Debbie Sinai (left) with Dina Yoshimi, who led the prayers so beautifully
“My heart is in the East, and I am at the end of the West...”
Words from the famous poem by the illustrious Judeo-Spanish poet, Yehuda (Judah) Halevi (1075-1141), rang incessantly in my ears.
Here we were, truly, at the end of the West, in Honolulu, on the Hawaiian Island of Oahu at the end of the Passover holiday this year.
Looking at the map for the international dateline, any farther West would have brought us to the Far East on another day. By the way, if you dig deep down from Jerusalem, you end up in Honolulu, twelve hours earlier.
Since we were travelling to the U.S. during Passover, and knowing that we would be spending the end of the holiday in Honolulu, Hawaii, I wanted to mark the occasion with a visit to synagogue to pray and to say Yizkor.
I had done a little research and inquired from my friend, a Masorati rabbi in Jerusalem, about Conservative synagogues on the island, and was given the names of two: Temple Emanu-El, and Sof Ma’arav (The End of the West). Sof Ma’arav definitely seemed the more exotic of the two just by its name. I acquired the telephone numbers from the hotel reception, and called both to find out times of services and addresses.
Temple Emanu-El had only an automated telephone service, but calling Sof Ma’arav enabled me to speak with a welcoming person, whom I later found out was Donald Armstrong, the president of the congregation.
And so we set out with our rented car on April 17, 2017, the last day of Passover 5777 in the diaspora, at the end of the Western World. With the help of WAZE in our rented car we quite easily found Temple Emanu-El, 2550 Pali Highway, complete with a large sign, an impressive building, a kindergarten and Hebrew school, all very similar to those in the continental United States.
The window in the chapel
The amiable girl in the office didn't understand when I greeted her with Chag Sameach. After being told that there were no services there that day (since they are a Reform congregation) we were directed to the building next door with a rolling green landscape, (2500 Pali Highway in Honolulu).
The building bore the sign of the First Unitarian Church. Pulling into a parking space in the adjacent parking lot, we saw a small sign indicating that this was also the venue of Congregation Sof Ma’arav. This was truly living side by side with mutual respect and honor for both religions. For over forty-one years, the Unitarians and the Jews have been worshipping in the same sanctuary.
We quietly made our way into the Sanctuary, where we were warmly welcomed by Sandra Armstrong, the Welcome/Outreach Chairperson of Sof Ma'arav. In fact, the entire congregation turned to see who had arrived so timely to complete the Minyan and enable the Congregation to proceed with the service.
The services were beautifully chanted, in their entirety for the holiday, nearly all in Hebrew, and reverently led by several of the congregants. The tunes were so familiar to me, and I immediately felt at home. Dina Yoshimi, Adult Education Emerita, led the prayers so beautifully and traditionally.
I sat listening and participating in the prayers as though in another world. The pleasant ethereal breezes filtered in through the open doors, after brushing through the trees and the bushes in the surrounding the sanctuary. When they reached me inside, they gave me an uplifting feeling.
We were honored with the third Aliyah, and by then, the congregation numbered about twenty-five people. All actively participated in the service. This learned congregation certainly knew what they were doing, and couldn't have made us feel more welcome.
Towards the end of the service, Ein Kelohenu was chanted with a traditional tune in Ladino, which was favored by the congregation for this hymn.
The fact that the service was held in a Unitarian Church was of no consequence. There were no crosses present. The Congregation’s simply carved wooden Ark, with its Torahs dressed in beautiful hand-woven covers, took the place of honor right behind the Bimah.
With the end of the service, the congregants duly moved the Ark to the side, and the chapel was restored to its usual arrangement.
We were most cordially invited to join the Kiddush, chanted by Congregant Rabbi Ken Aronowitz, who also serves as the Rabbi and Cantor for the Reform Temple next door, an unusual but inspiring arrangement.
The Kiddush was followed by a Kosher LePesach lunch, which all the congregants had prepared and arranged, and in which we were also invited to partake. It was a pleasure to be included, and chat with the congregants.
Both men and women led and participated in all aspects of the service and activities, drawing on their own experience and knowledge. Most of the congregants are lay people, professionals, some being professors at the University of Hawaii. They have all joined forces and talents to form this special congregation, to which we were so warmly welcomed. It was a treat and a pleasure to participate in this service at the “End of The West,” which I shall always remember as the highlight of my Hawaiian experience.
Sof Ma’arav says their website, www.sofmaarav.org, is a “lay-led, Conservative egalitarian congregation…“the western-most member of the United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism” and a “spiritual oasis.”
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