Home Archives Spotlight on Teaching October 2004 Site Visits to Synagogues

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Michael S. Berger, Emory University

Michael S. Berger is Associate Professor of Jewish Studies in the Department of Religion, Emory University. He is the author of Rabbinic Authority (Oxford, 1998). His research and teaching focus on issues of religious authority, and medieval and contemporary Jewish thought.

One of the many challenges of modern religious studies in Western universities and colleges is the breathtaking diversity of the phenomena we try to help our students understand. No matter how much we qualify, nuance, or shade our descriptions and analyses, the very format of the semester or quarter course forces us, and therefore our students, to simplify, generalize, conflate, and reduce the realities of religious thought and practice. Site visits can, therefore, not only vividly bring to life what we must frequently flatly describe in the classroom; they can also render the reality “messier” than the more simplified impression students receive from readings and class presentations.

My course “Modernization of Judaism” exposes students to the emergence of denominations in Judaism since the Emancipation of the Jews in the 19th century. This process of denominationalism, which began in Europe and accelerated in the United States from the 1840s to the present, was in many cases driven by  ideological debates as to how Judaism should best adapt to the modern period. Part of the Jews’ assimilation over the last two centuries often meant adopting the Western cultural norm of religion “happening” in the house of worship; indeed, many of the initial changes to traditional practice involved synagogue practice, and so I want students to see (or notice) these changes and to link them back to their ideological underpinnings. For instance, the direction the cantor faces, the amount of Hebrew in the service, or the subject of the sermon are often easily related to what the students have been studying. This understandably requires placing the site visit in the syllabus after we have covered sufficient material about each American denomination, which is usually after the midterm. I notify students of this at the outset of the semester, so that they can plan their weekends after the midterm to include a site visit (I require attendance at Friday night or preferably Saturday morning services, as that is when most congregations hold services). Students are encouraged to attach to their reports any materials that might be distributed at the synagogue — flyers about upcoming events, homiletical messages, or other writings — and to discuss these handouts in relationship to what we have been studying.

Timing the site visit halfway through the semester has the added advantage of allowing students to think for several weeks about Jewish traditions as they are presented in historical and ethnographic texts — only to discover that many people in the pews do not conform to the students’ expectations. These discrepancies can often only be ascertained through actual conversations with congregants. This personal interaction is probably the most challenging part of site visits. I realize not every student can do this, so I simply set out for them what makes a site visit report an “A,” one criterion of which is conversations with congregants. Conversations are made easier if students visit the synagogues either alone or in very small groups. I encourage them to strike up conversation with congregants by asking them for assistance and by sticking around after services for some questions and answers. To be honest, in the ten years I have been living in Atlanta, this has become easier because more Jews are either familiar with me or are acquainted with this assignment, and so I now tell students to mention that they are there for Professor Berger’s course, and most often, the conversation begins immediately.

As responsible neighbors, we must prepare our students to act appropriately on site visits. In most cases, this means alerting students to the sensibilities of congregants of particular denominations. Thus, I tell students that if they attend an Orthodox congregation, they should be aware of the modest dress code and should avoid writing or using tape recorders during the Sabbath, when Orthodox Jews forbid such activities. Students should be informed of the general structure of what they will see, and the length of services. I have had students who allotted only an hour for a synagogue visit and therefore did not really see the bulk of the service, which lasted over two hours. While I have found serendipity to be a good thing about site visits — sometimes students “stumble” into a bar mitzvah or special weekend for a congregation — I do suggest students call up a congregation in advance to ascertain the time services begin, precise directions on how to get there, and any other information that might help them act respectfully. As more congregations in the last five years have set up Web sites, I encourage students to check these out for information about the synagogue.

One phenomenon that I have encountered and have had to address is students’ preconceptions about the various Jewish denominations. Courses like “Modernization of Judaism” tend to attract many Jewish students who are either eager to learn more about their own heritage, or feel (mistakenly!) that this course will be easy because they attended Hebrew school and are likely familiar with the material. Given the large number of Jewish students at Emory College, usually more than half the students registered for this course are Jewish. I have also found that many non-Jews have attended the bar or bat mitzvah celebrations of Jewish friends, and thus they, too, have prior notions of Reform, Reconstructionist, Conservative, and Orthodox Judaism. I therefore ask that students attend services at a congregation of a denomination they have not visited before, so that they are able to observe with fewer preconceptions. There is usually little resistance to this, but on one occasion it presented a difficulty when an Orthodox Jewish student told me her rabbi had prohibited her from attending non-Orthodox services. In this case, I asked her to attend an ultra-Orthodox (Hasidic) congregation that she had not attended in the past, and to read up on the differences between Hasidism and non-Hasidic Orthodoxy. However, this, too, proved difficult, as there were not many women at that congregation, and the student did not feel comfortable conversing with the men, given that in Hasidic society, men and women do not generally mingle.

Although students begin to make their site visits after midterm exams, I encourage them not to begin writing their reports until I have covered more material in the course. (We finish up to World War II by midterm and then spend the rest of the semester inspecting developments in the denominations over the last sixty years.) In this way, they are more sensitive to a variety of subjects that are primarily results of more recent trends. For instance, noticing synagogue architecture requires a deeper understanding of the functions of a synagogue and habits of attendance in order to interpret the building’s design properly. Thus, in the 1950s synagogues began adding education wings to their facilities, as houses of worship were also seen to be the place for teaching the children Judaism after public school. More significantly, the move of many Jews to suburbia in midcentury required two major adaptations: the addition of large parking lots, and the construction of sanctuaries whose capacity could be “extended” for the increased attendance on the High Holy Days. This is something most students would not likely notice on their own, and so I point it out to them in a class session specifically on the mid-century trends, and ask that they observe this in their site visits, or think back to what they saw when they visited.

Because I have several pedagogical intentions for site visits, I give students a list of standard informational questions they need to answer regarding their visit. I then ask them to recount aspects of the service that they found to be consistent ideologically within the denomination, as well as details of the service or conversation that they thought were not in keeping with their understanding of that particular denomination. I ask them to offer an explanation of the inconsistencies they found.

I devote one class session to reporting on and discussion of these site visits. Student reactions vary. Given the student population at Emory, many students have never been to an Orthodox service, and with the proximity of several Orthodox congre- gations to campus, a large number of students attend these services. Under- standably, non-Jews find visiting Orthodox services, where the entire service is lengthy and in Hebrew, an overwhelming challenge, and some even leave after just a few minutes. In some cases, the entire experience depends on the first people they encounter at the synagogue. If the congregants they meet are gracious and welcoming, it is usually a positive experience that they remember for a long time; if the experience is negative, students may be left with a bitter taste in their mouth. Students may also take their experience of the site visit and have it overwhelm all other data. For example, one time some of my students who attended a sparsely attended Reform service predicted the movement’s demise, based on that single morning’s attendance. It is important to mention to the class that site visits are only one experience with one congregation, and often with only a few congregants; they must be careful not to generalize about an entire denomination or all its members simply from one encounter with that form of Judaism.

The site visit is a powerful pedagogical tool that I have refined over time and learned to use more wisely. It can be a healthy corrective to generalizations and stereotypes about Jewish traditions, but it should not be presented as the most authentic source of knowledge. Instructors help students most by placing the site visit in the syllabus at an appropriate time, structuring what students should look for, preparing them to avoid embarrassment, and finally, giving them time to process and even hear other experiences, so that the site visit does not overwhelm what they learn from the rest of the course.


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