My first Shabbat service
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.