I am a practicing Christian, and I have never visited a temple of another religion before. For this assignment, I decided to visit Temple Israel of Greater Miami. Its peculiar facade always caught my eye, so it was an easy choice. In this paper, I will describe my visit, the building itself, and the sermon that was happening during my visit.
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According to the website of the synagogue, Temple Israel was the first Reform synagogue in South Florida. It was founded in 1922 and was originally located at what is now Biscayne Boulevard and N.E. 13th Street. In 1927 it moved to N.E. 19th Street and gained a rabbi (“About us,” 2017). Despite its old age, the building is in great condition and thanks to the eye-catching design of the Gumenick Chapel, it remains one of the most memorable religious sites in Miami. The complex consists of two main areas. The large main one, where the sermon was held during my visit, and the smaller Gumenick Chapel, located to the right of the main area.
The main area is a large hall with a rounded roof, resembling a very wide tunnel. Hundreds of cushioned seats lay between the entrance and the altar. On both sides of the room there are corridors, separated by white columns with golden lamps. Behind the columns, the stained glass could be seen with images of various symbols and events from the Torah. The synagogue is mostly white, with gold accents, brown seats, brown stage and red carpet. Overall it strongly reminds me of being in my church, except the very wide structure and cushioned seats. After the sermon, I asked if I could visit the Gumenick Chapel and luckily it was open for visitors.
Gumenick Chapel is the most recognizable part of the synagogue due to its unusual and artful design. It is a smaller area of the temple, with a compact stage and some benches. However, the beautiful design of the building inside and outside made it stand out among other places of worship I have visited before. The stained glass windows placed in unusually shaped window frames made it feel like an art installation. For illumination, multiple large chandeliers hang from the ceiling. Each of them has over a dozen lamps decorated as golden brown flowers. It is a very striking place that deserves to be seen even by people who do not practice Judaism.
During my visit, the main area of the temple was about half-full. I sat down in the back row to listen to the sermon. A middle-aged man named Rabbi Tom Heyn performed a short sermon about a portion of the story of Exodus. He had a short beard, glasses, and was wearing white. His tone was thoughtful but approachable. He began by talking about how history tends to repeat itself. He talked about how historical rulers who fear minority populations often try to enact policies to sustain their power and prevent the minority from gaining an advantage. Subsequently, this leads to the oppressed people rising to ensure their freedom, as well as freedom of others. However, he made sure to establish that this is not a sermon to show that God is always on the side of the Jewish people, but that God is interested in good for all humanity. It was nice to hear the Rabbi being inclusive of others, as I know many people who see the Jewish faith as an exclusive group. Next, he analyzed the contents of a portion of the Torah by looking at the mentality of its main characters.
The Pharoh is only concerned with his self-interest. He is close-minded and is based on an “us vs. them” system. On the other hand, Moses is a free thinker, he has an open mind and values freedom (Benyamim & Sullivan, 2013). The Rabbi talked about how people with these types of mentalities find it hard to coexist with each other, making their conflict inevitable. Then his sermon changed its focus on more prescient issues. He talked about how people cannot expect God to destroy people who hate Jews or Western democratic values. Instead, he proposed that people can work toward the elimination of the close-minded mentality that often negatively affects people’s lives. He finished his sermon with a message of hope for humanity to rise from what he called “the mud pits of slavery.” It was a good sermon that did not leave me excluded despite the focus on people of the Jewish faith. It was also very relevant to current events, with close minded mentality once again becoming common among the politicians of the world. The audience was attentive, and I have seen people nodding at the more declarative parts of the sermon. It reminded me of Christian sermons, and I did not feel like it was a foreign experience to me.
Personally, I found this visit to be a very pleasant experience. The staff was very welcoming, the buildings were beautiful, and the sermon was clear and relatable. I was originally afraid of being an outsider in a place of worship, but it was not the case. Gumenick Chapel was especially impressive. It was a completely new kind of place for me.
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About us. (2017). Web.
Benyamim, T., & Sullivan, S. (Eds.). (2013). The Israelite Samaritan Version of the Torah. Grand Rapids, MI / Cambridge, UK: William B. Eerdmans Publishing.