Reform Judaism at Temple Mount Sinai, El Paso, Texas

by Sharon Cornet

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Table of Contents

         Introduction

         Ethnographic informant,
         Gerald St. Germaine,
         and my first trip to the
         Reform Jewish synagogue
          at ROSH HASHANAH
   

September 30, 2006

In the chapel
Walking the Torah scroll
Bread and wine
Stained glass windows
7 days of creation
Zodiac and the 12 tribes

October 7, 2006

Torah Study: Sukkot
Tena'ch and the Bible books
Bat Mitzvah


October 21, 2006

Torah Study: Shabbat


 

   
   Jewish Art at the Temple

Artwork


Listen to Music and Singing

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October 14, 2006

Torah Study: Creation


October 28, 2006

Torah Study: Babel


OUTSIDE LINKS


Temple Mount Sinai Official Website: http://www.templemountsinai.com/

Rabbi Bach: http://www.templemountsinai.com/who_we_are/rabbi.php

Social Action at the Temple: http://www.templemountsinai.com/community/social_action.php

 

 

 

Introduction

One of the goals in the Ethnographic Methods (anthropology) class I was taking (Fall 2006) was to go to a religious service in which I was not familiar.  I chose Judaism as my topic of research due to personal interest, and the fact that my family had recently had a Jew live with us for about a month.  I was curious, and wanted to know more.  I knew of a potential ethnographic informant from a couple years prior, when he (Gerald) told me that he was converting to Judaism.  Desiring to visit a Jewish synagogue, I emailed Gerald a couple days ahead of time (figuring that Jews don’t attend meetings on Sundays) and asked him if he’d be willing to be my “guide” in the process of this participant observation research into Judaism, and he was thrilled to be able to take me to the religious service as his guest.  I asked Gerald about whether my husband and son could attend Temple Mount Sinai with me (he said they could), and how to dress (he replied that they were very casual and open, and liberal, since it was a reform congregation).  I asked if there were any rules or practices that I might not know about, but which I should know about, and he said that it was very laid back and just attending would be enough.  Gerald told me that bringing my field notebook would even be OK.  With that knowledge my family and I decided to attend.

Saturday morning, the Jewish Sabbath, we picked up Gerald at his home and he directed us to the synagogue up on the side of the mountain on Stanton Street.  On the way Gerald told us about the sacred Torah Scroll that they had at the synagogue.  He said that it was the entire Torah hand-written onto a sheepskin scroll and cost the synagogue $25,000.   I looked forward to seeing this Torah Scroll as he talked about it.  Gerald added that they bring the Scroll around and people touch their prayer books to it, and then kiss the prayer book, because then it is like kissing the Torah Scroll itself, which is a powerful symbol to the Jewish people.

The first thing we noticed as we drove around the bend in the road was the white, tall, semi-cone-shaped “tower” that stood erect above everything else in the area.  Patriarchal phallic symbols came to mind.  We pulled into the parking lot.  The location was beautiful, nestled on a hillside – on the west side of the Franklin Mountains – with a variety of pines and other trees all around, and grassy areas.  I felt like I was at a retreat in the woods.  I suddenly realized the implication of going to a religious service with which I was not familiar and felt that the spiral-bound field notebook I had with me seemed too invasive, or obvious, so I chose to leave it behind.  Instead, I took with me an index card (tucked into my back jeans pocket) that I had on hand, and stuck my pen into my husband’s shirt pocket.  I noticed immediately, once walking through the parking lot, that the tower had windows on one side only, facing the mountain, in the direction of east.  The morning sun was already shining directly into the windows, so I knew the illumination within that part of the building would be bright.  Thoughts of my experience in solar energy, and how the Mescalero Apaches use the easterly direction as their starting place in rituals/ceremonies flooded my mind.   I wondered if Judaism included such heavenly orientations as part of their spiritual practices or if it was purely an architectural approach to a building design.  As we walked to the front of the building we crossed an entranceway, stepped up a few steps into the patio, saw a large and beautiful fountain (a unique design I can’t even begin to describe without taking too much writing space), and went in through the front doors into the temple.

Temple tower view from road

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Temple Mount Sinai from parking lot

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Close-up view of the Temple

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Temple front wall

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Fountain

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Chapel door - looking toward parking lot

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The first thing I noticed once inside was a figure/wall decoration of a tree on the wall, leaves made of a gold-colored (brass?) metal, and names etched into each leaf – I assumed which probably signified people who had given financially or participated in some special way to the Temple.  We were each given a book and a handout upon entering into the sanctuary (at least I suppose that is what it is called) where the congregation sits.  We were early so found a seat right away.  Gerald said he liked to sit at the very end of the pews (these were nice cushiony fold-down seats with armrests like at a movie theatre (minus the cup holders) so we sat next to him.  He is a big man, and diabetic, so prefers the end so he can get up and out easily, if needed.  I sat next to Gerald, with my husband Bruce to my left, and Jeremy next to him. 

I took a few moments to look around.  The Temple was all lit up in front of me due to the eastern light, which reflected off the white softly angled walls within the tower area – beautiful!  Within the center of the “stage” area up front was a free standing, closet-looking unit with doors that looked as if they were made of hand-molded golden metal.   Sharp points and rounded lengths kind of crisscrossing, and filled with multi-colored objects that resembled large jewels were on the doors.  The colors were red, blue, green, orange, yellow, and clear.  The same colors were hanging overhead on 10 lamps that dangled from the ceiling over the many rows of pews.  I noticed that the blue and orange colors (along with clear) were singled out as strips of colored glass used as windows on the sides of the sanctuary, similar to the stained glass idea on a lot of church buildings.  The smell was not of anything in particular, just fresh clean air.  Good ventilation.  I looked toward the “closet” again, which actually looked more like an armoire to me, but up on pedestal-like legs, and shiny golden curtain hung behind the ornamented doors.  I noticed a strange object, about the size of a globe that I named a “star” – which had the same pointy, hand-molded, gold look – hanging above the “closet”.  To the left of the “closet” was a stand with 7 candles, which I assumed was a menorah.

I hadn’t started writing notes yet, and just took in all the visual details and feelings that I could from the room.  People started filling the room and seats, and my gosh, there were a lot of children!  These must be big families, I thought.  I started looking at the book that was given to me.  Gerald, Bruce, and Jeremy were already looking at theirs.  The title was Gates of Repentance for Young People: Services for Younger Children.  The pictures were nice, colorfully drawn cartoon pictures of people and scenes and trees and suns, etc.   It began by talking about Rosh HaShanah.   I noticed the handout of papers, and it, too, spoke of Rosh HaShanah, so I scanned through and spoke with Gerald and evidently that day was the first day of the Jewish New Year, called Rosh HaShanah, and was to be celebrated.  He had been expecting to have us participate in the Torah Study class at 9:30AM, but evidently the Jewish holiday was a priority.  My eyes turned back to the pages of the children’s book.  One of the excerpts was: Rosh HaShanah is a holiday of circles… Rosh Hashanah is a time to make circles… when the earth finishes going around the sun and sets out its journey again.  My mind was drawn back again to the Mescalero Apache observation project I had done just recently, realizing how important circles and the celestial bodies are to them.  Pictures of circles and wheel-like objects abounded in this children’s book, as did trees and suns.

The meeting began.   Gerald remembered to put on his green kippa (a little round hat worn by Jewish males… I wondered if the color was significant of him still being the process of conversion or not, but people wore all sorts of colors such as blue, white, black, fuchsia, etc. so I wasn’t sure).  The Rabbi announced that this was the “family service,” which explained the books and all the children in the crowd.  The scene was soon set for a series of standing, sitting, reading (of the children’s book), singing, and a lot of talking, singing, talking, and singing again by the Rabbi himself.  He was a rather young-looking man, perhaps in his mid/late 30’s, or early 40’s at most.  The book told of the Aron Kodesh (what I earlier termed as the “closet”) and the Torah (the first 5 books of the Christian Bible).  At that point the Rabbi and others up front opened the Aron Kodesh and removed the Torah Scroll (with great care).  It had a covering over it made of heavy white material and golden trim.   You could see the two wooden carved scroll-handles, which were topped with silver pinnacles laced with bells.  A woman carried the scroll down the center of the congregation, around the back, up the side, across the front to the other side, and back around and up through the middle again to the front.  Children ran up and even the adults (including Gerald) touched their prayer books to the Torah Scroll (kissing them afterward) as it went by them.   At the end, the Scroll cover was removed and it was set onto a table.   The Rabbi spoke of how the children love the parents, and the parents love the children.  He spoke of the story of Abraham, and his son Isaac in the Torah and played his guitar and sang for the children.  Four teens stood on each side of the front stage area.  I noticed that the people in the congregation were very mixed, mostly all white or olive-skinned, and although many had a very certain Jewish “look” to them, many others did not.  Blondes, redheads, brunettes and black-haired women and men filled the room.  The children were equally diverse.  I noticed only a handful of obvious Latinos, and no African-Americans.

A play was then set on the stage, and two teenagers held plants above their heads to serve as branches and leaves of “trees” of the forest.  One young man placed a green hat with red circles on it (made out of construction paper) about his head and kneeled down in the middle of the stage, near the front.  He was the apple tree.  The story that followed was about an apple tree who saw the sky and wanted stars on his branches, but the message he got back was to have patience.  Time went by and people came to admire his blossoms, but again he wanted stars on his branches.  Birds sat on his branches, but he was not satisfied with birds, for he wanted stars instead.  Apples soon came to be on his branches, but the wind blew, and shook his branches, and knocked down one of the apples.  When the apple hit the ground it broke into two halves.  When the little apple tree looked at the broken apple he observed that the pattern inside was a STAR!  Indeed, he had had stars on his branches the whole time and did not know it!  The Rabbi then read from the children’s book again, and spoke the prayer called Aleinu – all were to bow to the Aron Kodesh, saying there is only one God.  The oneness of God is to remind us that all people are one human family.

It was time for the shofar.  These were curled rams horns that were blown on Rosh HaShanah.  The Rabbi explained to the children (in simple terms) that the three sounds were teki’ah (strong and clear), shvarim (a crying sound, the tears of others), and teru’ah (broken sounds, that we are not perfect), and that the Torah is the tree of life.  The two men with the long shofar horns then blew them according to the three terms, one at a time, to show the children how it is done.  The last blast was long and loud, continuing its resonance throughout the temple.  A little girl around the age of two sat in her mother’s arms smiling all the while, and yet another older girl, two pews forward, covered her ears with her hands as she watched the horns in muffled silence.  Then it became the children’s turn.  They all ran up the steps to the front and stood in a line, some of them with small curled horns, and some with plastic horns.  They tried to blow the distinct sounds, and the Rabbi (having fun with it) acted like he was leading an orchestra.  I looked over at my 11-year-old son Jeremy and he seemed to like this part of the service, based on the smile on his face.  I wondered if he wished he also had a shofar horn to blow.  When it was over the children returned to their parents.  The meeting (1 hour in length) was over.  The Rabbi announced that apples slices and honey were available to all outside on the patio, and that when the adult service begins (at 10:30AM) the kids could go to the children’s rooms for face painting, a magician show, and dancing, etc.  Childcare was available for all who needed it.  We exited and ate some of the apples and honey, and Gerald introduced us to the Rabbi, who shook all our hands in greeting.  By the time we went to the bathroom and got reseated (this time up at the very front row because the place was filling up fast!) it was nearly time for the regular religious service to start.

The same Rabbi led the service and he, along with the entire congregation, participated in a series of sitting, standing, reading (from the prayer books available in the pews), and singing.  The prayer book opened from the left-hand side, rather than the usual right, so pages had to be lifted and flipped/turned from left to right as you read.  Words were in small phrases and paragraphs, some in Hebrew, and then their English translations following, plus some English words in italics, which were the words the congregation spoke aloud together.   Words that were slightly larger and in bold were spoken by the Rabbi with emphasis, I noticed.  Two women were sitting in chairs up on the stage, each taking turns to read different parts, and an older man adorned with a robe-like top and colored scarf-like piece occasionally got up to read also.  Two other men sat on the left side of the Aron Kodesh (which in the prayer book was referred to as “The Ark”).  I noticed for the first time the potted orange flowers next to the plants along the front of the stage.   The orange matched the same color in the windows, the Ark doors, and the lamps hanging from the very high barrel-vaulted ceiling over the congregation. 

Prayer Book

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The Rabbi started chanting, which reminded me of Hindu chanting (except done in Hebrew), and some of the songs were sung without the guitar or piano (the shiny, black, grand piano sat DIRECTLY in front of where we sat – I could have touched it had I leaned forward a couple inches and reached out).  I noticed also that on occasion his singing (minus instruments) had a vocal and harmonic quality that sounded Arabic.  However, much was said about the wonder and the importance of the Torah, and how it helped free the people of Israel from their prior confinement. 

Some of the wording from the prayer book, I noted, reminded me of some of the verses from the book of Psalms, and other parts of the Christian Bible.  The Rabbi (reading from the prayer book) said things like, “…redemption comes when we master the violence of the world… when we look upon others as we would have them look upon us… to turn [as in circles, away from sin and toward redemption]…” and other familiar (Christian-like) words were used as well, “Book of Life,” “Savior,” “Salvation,” “still small voice,” “angels,” “love,” “compassion,” “His flock,” etc.  I wondered how much this reform congregation held in its beliefs the pieces of other religions as compared to Orthodox Judaism.  The prayer book also mentioned that the Rosh HaShanah was written, and the Yom Kippur (Jewish Day of Atonement) was sealed, and also “who shall live and die,” being “slow to anger,” “ready to forgive,” and mentioned our “temporariness” (being made of dust and returning to dust), as well as saying that Adonai (Lord) is one God and that He is “everlasting.”  The word “Zion” was something I spotted occasionally, as well as “Halleluyah!”

Old thoughts of my Christian upbringing entered my mind with all of these positive words and uplifting references within the prayer book, and that emanated from out of the mouth of the Rabbi and the Jewish people within those walls.  My dad, being a minister, always stuck closely (and still does) to his own enculturation and ethnocentric Christian views (as does my mom and most of the rest of the family).  I was told growing up by members of my family (and church and friends) that Catholicism always crucifies Christ (on the crucifix) and focuses on his death, while Protestants or more Charismatic or non-denominational Christians focus on his resurrection and life.  I was also told that Judaism is of the old covenant, and the law, and punishment, rather than focusing on the new covenant of Jesus’ blood (life), referring to love and forgiveness of sins.   The law was supposed to represent deeds and good “works” while Christian faith was supposed to represent grace, and that “works” would not get one into “heaven.”  The one thing I noticed right away in the synagogue that day, besides the positive outlook of the people and their genuine love for and dedication to God, was that “words can only bring you to the edge of action” but deeds will take you to it and through it.  Another way of saying it is that words will only get you so far, and no matter what you say it is still what you DO that counts in life.  Deeds were more powerful than words, that is all.  No references (that I found that morning anyway) were related to getting into “heaven,” via deeds alone.  Faith and love for God, and honoring the Torah and all it represented were highly stressed, however.  I decided that I liked Judaism just fine, and that it was not all that I had been “warned” it would be.  I found a wonderful people here who were joyous and worshipful, and also the music was GREAT!

Somewhere around this time the Torah Scroll was taken and walked through the congregation as it had been done before during the family service.  What was interesting this time was that as everyone stood up to reach out and touch the sacred Scroll with their prayer books, I stood up also and turned around.  What I saw when I turned to face the back was a congregation that had more than doubled in size!  Evidently, when we were seated up front and facing forward, they took the back wall (temporary panels, or curtains, I had not noticed which) down completely and opened it up to a whole other section equal in size to the main sanctuary.  I estimated at least 500 people were there, but Bruce said he actually counted the rows and said it was more like 600 or possibly even more.  Finally, the Torah Scroll was walked around the great room and was brought up right in front of us, the people squeezing through the small space between the piano and our seats.  This enabled us to touch the Torah Scroll if we chose, with our prayer books.  Bruce did not do so, but Gerald did, and I did as well, kissing the edge of the book afterwards.  I wondered if Jeremy would have done it, had he not been down with the older kids getting his face painted and watching the magician and movies.  I also wondered how many other peoples’ lips had touched that same book I held.  

The Rabbi continued to talk, and told about the story of Abraham (Avraham in Hebrew) and how binding his son Isaac (and nearly sacrificing him) was very hard to tell to the children in the family service earlier that morning.  He was glad that much of it was through song in Hebrew, and not English.  He was worried how the children would take the message of children loving parents, and vice versa, if they knew Abraham had planned on killing his son.  The Rabbi laughed slightly, and continued on to tell the moral and metaphorical meaning of the story, which was a deeper level of understanding, which the children would not have yet understood.  The Torah Scroll was lifted and “dressed” (the covering put back on it) and then the Rabbi began with his sermon.  I had run out of room for notes, by this point, on my index card, so I started writing notes on the handout sheet, always hiding the pen under the edge of the prayer book when I wasn’t writing, so as not to be conspicuous.

Next, the Rabbi spoke of what it meant to be Jewish, and mentioned the 5.2 to 7 million Jews that exist today, that some people had said would be eradicated by the year 2000 (Y2K).  Others have predicted through the years that the Jews are an ever-dying people, and yet Jewishness is thriving anyway.  He referred to the tan handout that mentioned Ivri (“Hebrew”) and how it meant different things.  Eiver means “bank” (of the river), and standing on the other eiver, and coming from eiver (“across”) the river, and speaking “Ivrit”.  The Rabbi exclaimed at how identity is bound up in language, that the Children of Ivri is a message of hope, that people speak Ivri (Hebrew) today because it has been revived.  The reason this has occurred is because the Jews (Aramaians) have been a wandering people; they have lived everywhere on the planet (being the key to the Jew’s survival over time).  The Rabbi mentioned how he knew of a man who called it “omniterritoriality” (having 18 letters – I wondered what the significance of the number 18 was?).  If the Jews are scattered they cannot be eradicated or eliminated because there are always Jews in all lands.  People now think that being Jewish is cool, and they embrace their “otherness” proudly.  Despite homogenization of cultural differences, the Rabbi said that instead Jews (and all people) should be celebrating the beauty of diversity.  Abraham was distinct in Ivri, and was a consummate contrarian, unwilling to accept things as they were, took a stand, and was willing to go it alone.  The Rabbi mentioned the counter-current that runs deep in the universe/world (regardless of what people choose to see, or live by according to mass agreement), and that justice goes rolling down like a mighty river, against the mold.  The Rabbi mentioned that in this world, some are guilty, but all are responsible.

The Rabbi began talking about the flood damage that had been occurring in El Paso, specifically in Canutillo, as well as the Barrio, Sparks, and Westway (I think).  Five times the normal amount of rain came down in these areas this summer.   He spoke of social justice, and how the Catholic church (San Judas) has a confirmation class, and has helped with child care, has partners, and deals with the public concerning values and roots.  The Rabbi referred to the blue pamphlet in the handout on Border Interfaith, an organization that the Temple Mount Sinai is a part of, to help in these kinds of endeavors, and how it is an important thing to do.  He closed by saying that the Jews are not vanishing, and are needed in the world now more than ever.  The poems from the tan sheet were read and sung (by a lady with a nice voice).  The prayer book sections were read from, and then the two men with the long shofar rams horns emitted the three sounds as a grand finale and celebration of Rosh HaShanah, the Jewish New Year.  The last of the long section in the prayer book was finished and the meeting was dismissed.  We got out of there just before 1:00PM.  It was a long day!  Gerald said that most of the meetings are over by 11:45AM, rather than that late, but it was the holiday, and that was why it ran longer than usual, and why there were so many more people than usual who attended.  We met a few people as we waddled slowly in the long lines of people that ran along the aisles.  We shook hands, and I heard words like “Chavez” (whatever that meant), and “Shalom” (which means peace), and “Happy New Year!”

We went to get Jeremy downstairs and I noticed a wall hanging (abstract) that looked like Moses’ burning bush, and another picture of a tree, with the roots in the earth, and the sun overhead, also more circles.  On our way out we got some handouts on Jewish conversion, and a Jewish calendar (New Year starting on Rosh HaShanah, going by lunar months).  We planned to take Gerald back home.  As we walked back to the van Gerald told us that he had joined this reform congregation because Orthodox Judaism doesn’t allow converts.  I wondered later one what the main difference was, perhaps besides stricter rules and limits on clothing options (like fundamentalist Hasidic Jews are about as strict at the old order Amish are regarding such things), between the Orthodox and this reform congregation.   I figured it could wait until next time.   This had been a full day, and all of my family was looking forward to coming again next time.

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SECOND VISIT: Saturday (Shabbat/Sabbath), September 30, 2006

Today Bruce and I went to the Jewish synagogue again.  As we did last week, we picked up Gerald and drove over, but this time we expected to sit in the “Torah Study” to experience that.  We parked and walked into the back section of the synagogue and went into a small room where oblong tables were set up together to form one large table.  Padded chairs surrounded the table, and a stack of hard backed Torah books were in the center.  A number of men and women were already grabbing bagels and cream cheese; some already sitting down to eat them.  Gerald introduced us to the people, announcing his and our arrival.  A couple people told us hello and introduced themselves also.  Bruce and I decided to try a bagel.  I chose the one covered in poppy seeds, cut it open, and smeared some of the “salmon cream cheese” on it.  I poured some coffee, added some creamer, and took my mid-morning snack over to an empty spot around the giant table.  The 20 or so Torah Study attendees were sitting all the way around the table also.  I sat there, feeling like one of the knights at King Arthur’s round table, minus the round.  The salmon cream cheese was too salty, I thought, so I took a sip of the hot coffee to cut the taste.  People lingered, moved to get more orange juice, and chatted amongst themselves happily. 

The Rabbi was present, and he announced that there wouldn’t be a regular Torah Study today, and that we’d be talking about something different, although I didn’t quite catch what that would be.  People listened when the Rabbi spoke.  He had a commanding presence, but also one of a caring nature, and sincerity.  The Rabbi said we’d be talking about Mel Gibson (the actor).  Everyone laughed.  Mel Gibson had recently made some public comments on the TV that indicated his apparent prejudice for Jews.  His first comment was rather dull and unremorseful, but, the Rabbi continued, Mel’s second comments were indeed repentant in nature, and seemed sincere.  Mel had asked the Jewish people to help him overcome his anti-Semitism, and Mel also admitted he still had a problem with alcohol.  The Rabbi asked what people thought about Mel’s situation, and his comments to the Jews.  Some felt that Mel had always been an alcoholic, and would never change, or that he was too set in his ways regarding his religious views to suddenly become open-minded.  Another older gentleman said that the real problem was Mel’s father, and that Mel had learned his prejudice from him, and that this is why Mel drinks too much.  Mel had a hard upbringing, and yet he refuses to comment against his dad negatively.  The old man thought that it wouldn’t be until after Mel’s dad’s death before Mel will change his attitudes towards religion, Jews, and alcohol. 

Repentance was the big theme for the Rabbi in telling this story about Mel Gibson.  Repentance, as well as the mentioning of Yom Kippur – which was just around the corner – was discussed in more detail.  On Yom Kippur one is required to fast (go without food) for a short time (25 hrs according to Gerald) and to focus on repentance.  Women, children, and people under medical care are not required to fast, although women can if they choose to (as long as they aren’t nursing children, etc.).   First comes repentance, then atonement, and then forgiveness, according to the Rabbi.  A man named Devin (pseudonym) spoke up and added the question of whether repentance means to God (only), or to man, or to both?  The Rabbi said that in the _____ (something that sounded like “homonony”(???)), that comes from the Middle Ages, it would be said that all of the above should be true.   Different points were brought up by Devin and the Rabbi, and others, to discuss that point, based on different possibilities and situations.

Near the end of the discussion (and yes, the Torah was read, although only a little bit – and it opened “backwards” (or “the right way” according to Gerald)) the Rabbi asked the people for their feedback on the Rosh HaShanah service, and what was said, and also about one of the songs that was sung.  People seemed to really like what had been done in the service the week before.  Everyone then broke to go to the chapel.  Gerald mentioned that the little chapel is actually where the typical services are held.  Evidently when we attended last week the meeting was held in the large sanctuary because of Rosh HaShanah, and the very large crowd that also attended for the holiday. 

The chapel was comfortable, with standard cushioned pews.  Although the room was more square where the pews were, the front section – that had the little “stage,” and the pulpit, and a smaller version of the Ark (which held the Torah Scroll) – was pointed, as if you were looking into a corner of a room (the walls came to a 90 degree angle at the front, making a triangular-shaped stage).   On each angled wall was a stained glass mural.  The glass colors were the same as in the sanctuary, with red, green, orange, white, blue, yellow, etc.  The stained glass picture on the left was of two tablets, and the numbers 1-10 (5 on each tablet) written in Hebrew, which were a symbol of the Ten Commandments on the stone tablets that Moses made.   On the left wall of stained glass, there was a picture of a 7-candle menorah.  Both the tablets and the menorah were a bit abstract in style, made out of different shaped pieces of stained glass.  Very beautiful.   Intriguing.  The ceiling above where we sat was shaped like a double barrel vault… kind of like a soda can that had been cut down its length, opened up, with the “domed” parts visible above, as the ceiling.  The ridge/edge of the “opened can” ran down the center of the building, from the door behind us, up the middle isle, toward the front of the stage.  Then the ceiling opened up over the front stage area.  The picture/sculpture on the front doors of the Ark was something that reminded me of Moses’ burning bush, without the fire.  I wondered if there was any special significance to the style of the Ark doors.  I noticed another strange looking item hanging above the Ark, similar (yet shaped differently) to the “star” that hung above the Ark in the larger sanctuary.  This one, though, looked more like the leafless bush on the Ark doors.

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The meeting was quaint, and very similar to the one on Rosh HaShanah except that the subject of Rosh HaShanah did not come up so much.  The Rabbi spoke of Yom Kippur instead.  Also, there were only about 40 people attending, rather than 500-600.  We sang from the prayer book, and the Rabbi mentioned that soon we’d be finishing these books, and getting new ones that were a little lengthier.  Just like before, we all stood and sang, or sat and read, or stood and read, or listened to the Rabbi read certain parts, or listened to him sing or chant in Hebrew, or pray certain parts in Hebrew.  I enjoyed listening to the language, and wondered what it was like to speak it.   I knew from my dad, since he speaks some Hebrew, that there are no vowels in Hebrew, only consonants.  Inflection marks and other methods are now used in contemporary books, however, to aid Jews and others on how to speak Hebrew words properly.  Of course, the Torah Scroll was taken out of the Ark at the front and carried by a woman around the chapel so that people could touch it with their prayer books (kissing the books afterward in symbolism of kissing the Torah).

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Note that both women and men carry the Torah scroll, and that the direction walked is not always the same.

At the end of the service the Rabbi asked the congregation for feedback, much like he did at the end of the Torah Study class.  People said they really enjoyed the song at Rosh HaShanah, and that they liked the Rabbi’s style of teaching because he would not just preach, but actually teach the people things that they wouldn’t have known otherwise.  They felt that they were actually learning something from what he taught.  I could see that many people had a great respect for this 38-year-old Rabbi.  One lady said that she was impressed that he was so passionate about being a Rabbi, especially since he was a father and husband as well as a Rabbi, and that it was a lot of work.  The Rabbi thanked her for her comments, and smiled.  I could tell it made him feel good to hear these kinds of words from his congregation.  Once the meeting let out I asked Gerald about the symbol on the doors of the Ark and he said that it was usually contemporary, or abstract art, so as not to have “graven images” within the synagogue. 

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We walked back to the original area where Torah Study had been, although we stopped in the great room next to it.  Everyone gathered there and the Rabbi hurried himself to begin speaking something in Hebrew.  It sounded rehearsed, or like when one chants the Lord’s Prayer, where all the words are already known.  He lifted a tiny plastic cup that had purple-red wine in it as he spoke.  Then everyone drank a little glass of wine each, worth probably a swallow or two each.  It was sweet and almost thick.  Then the Rabbi said a few more words and everyone broke off pieces of bread and ate it.  The bread was yellowish in color and tasty, soft, with a thick dark crust, as if homemade.  I knew that there was no way that this ritual could be “communion” (like is practiced in Christianity, where Jesus said that the bread was his body and the wine was his blood), although the bread and the wine aspect did make me wonder.  I went up to the Rabbi afterward and introduce myself as an anthropology student from UTEP, and mentioned why I was visiting the synagogue.  I then asked him about the bread and wine and he mentioned that it was definitely not like the Christian communion, and that it was just simply a tradition that has been done for a very long time.  I was satisfied with that, and figured that perhaps the bread and wine tradition was why Jesus (the Jew) would have already been using those two items within his own traditions, and perhaps just changed the meaning of them during that fateful supper. 

Bread and empty wine cups on table

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I also asked the Rabbi to confirm the “graven images” aspect of the sculptured artwork on the Ark in the chapel he admitted that they actually do have what some people might consider “graven images” of idolatry hanging around the synagogue – he pointed to the pictures on the stained glass in the wall.  The picture was more like a mural than the ones in the chapel… less abstract and more literal.  I noted many images within the sunlight-lit mural of stained glass… Noah’s  ark with the animals, a dove, a river with chariots and animals under the water, plus Moses himself standing above the river holding his staff up (this is where he closed the Red Sea back up so that the waters could swallow up the Pharaoh’s men and chariots and horses).  I noticed flocks of sheep on the ground, and angelic human-shaped beings (wearing white) floating up in the sky.  There was what I figured was the tower of Babel, and also a menorah, the Egyptian pyramids (from where the children of Israel exodused out from), and the sun, the moon, the Ten Commandments, and Hebrew words, etc.

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Click to enlarge stained glass picture

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There were two last things that I noticed prior to leaving.  One was the Zodiac symbols on the wall near the ceiling in the room.  The other was the pictures and a plaque of the 7 Days of Creation in Genesis chapter 1.  I was curious about how reform Jews reconcile science with the 4th day of Genesis – the sun and moon and stars being created AFTER plants were already growing (Gerald’s position was that time is relative and can change and can’t be depended upon, or that the sun was originally a protostar (a dimmer pre-star) and didn’t become the bright “sun” until the 4th day [which was likely an age, not a 24 hr day]).  Gerald said he would send me some articles he had on the subject, as food for thought.  I thought that this 4th day issue was a question that I would like to ask the Rabbi sometime when he’s not so busy. 

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7 Days of Creation

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The other thing I wanted to ask the Rabbi was about the zodiac signs that had Hebrew words on them.   I noticed that the first sign was Libra, for September (Libra’s sign begins in the 3rd week of September), obviously beginning there since September (around the equinox, which is also about the 3rd week of September) is Rosh HaShanah, the Jewish New Year.  Why start the New Year zodiac symbols anywhere else in a Jewish synagogue?  Interestingly, the standard (non-Jewish) astrology zodiac typically starts in March, with Aries, the ram.   I took note of that immediately.  NOTE:  Upon interviewing the Rabbi later on, I asked him about the zodiac plaques that are up on the wall and he stated that they just came from the east coast (after the synagogue had been built -- prior to him being the Rabbi) from an auction and were for decoration.  Yet still a part of me wondered if there was more to it than that... since these pieces existed at all was fascinating and intriguing.

Libra Scorpio Sagitarrius Capricorn Aquarius Pisces Aries Taurus Gemini Cancer Leo Virgo

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Scales Scorpion Archer Goat Water Bearer Fish Ram Bull Twins Crab Lion Virgin

After looking at the zodiac and pondering why reform Jews accept the astrological symbols while typical Christianity (at least Protestantism) does not, it made me curious about what I saw next… shields on the far wall with other symbols on them, and Hebrew words.  These shields stood for the 12 tribes of Israel. 

12 Shields (the lion is the lion of Judah – the Jews) for the 12 Tribes of Israel

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This was the end of our day at the synagogue, and we decided it was time to go home.  We got in the van and Gerald sang to us his favorite song in Hebrew.   I didn’t know the name of it, nor did I understand the words, but the melody was so catchy that I caught myself still singing it later on after we dropped Gerald off at his house.  I think I sung that song in my head for about an hour before moving along with my day.

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The section below is a summary of main points that were covered in subsequent Torah studies and services.

10/7/06 Sabbath: 

TORAH STUDY: Topic “Sukkot” The Tena’ch is what Christians call the O.T. – Old Testament – and the Talmud is a collection of commentaries.  I noticed that the books in the Tena’ch are in a different order from Christian Bible… the similarities and differences between them are shown on the table here.

Tena'ch Christian Bible

Genesis
Exodus
Leviticus
Numbers
Deuteronomy
Joshua
Judges
Ruth
I Samuel
II Samuel
I Kings
II Kings

Isaiah
Jeremiah

Hosea
Joel
Amos
Obadiah
Jonah

Micah
Nahum
Habakkuk
Zephaniah
Haggai
Zechariah
Malachi

Psalms
Proverbs
Job
Song of Solomon
Ruth
Lamentations
Ecclesiastes
Esther
Daniel
Ezra
Nehemiah
I Chronicles
II Chronicles

Genesis
Exodus
Leviticus
Numbers
Deuteronomy
Joshua
Judges
Ruth
I Samuel

II Samuel
I Kings
II Kings
I Chronicles
II Chronicles
Ezra
Nehemiah
Esther
Job
Psalms
Proverbs
Ecclesiastes
Song of Solomon
Isaiah
Jeremiah
Lamentations
Ezekiel
Daniel

Hosea
Joel

Amos
Obadiah
Jonah
Micah
Nahum
Habakkuk
Zephaniah
Haggai

Zechariah
Malachi

 

According to Rabbi, Hosea through Malachi are called “The Twelve.” I asked Gerald about the term that I heard him and others say that sounded like “good ‘chavez’” and he said it was “Good Shabboz” which means “Good Shabbat” or “Good Sabbath.”  Rabbi stated that the story of Jonah is a fantasy for a moral.  Sukkah (the temporary house used for the Sukkot holiday) in context can be looked up in a concordance (Strongs, etc.) for different books of the Bible.  Jonah was supposed to tell the people to repent, instead of being a fortune teller.  Sukkah (temporary) is as the self.  It is representative of earth below, above and around, and our connection to God.  Sukkah and chuppah (pronounced hoo’ pah) differences are that the Sukkah is a temporary dwelling, and the chuppah is a bridal canopy (Isaiah).   Sukkot is as a joyous time, protection, a bubble or shield.  The glory cloud over the camp (Moses/tabernacle/Holy of Holies) suggests that God (written as G-d in Hebrew, since no vowels exists in Hebrew) has “cloaking devices” hidden and used for His own purposes.  See Deut. 31: “I will hide face from you on that day” and “Eclipse of God” (title of book).  Job 27:18-19 has his wealth intact (like the gourd of Jonah), and when he opens his eyes it is gone (fleetingness of possessions).  The temple’s destruction?  Yes, in the Midrash – abode of the Holy Spirit (as a bird’s nest, a temporary dwelling, also covered by branches, as the Sukkah is).  The Temple is merely a Sukkah [i.e. body].  Ecclesiastes says that all is temporary.  It points us toward impermanence, keeps us humble and motivated, and not to worship the temple itself.  Lastly, I found out from the lady “B” that the Rabbi MUST (as a requirement) be married and have a family in order to serve as a Rabbi. 

Sukkah

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SERVICE (in sanctuary):  Today was a traditional rite of passage for a female called the bat mitzvah (congregation was given a yellow handout).  This was done for the 13-year-old girl, Meredith Heins (she cried from great happiness and strong ties with friends and family, and read from the Torah scroll).  A bar mitzvah is for a 13-year-old boy, celebrating when he becomes a man, and is responsible for his own actions, and subject to the law.  October 6th (yesterday) was the first day of Sukkot.   The big lady who sat behind my husband and me said not to take pictures in the sanctuary during the meeting (we had an accidental camera flash).   We felt horrible.  I noticed that the Rabbi uses a silver pointer for reading the Torah Scroll (then they lift and dress the scroll before putting it back).  There are 4 species of plants for Sukkot (palm, willows, myrtles, citron fruit (etrog is the actual name)), all of which are symbolic for the bounty of the earth.  Two things to know: knowing and deeds.  One can have knowing without deeds, deeds without knowing, both knowing and deeds, and none of the above.  After the service everyone adjourned to the area behind the sanctuary for a special bat mitzvah lunch, in honor of Meredith Heins.  It was lovely.  We also noticed the replica of the Rosetta Stone on the wall.

Inside the Temple Sactuary

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Bat Mitzvah Lunch

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Rosetta Stone Replica

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Click on picture to see full size

 

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10/14/06 Sabbath: 

TORAH STUDY:  Topic “Creation” The people at the Torah study served lox (smoked salmon) today with bagels and cream cheese.  There was a guest with the Rabbi, a 2nd year Rabbinical student (female) named Jordana, from the Hebrew Union College.  Handout readings included an excerpt from “A Song to Creation” by Eujene Miholy, HUC Press, 1975.  Discussion ensued on aspects of creation.  The Hebrew alphabet (2nd letter) Bet, which is what the world was created by is, “closed on its sides and open only in front, so may you not search what is above, what is below, what is before and what is after.”  Speaking of the orchard as the concept of “the garden of Eden” or “paradise” it said that 4 people entered therein, and “One gazed in ecstasy and died; one gazed in ecstasy and went mad; one gazed in ecstasy and cut down the shoots; and one ascended in peace and descended in peace.”  This means that to ask the question, and find the answer to that question, and realize fully the concept and reality of such a realm would be a 25% success rate… that one out of four will make it, and the others will either die (overwhelms them), or go mad (overwhelming, can’t handle it mentally), or give up their faith altogether (frustration).  Rabbi spoke of Gnostics (Gnosis means “knowledge” or “knowing” – and how they believed in 2 gods (similar dualism to Christians calling the O.T. “evil” and N.T. (New Testament) “good”) mentioning how the Jews of that day didn’t agree, and that Jesus was both good/bad shown by his struggle between the flesh and spirit)).  Zoroastrianism influences were briefly mentioned as well as the Kabbalah Centre (being “silly” in its desire for people to wear a “red string” to bring good luck, or Berg’s (the person Rav Berg) books on the 72 names (of God) or being able to conceive it “all” via looking at Hebrew letters alone, and not knowing what they mean, etc.).   Also Christian’s were present at Torah study today.  I spoke with lady in red hat/shirt in bathroom, her husband is Jewish, she pushes him to go to the meetings, and she is VERY Catholic, but enjoys the services and thinks the Rabbi is “brilliant”.  [We really enjoyed this topic today! (my son Jeremy was not present this time)]

SERVICE (in chapel):   I apologized to the big lady about camera flash last week.  She was ok with it, and reiterated the non-use of them during services… I told her she had a beautiful voice.  She was OK.  As usual in the chapel, we all read, sang, stood, and sat throughout the service.  Rabbi took willow branch (beaten against piano/pulpit to shed leaves), myrtle (spice book), and the citron fruit “etrog” (similar to a lemon), which you could eat, and joked about its use as cocktail twist (haha), and the palm frond (to be set aside for 6 mos., pesach (nite before), sweep up hame’s fuel for fire, symbolizing burning to make hame’s-free (I do not remember what these things meant)).  Friday night (last night) was Simchat Torah, which I was told was the rolling out of the Torah Scroll, front to the VERY back of sanctuary, and read (excerpts) from beginning to end.  People held the entire scroll length up gently with their hands.  During the chapel service I noticed people (again) singing while going up on their tip toes (at special times), and people would bow at Ark, before and after the scroll walk.   Rabbinical student Jordana Chernow-Reader spoke about her friend who went into battle (Israeli military).

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10/21/06 Sabbath: 

TORAH STUDY: Topic “Shabbat”  My husband, Bruce, and I brought some lox to help out with the morning bagels and cream cheese breakfast snack (as a symbol of reciprocation).  The Torah study covered the topic of Shabbat, the Sabbath day, and keeping it holy.   The Torah study is growing in size so the Rabbi thought it best to move to a bigger room.  Handouts were given to everyone at 5 different tables.  Bruce and our son Jeremy sat down at the table with the lady with the red hat (she’s Catholic, and is married to a Jewish man) and her husband.  Each group was assigned a small reading section with ours being called “A Safe Haven” about a lady who was married to an abusive husband, and finally got a divorce (he went to jail for his abuse to the family).  The woman from the reading said that Shabbat dinner gave her great peace because her son would always come and sit with her for the meal, and it was nice to “catch up, laugh, eat well and relax.”  Shabbat candles are lit at dusk, the official time for the Sabbath to start (the new day begins at sundown, and ends at sundown the next day for Jews).  The Rabbi spoke about how in some parts of the world the Samaritans still practice very conservative, traditional Shabbat without candles, and they eat in the dark.  Each group spoke about their readings concerning Shabbat about titles including: “Toasting Recovery Through Shabbat,” “Caregiving: Doing and Not Doing,” “After a Loss: Remember and Observe” and “Physician: ‘Be’.”  The last topic was covered by Rabbi and was on the last topic “The Divine: Human Healing Partnership.”  The publication that these topics and readings came from is called The Outstretched Arm, Volume 7, Issue 1, Summer 2006/5766 (the latter number being the Jewish calendar year), published by the Jewish Board of Family and Children’s Services, Inc.  Rabbi also spoke about the difference between the Hebrew words for the Exodus 20:8-11 commandment to REMEMBER (historically, in the creation) the Shabbat day, and the word in Deuteronomy 5:12-15 that says to OBSERVE (practice each week) the Shabbat day and keep it holy.

SERVICE:  (No Data: skipped this meeting since I left town)

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10/28/06 Sabbath: 

TORAH STUDY: Topic “Babel”  Bruce and I brought some lox again this week (2 packages instead of 1, since it was on sale).  Everyone seemed thrilled to have more lox, and it usually gets eaten pretty fast.  The Torah study was in the middle room, at the back (by the small conference room, but not as big as the room from last Shabboz).  Tables were put end to end in a circular form so everyone could see each other.  The room filled up fast.  The “republican” (a self-proclamation by him) man helped me get a razor to cut open the lox packages in the kitchen.  Another man (name?) with the ethnically different kippah (hat) helped out.  Blonde-haired “B” and tall, skinny “S” were present, as well as the big lady with the beautiful voice, and many others.  I enjoyed seeing familiar faces, especially since they were all smiley and happy and welcoming to them (and always had been since they first started going to the synagogue).  The tower of Babel was talked about, being in similarity to the ziggurats that were originally built in the Middle Eastern countries.  Rabbi pointed out the picture on the stained glass window with the tower of Babel on it.  I noted that it was very similar to the depiction of the tower of Babel in Christian literature and Bible stories.  The main difference to the Jewish culture (at least Reform Jews) is that they accepted the anthropological and geological time concepts for human evolution and earth histories.  Abraham saw the tower of Babel and it was destroyed in his day, which was supposed to be several generations after the flood.  Rabbi mentioned to one lady (who voiced a question about it) that the flood was a local event, to a particular people of that time, in obvious Jewish history, but that there were other people on the earth in different areas during those years, and prior.  The Jewish view did not have ethnic/cultural oppositions to what science teaches about history and prehistory, and accepts that the stories of the Bible are part of cultural myths of the peoples of previous times, but they also believe that G-d Himself is very real, and to keep the traditions and mitzvot (commandments) is a very important part of Jewish life.  Rabbi brought up the names of a couple of sociologists, author Robert Putnam who wrote “Bowling Alone,” and Daniel Bell (a Harvard sociologist), before he discussed the economical concepts of capital (more on that in a minute).  The tower of Babel was not just spoken about and read about in the Torah during the Torah study, but also an excerpt from the Enuma Elish (the Babylonian epic) was read and compared.  One person noticed what I noticed (although he spoke up about it before I did), that it mentioned the towers and people going from east to west, possibly depicting a concept of sun worship, as the sun goes from east to west.  The text also mentioned that the tower of Babel was already 7 stories high and that people would get very upset if a brick fell and broke, but not if a person fell off the tower and died.  The bricks (material items) were considered more valuable than human life, and was the reason that their other capital issues (moral capital, social capital, human capital, and infrastructure capital) had declined so severely in comparison.  This is why God created “confusion” (which is what the word “Babel” means) within the culture at Babel, scattering the people across the earth.  Some of the people at the study considered this to be a good thing, because the scattering of people brought diversity, and strength among the people ultimately through that.  [My thoughts went to an earlier service in the synagogue where Jews had been scattered among the nations, and had much diversity, and thrive in the earth because of this, and that no one (such as Hitler or his kind) could ever completely wipe out the Jews because of this great diversity and intermeshing within the nations]  Gerald brought up that this concept of diversity is not unlike evolution and how nature creates diversity naturally through selection and thereby helps to provide a way for the species to survive and thrive and continue on into the future.  It seemed that most of the people present (if not all of them) in the Torah study seemed to agree that diversity among humankind is a good thing.  I was awed by this view, and impressed greatly.  The longer I stay at Torah studies, and go to chapel services, the more I enjoy it.  If we move to the west side of El Paso as we are finding we need to (since I’m getting a second job tutoring anthropology at UTEP soon, and the amount of my trips there will increase substantially), then perhaps we will go to Torah studies, and other events at the synagogue more often.  Hebrew studies on Wednesday nights would also be a neat thing to attend and learn.

SERVICE:  After Torah study everyone convened to the chapel for the service.  I recorded some music that everyone sang (one of my favorite parts of the meeting, especially since it is in Hebrew and the melodies are so lovely).  Today’s guest, Rabbi Weiss, taught about Noah being not as “important” as Moses or Abraham because although he obeyed God, that is all he did; he did not lead the people and do more to help others outside of his family circle.  When the service was over we all walked to the front lobby at the sanctuary and took park in the traditional wine and bread tradition.  An older man was walking around and came up to me and directly asked me if I had any questions about the service or anything else that I’d like to know.  I actually did… not about the service, but about the menorah picture in the stained glass in the chapel.  I had seen a little figure of a “menorah” (candlestick) for sale in a magazine-book but it had 9 candles on it, and I thought it looked wrong because I had heard they were supposed to have 7 candles instead.  I was hesitant to buy something that didn’t look authentic to me, so I asked about this, since ultimately I didn’t know.  The man told me that indeed a menorah is supposed to have 7 and only 7 candles, but that a chanukkiah (pronounced with an “h” at the beginning, is used specifically at the celebration of Hanukkah/Chanukah) has 8 candles.  Nothing has 9 candles, he said.  However, I did go and look it up on the Internet and in fact the chanukkiah does indeed have 9 candles, although the middle one is at a different level than the other 8 and it is considered symbolically representative of the “servant” candle.  Perhaps the 9th candle is not counted the same and is why he said there were only 8?  I will have to ask him next week, if I get to see him.
See: http://www.jewfaq.org/holiday7.htm for details. 

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Jewish Art at the Temple

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Sharon with her professor, Dr. Gina Nunez-Mchiri, UTEP Anthropologist
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