word “Chag” is like the camp word Chug (or Chugim),which is often used at camp to mean an “activity, ” but actually means a “circle.” (Perhaps an activity done in a circle, like a sewing circle.)  Quite possibly more than some of us have heard the Hebrew “Chug,” we may have heard the Arabic word “Haj.”  This word means a “Pilgrimage” and the Hebrew word “Chag” means the same thing.

Our NFTYites, in coming to Israel have come on a pilgrimage, a circular path from their home (and home Temple) to Israel (and the site of the original Temple in Jerusalem) and then back to home again.  Our hope is that our NFTYites will return home with a deeper appreciation of our Reform Jewish customs today and the origin of many of these traditions in our people’s practices at the ancient Temple in Jerusalem.

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