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Judi's Journal

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Synagogue names are very important

By Judi Siegal

Shakespeare, in Romeo and Juliet, asks: “What’s in a name? A rose by any other name still smells as sweet.” Obviously, Shakespeare did not know much about Jewish names for synagogues, for, as one will discover, names are very important and have a lot to say about a particular congregation.

When the Second Temple was destroyed by the Romans in 70 A.D. and the Jews were driven out into exile, Judaism teetered on the brink of destruction. Its central place of worship was gone and there was much belief that God had abandoned the Jewish people. Some far thinking rabbis looked to the future and after much thought and consideration, arrived at the conclusion that although the Temple was destroyed, synagogues would now fulfill an important role and that the future of Judaism would be secured with a decentralized group of houses of worship where prayer and study would replace the animal sacrificial cult of the ancient temple.

And so synagogues or Jewish houses of worship sprung up through out the Diaspora as places for worship, study and fellowship. They acquired names so they could be differentiated from each other and became the centers of Jewish life wherever they were established.

In a recent article, I wrote about the historic synagogues in America. I would now like to point out the various names of Jewish religious institutions and how their meanings convey the history, location or even clues to the direction of the congregation as to being traditional or liberal.

A sampling of the Jewish synagogues in the greater Orlando-Gainesville area reveals an interesting fact. Many congregations have the word “shalom” or “Sholom,” peace in their moniker. Sometimes this is because the congregation has broken off from an older group and the new group wishes a “house of peace.” More often, in my opinion, especially here in the South, “shalom” is a recognizable word and people like what they know so they name their congregation with a familiar, comfortable name. So we get Anshei Shalom, People of Peace, Ohev Shalom, Lovers of Peace, Shir Shalom, Song of Peace, and when all else fails, the familiar Hebrew greeting, Shalom Aleichem (We greet you with peace).

Which leads us to another familiar term, “Israel.” As president of a congregation with that name, I can attest that having “Israel” in your name means “the Jewish people.” So we get names such as Beth Israel, Israel’s house or B’nai Israel, Sons (descendents) of Israel. (Israelites) Very popular name for a synagogue with a recognizable term.

Since a synagogue is a house of worship, the word for house is often part of the name. In its various forms we have “beth” “beit” and “bet.” All these terms mean “house of.” Combining this with other terms we have Bet-el or Beth El, House of God, Beth Am, House of the People, Beit Emeth, House of Truth, Beth Chayim, House of Life, and the old chestnut, Beth Shalom, House of Peace.

Even the word “Temple” before the name gives a clue as to the affiliation of the congregation. A traditional Jewish house of worship will never use that name because the original Holy Temple was in Jerusalem. More liberal congregations allow its use since the original Temple has been destroyed.

The term “or,” light, often refers to congregations of the Reconstructionist movement. Because the Reconstructionist movement is liberal, it gives new light to the observance of Judaism. Congregation Or Chayim of Leesburg, a Reconstructionist prayer group is a good example. The name means Light of life, a reference to the Torah and its teachings. Congregation Beth Israel of Ocala (Reconstructionist) almost became Or Hadash (new light) but for one vote.

Some congregations are inspired by famous sages or heroes of Jewish history. So we get names such as Beth Hillel (House of Hillel, first century rabbi) or Beth David (King David of the Bible)

We have place names. Garden St. Synagogue, Hebrew Congregation of Springfield, Garden City Jewish Center. While many congregations prefer Hebrew names, still others will use English terms as these examples show.

Whatever name Jews choose to give to their houses of worship, the purpose of the building remains the same; a place for Jewish worship, study and fellowship, whether it be liberal, traditional or something in between.