Many Jewish synagogues don’t allow technology to be used in the building on the Sabbath, so getting access to photograph was a bit tricky. After calling every synagogue in the Philadelphia area I could find, I finally came across Kol Tzedek.
This West Philadelphia synagogue is rather unconventional. They meet in a Methodist church – where both Methodist and Mennonite groups currently practice. The Jewish congregation meets on Saturdays for their normal Sabbath service and on Thursday mornings for a sunrise time of prayer and reading from the Torah. I was surprised to hear that all of these congregations meet and coexist in the same building, but it was a truly beautiful representation of acceptance and love despite religious differences. Walking into the sanctuary, you can see evidence of all of the religions that practice in there, making it a melting pot of these seemingly different groups.
Now, here is where I come in. Even though there was still the prohibition of electronics on the Sabbath – which is totally understandable, it is part of how they make that day holy – I was able to come in and photograph during the Thursday service. This is a small, intimate service that starts at 7:00 am. The 10-15 people that gather are led by one of the regular members in prayer and chanting that focuses their minds on God for the day.
People dawn prayer shawls called tallits, which are meant to remind people of the 613 commandments in the Jewish law and to put worshippers into the proper mindset for prayer. The chants during the service were haunting and beautiful as they melodically recited in unison. People rocked back and forth, closed their eyes, and deeply appreciated the time they got to spend with their God in the early hours. After the time of prayer, there was a passage read from Jewish history with life application afterward. It was very peaceful.
The people I got to meet during this time were extremely welcoming and curious about my photography. They wanted to hear all about my project and help in any way they could – happily posing for me and allowing me to direct them. They were eager to tell me about the things I hadn’t ever seen – like the tefillin, which are small leather boxes and straps that are wrapped around the head and arms. Inside of these boxes are pieces of scripture from the Torah that are meant to remind the wearer of God’s salvation of the Jewish people from the enslavement of the Egyptians.
All in all, my experience at Kol Tzedek was a beautiful one. It was such a privilege to watch the morning sunlight stream through the stained glass as people spent time reconnecting with God and with each other. Plus, the free bagels at the end of service made it pretty special as well!