Teen raiders of the Ark
A spontaneous "oooh" came from the girls of North Foreland Lodge school at Hook, Hampshire, when the ornate copper and bronze doors of the "ark" were slid back. The 21 girls were on a school visit to the Liberal Jewish Synagogue in St John's Wood, London. Behind the doors was revealed the Torah, the synagogue's treasured scrolls, the first five books of the Bible, each "dressed" in a wild silk cover embroidered in gold and silver, with elaborate silver regalia on top.
It was indeed a sight to take anyone's breath away. None of the 12 and 13-year-olds from the school, a small Church of England independent, had been inside a synagogue before.
Settled in the high-backed cherrywood seats of the large sanctuary, they were welcomed by its director of education, Jan Roseman. "An elaborately decorated ark is always the focal point of the sanctuary," she explained. "The light above it, called the ner tamid, is never put out - a custom originating from biblical times, described in the Torah.
"The ner tamid is a very important part of the story of Chanukkah, our eight-day festival of light, in December, when we remember the re-dedication of the temple in Jerusalem. The scrolls are read from the raised platform where I am standing, called the bimah. You don't have to be a rabbi to do this, but it's terribly important that the reader does not make a mistake."
Visiting schools are always non-Jewish, so an explanation of the building and its contents is fundamental as an introduction to Judaism and its three main strands - liberal, reform and orthodox. "My task is more difficult when children are not familiar with churches and Christianity - as many aren't," Mrs Roseman said, explaining that the impressive octagonal sanctuary, rebuilt in 1991 with a large gallery, was just one part of the synagogue. Other rooms are used for a variety of activities, all designed to fulfil its role as a house of prayer, meeting and learning: "bet tfilah", "bet knesset" and "bet sefer". The girls from North Foreland Lodge were already accustomed to church surroundings. They had also been thoroughly prepared for the visit by Julia Bowden, head of RE. As part of their key stage 3 course on world religions, they had had 10 50-minute lessons and a test on Judaism.
"The point of bringing them here i to help them see that Judaism is a real and living tradition," she said. "We could simply have studied synagogues in books or on the internet. But it's only by actually being in a building that you can feel what makes it good for worship. I wanted the girls to sense that special feeling for themselves." They certainly seemed impressed by the building's striking modern design. But what made it different from a church, asked Mrs Roseman? No stained glass was the general consensus. And the reason for this? "The Ten Commandments forbid images of God and people, though pictures of animals and flowers are allowed," she explained. "Instead, we put all our energy into making the ark very beautiful."
The highlight of the visit was the "undressing" of one of the scrolls. After taking off the shiny silk coat, Mrs Roseman rolled it open on a lectern. The girls immediately asked her to read out a few of the complicated lines. She used an intricately decorated silver pointer to keep her place on the impeccable hand-written script. Translating the words, familiar from the Bible, she pointed out that Judaism was essentially about how you treat other people, rather than theology and the nature of God. Gathered in near-awe around the lectern, the girls had plenty of questions. Why use a pointer? How old were the scrolls? How much would a new set cost? How long does it take to read a whole scroll at services?
Later her description of a Jewish wedding when a white canopy - chuppah - is raised over the couple sparked more questions. The girls could scarcely believe that strictly orthodox brides, for reasons of modesty, not only cover but shave their heads and afterwards always wear a wig. "You can see from my real hair that this is a Liberal Jewish synagogue," smiled Mrs Roseman. Afterwards the girls went on to the Jewish Museum in nearby Camden Town. There they took part in a workshop about Jewish festivals and handled various symbolic objects including a Chanukkah lamp. Finally, to help them appreciate how Judaism revolves round the home, as well as the synagogue, they re-enacted the traditional Friday night meal, drinking grape juice and eating challah bread.
Liberal Jewish Synagogue 28 St John's Wood Road, London NW8 7HA. Tel: 020 7286 5181. Admission free. Open Mon-Thurs 9am-5pm, Friday 9am-1pm. Closed during religious festivals, ring for details. Education officer: Jan Roseman.