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My first Shabbat service

June 29, 2011

So very many Saturday mornings came and went before I finally worked up the nerve to enter a temple. I decided I was ready and wanted to really get a feel for practicing Judaism. But each Saturday morning, I lost my nerve and spent the morning drinking coffee on the couch with my dog. I was just scared. It takes a bit of courage to attend a synagogue for the first time and I wasn’t feeling particularly courageous.

One morning, I felt particularly defeated and thought if only a synagogue could come to me. Well, ask and you shall receive, my friends.  After a quick Google search, I discovered an “e synagogue”  based in Chicago. (You can check it out at http://www.ustream.tv/channel/esynagogue-org) You can even take conversion classes! So the dog and I went from drinking coffee and watching The Real Housewives of Orange County (don’t judge, he likes it) to “attending” a Shabbat service while drinking coffee on the couch in pajamas. Maybe even the dog could convert with me. Then I won’t feel so alone.

It was interesting, but for me, it just didn’t feel right. I didn’t want to join the University of Phoenix of synagogues. I wanted to join a community and get the full experience. I’m sure the e synagogues work well for many other people (and I sincerely hope that they do), but it’s just not for me. Sorry, dog, you’ll have to find spiritual enlightenment on your own.

The following week, I attended a reform temple. The nearest synagogue is about a 30-minute drive away in the closest city. The closest city has a handful of synagogues including reform, orthodox and conservative denominations. I knew the reform synagogues would be my best bet because their beliefs were closest to my own and I felt the most comfortable. So for my first visit, I chose the temple with the most pronounceable name.

I read quite a few articles and book passages about attending a service before actually attending. I wanted to be sure to be respectful and still blend in as much as possible. I read synagogues have a section for non-Jews to sit in accordance with Jewish law, so I definitely wanted to make sure I sat in the right section. I also expected to be tested with a secret handshake as soon as I walk in the doors. Once I flubbed the handshake, members of the congregation would surely yell “GENTILE!” and throw loaves of challah at me as I ran away. Luckily, it was nothing like that.

I walked into the doors of the synagogue like a scared puppy. I dragged my feet and spent a good few seconds looking around the empty vestibule waiting for someone to put me out of my misery and send me to the gentile section. A middle-aged man sporting a kippah popped in and greeted me with a cheerful “Shabbat shalom!”

“Shabbat shalom. Hi. Good morning. I’m not Jewish. I’m just kind of visiting because I’m very interested in Judaism and am possibly, maybe interested in converting and I wanted to visit. To see what it is like. And stuff.” I spoke without taking breaths between my words and tried to spout out my entire faith journey before even introducing myself. I was obviously nervous.

The man flashed a warm, inviting smile and extended his hand and introduced himself. He handed me a Shabbat Siddur (Sabbath prayer book) and told me I should not feel alone and I’m welcome to sit wherever I would like. Relieved and slightly embarrassed, I took the siddur and grabbed a seat right in the middle of the temple. Just like school. I don’t want to be the eager beaver sitting in the front row and I don’t want to be the slacker fighting to urge to close my eyes in the back. I just want to blend in as much as possible.

Blending in proved to be a bit difficult. The first thing I noticed was the size of the temple. My former church was considered quite small, especially compared to the popular mega-churches in my area. The church usually had about 120 members and visitors every Sunday. The temple was about 1/4 the size of my former Church and I could count the members and visitors while I waited for the service to start. Nine. Nine people not including the two rabbis, cantor and Bat Mitzah who had her first torah reading.

Despite my slight paranoia and initial awkwardness, I felt incredibly excited. The rabbi was funny, approachable, informative and encouraged free-thinking, debate and general disagreement. I felt like Dorothy walking into Oz from Kansas. Although I always felt comfortable with my old world, it suddenly seemed dull now that I’ve been exposed to this beautiful, colorful world and I was seeing it all for the first time.

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One Comment leave one →
  1. Orselina permalink
    March 15, 2012 5:17 pm

    Hi..so I know this post is quite a few months old already, but I hope you don’t mind my input now.

    I found this entry googling “first shabbat service nervous” LOL. Right now I am right where you were when you wrote this. I’ve been both in love with & intimidated by the beauty and sheer massiveness of the Jewish culture, and never had the “noive” to explore it until now. I’m attending my first service tomorrow, and, like you, are worried about saying/wearing/doing the wrong thing (you are NOT alone in your fear of being pelted with challah!).

    I just want you to know that I really enjoyed your post – it was well written, funny and clever, and alleviated my fears a bit. I’m still a little nervous, but not nearly as much.

    My last post on my own blog actually tells the story of my journey to exploring Judaism, but I don’t mean to plug.

    Anyway, I hope your journey has gone smoothly since this post, and thank you once again for writing it :)

    - Orselina

    ps) don’t worry, Real Housewives of OC is a total guilty pleasure – what a mess that Tamra is!

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