So you’re interested in attending a synagogue.
You might be a bit nervous. You’re most probably curious. Hopefully, you’re also excited and eager, and you want to learn. These are all good emotions to have. When you have a goal in sight, it makes the journey easier. Remember, you are going to see new things, different things. It may take time until you learn the ropes.
If you can, try and find a beginners’ service. NJOP, the National Jewish Outreach Program, has beginners’ services in many areas. If you can’t find a beginners’ service, don’t worry about it. Visit your synagogue anyway. Once you get the hang of it, you’ll be able to follow along with no problem.
It is always easier to enter a synagogue if you’re not alone. If you know someone who attends a synagogue, get in touch with them and ask if you can go with them, have them show you the ropes, help you keep up with the congregation, introduce you to people before or after the services, that sort of thing. The very best thing would be to stay as a guest at the home of a Sabbath observer for an entire Sabbath, and get the feel of how it feels to live in a Jewish community. Living in a Jewish community is very important in being Jewish. It is possible to be fully observant even if you are isolated from a Jewish community, but it is much more difficult. It is all the more difficult for those new to and unfamiliar with Judaism, because they are still learning, and they need people from whom to learn.
But for now, let’s focus on your visit to the synagogue.
Before you go, read the article «How to Dress and Act at an Orthodox-Jewish Festive Occasion.» Most of what is written there also applies to visiting a synagogue.
As you enter the synagogue, be aware, above all, that the people in the synagogue, the congregation, are for the most part normal human beings, just like you. As a human being, you will understandably feel self-conscious. That’s normal. And they’re normal, too. That means that, just like you, they are curious. Sometimes they are unintentionally rude. People are always curious about newcomers. When you see someone new, you also stare. They mean no harm; they usually don’t even mean to be rude.
Some of them are wondering who you are. Some of them are wondering if you have a place to eat the Sabbath meals. Some of them are wondering if they can help you, and some of them are wishing they had the guts to go over to the new stranger and introduce themselves and offer their help. (And some of them are just plain rude.) For the most part, they really don’t mean to make you feel unwelcome. Anyone who does can usually be dismissed as the meshugenah of the bunch. Remember, there’s at least one in every crowd, sometimes more than one. Don’t let them get to you. They don’t own the place, and you’re Jewish (or will be, if you’re planning to convert) just like them.
If you are visiting during the High Holy Days, I have heard that there are some synagogues that charge for entering. Personally, I would pray elsewhere. A synagogue should be open to every Jew who wishes to come pray. If you don’t have the option of visiting another synagogue, see if you can come to some agreement with the usher, or whatever they call the attendant there.
There will be separate seating for the genders. This is not meant as an insult or a slight. If you’d like to read more about this, check out my wife’s article: «The View From Within.» If the seating is not separate, then the synagogue is not being run according to Jewish Law.
Each synagogue has a cantor (or whatever that synagogue chooses to call him), who leads the prayers. For the most part, he acts as a vocal «bookmark.» When he says (or sings) something, the congregation knows what they should be saying. Sometimes the cantor simply says a few words, and everyone says the next psalm or paean; sometimes the cantor has a long recitation with periodic responses from the congregation. We’ll get to those responses later, Hashem willing. On occasion there are response recitations, where the cantor says one verse, and the congregation either repeats it, or says another in response. But these are infrequent.
By now, you have already at least glanced through your prayer book, and are somewhat familiar with its layout. You know that there are different prayers and different sections. Some parts are said standing up, and some sitting down. If you have a good prayer book (what we call in Hebrew a siddur), like the Artscroll Prayer Book, it will give instructions for most of these situations.
One reminder: If you visit the synagogue during the Sabbath, do not bring your prayer book. It is forbidden to carry things in the street on the Sabbath. Sometimes it can be permitted in certain areas, if there is something called an eruv. You may, however, bring the prayer book to the synagogue before the Sabbath starts, and take it away after the Sabbath ends. These days, though, the average synagogue has at least a few English prayerbooks (if someone thought to donate any). So on your way to the synagogue you have the chance to pray — that there’s at least one English prayerbook left for you to use! If they do not have any at all, consider donating some to the synagogue. Most synagogues operate at a financial loss, and cannot afford to accomodate everyone, unfortunately.
To return to the Service. For the most part, the congregation will wait for the cantor to prompt them to move on to the next piece. If you can follow what’s going on, try to say the same thing everyone else is saying. Though the prayers are in Hebrew, it’s okay to say them quietly in English, if that works better for you.
If you can’t follow what’s going on, don’t worry. Don’t even be surprised. The first few times you attend you will not catch on immediately. In some synagogues they announce what page they are currently saying, but not all synagogues do that. It really does not matter if you are not keeping up. Really. That’s not the most important thing. There are very few things that you have to say together with the congregation, and you’ll pick them up in time. Your prayer book probably mentions them.
The most common response expected from the congregation is Amain, accent on the second syllable (ah-MAIN). Just say it when everyone else does. In a perfect world, you are supposed to know what the cantor is saying when you say Amain, but until you get used to what’s going on the important thing is to get used to the responses.
The word «amain» means, more or less, «True.»
In other words, if the cantor is reciting a blessing, the amain response means «Yes, that is true. I believe that Hashem is blessed, and that Hashem does whatever it is the cantor just said Hashem does.»
If the cantor recited a prayer-request, amain means «Yes, that is true. I believe that Hashem does this, and may it be His will to do so.»
Okay, here’s a wrinkle. Sometimes there is selective congregational participation. For example, if someone is Heaven forbid in mourning for a relative, and they’re saying kaddish. So, instead of the cantor reciting kaddish, that mourner says kaddish, and everyone else answers amain.
There are longer responses that will show up here and there during the prayers, and even one in the middle of kaddish, but for your first time let it go. You’ll pick it up in time.
Sometimes the Rabbi will give a sermon in the middle of the prayers. In the more advanced synagogues there may be study classes after some of the prayers, or at nighttimes. It’s more than worthwhile to attend these classes and lectures: it’s vital for everyone’s growth in Judaism to study Torah.
If you are attending synagogue on a Saturday morning or noon, better known as Shabbat day (i.e., Sabbath daytime), there might be a kiddush (not to be confused with kaddish). Kiddush is the blessing over wine that we say every Sabbath and Holiday. Sometimes people donate to the synagogue wine, cake, and possibly other food for the congregation and visitors to enjoy after the morning prayers. If so, don’t begin to eat right away. Wait until the cantor, Rabbi, or other designated person recites the kiddush over wine. Answer amain, wait until he begins to drink the wine, and then you can begin eating.
Sometimes a person will make a kiddush specifically for invited guests and relatives. There are any number of reasons someone might do this. It’s nothing to be offended about. If someone announces a kiddush, it usually means it’s open for everyone, but pay close attention to the announcement anyway, just in case.
Some synagogues have a kiddush every week, arranged by the members. Sometimes the kiddush is donated by an individual. When a person has a festive occasion, such as the birth of a daughter (for a boy we make a bris, so there is usually no kiddush on the Sabbath), or the marriage of a child, he often makes a kiddush at the synagogue or at his home. A kiddush is also given around the anniversary of a loved one’s passing to the next world (called a yartzeit, in Yiddish). The offering of free food to the public is an act that makes people feel good, so this is counted as a merit for the soul of the deceased. The custom is to offer wine (or liquor) and cake to the congregation at the synagogue, in addition to any other acts of charity one does for the sake of the deceased.
During the kiddush is a great time to mingle. Most especially, get to know the Rabbi. If you are there alone, don’t worry about being introduced. In all likelihood, the Rabbi is used to having strangers introduce themselves. If he were shy, he probably wouldn’t have become a Rabbi.
Tell the Rabbi your situation. Ask him if he can help get you invited to Sabbath meals, or to experience an entire Sabbath at the home of an observant Jew. Believe me, that is the key to understanding what Judaism is all about.
If you would like to find a place to stay and/or eat for a Sabbath, try these links.
To find beginners’ services in your area, visit NJOP: the National Jewish Outreach Program.
To choose a good siddur (prayerbook) at a reputable Judaica outlet, visit: Tiferes Stam & Judaica. I recommend the Artscroll Siddur.
My wife’s article about separate seating in the synagogue: The View From Within.