A Gentile Walks Into An Orthodox Synagogue…For The First Time

After an apprehensive and distant drive, I arrived for my first service at the “Jewish Church”. I was both hoping to be impressed, whilst also hoping to impress. They need to understand that I am certain and sincere.

Jews pray three times a day, which they can do in private; However when the Torah scroll is read, and kaddish, kedushah and barchu is recited, or in fact when any type of formal sanctification is performed, a minyan (assembly) of 10 men over the age of 13 is required (Leviticus 22:32, Numbers 16:21). This means that on Shabbat, the main service when most gather to hear the parsha read (weekly Torah portion) occurs at the time of Shacharit (morning prayers), whilst Minchah (afternoon prayers), Maariv (evening prayers) and Havdalah (ceremonial ending of the Sabbath) is attended only by those who wish to do it at the synagogue instead of at their home.

In typical ‘me’ fashion, I was uninformed on this matter, and turned up to the Maariv service.

I arrived 30 minutes in advance, and spent them in the car chatting with my Nanna, who tagged along for the ride, and told stories about a Jewish friend she had in her youth (whilst occasionally asking odd questions about why I was going to a synagogue – bless her). The gates were closed, and I received no answer to my multiple buzzes of the intercom, quickly realising that because it was Shabbat, they weren’t going to answer and I was in fact violating the prohibitions myself by even pushing the intercom button…whoopsys.

Eventually, a fellow gentile and worker at the synagogue rescued me from the awkward curiosity and led me into a down stairs room where the Rabbi and 4 other men were struggling to form a minyan. I sat to the right of the Mechitzah and when 2 other women entered, they handed me an Ashkenaz siddur (pray book) and introduced themselves. One of them was also a Simone!

Unfortunately a minyan could not be formed because many of it’s usual participates were  away – this was slightly disappointing because I had so hoped to see the Torah scroll in all it’s glory.

Nonetheless, the atmosphere of the room recharged when everyone began reciting their blessings. Hearing and feeling the atmosphere at churches when Christian worship music was played, I can understand the power of music; but this was a whole other level. I have never heard such powerful, booming voices and even as a non-Hebrew speaker, my soul understood every word.

I can make as many guttural jokes as I please, but I can never deny the profound kabbalistic power of the Hebrew language.

Both women were gracious enough to interrupt their own blessings to guide me through the siddur and point to where we were on the English translations. Even when I made an error and asked one of the ladies if it was okay for me to participate in Netilat Yadayim (ritual washing of the hands) as a non-Jew (we were supposed to remain silent at this point), she responded and showed me how. She was prepared to violate a mitzvah in order to fulfil another (not publicly embarrassing others), and I admire her greatly for that.

We sat down at the table together, broke challah and indulged in various foods including beetroot hummus and kiwi fruit. After chatting back and forth, I briefly relayed the story of how I came to be in an Orthodox synagogue eating a meal with 7 Jewish strangers and how it really all started 5 years ago (I realise now that I left out some key parts which is very frustrating!). The possibility of my ancestor Marie being a member of the tribe was also discussed, and my butchering of the pronunciation of “Schulter” got a few giggles!

Supposedly, my Jewish education seemed extensive for someone who had never really met an “openly Jewish person”. The gentleman seated beside me joked that he’d soon be coming to ask me questions on Halacha, whilst the Rabbi laughed that “most Jews wouldn’t even know that!” when noting my failed communication attempts at the intercom.

*Somehow* I find these statements made in jest highly unlikely, but I continue to find it incredible that virtual strangers were able to crack jokes at the expense of my typically anxiety-filled-self, and still have me remain wholly at ease.

It truly felt as though the only way I could feel more “at home”, was if I was literally standing in the pulsating heart of Jerusalem.

Even looking around the room was special. Each wall, top to bottom, was filled with Jewish literature. The Rabbi pointed to the Talmud resting behind me (made up of about 20 volumes), and it was the most humbling experience to realise that the work of so many Chazal (Sages, of blessed memory) and their students, dating from the time of Moshe Rabbeinu (Moses) up until the 500CE, sat in my presence.

The sea of Jewish knowledge is endless, but I would not mind if it swallowed me whole.

Even when I couldn’t understand the language, hadn’t read the books and couldn’t perform the rituals correctly, I felt like I knew all I needed to know; And perhaps it’s irresponsible to make such a bold statement, but the more I delve into observance, the more right it feels.

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