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  • Writer's pictureLeah Jones

Shabbat at my shul–all the news for my jew debut

Okay, so you’ve decided to brave the elements and come see me carry the Torah, hear me say the Shema, and experience shabbat services at a synagogue. What do you need to know? I’m going to tell you some things–but know that I’m not trying to be a know-it-all bitch, I’m trying to prep you to have a good time at this thing.

1. No cellphones, no cameras. Please, please, please remember to turn off your cell phone. I get so paranoid that I leave it at home most Friday nights. You don’t have to leave it at home, but you can leave it in your coat pocket in the coat room. Turned off or on silent, but please, please not on. It is so embarassing for everyone when a phone goes off and my Rabbi doesn’t ignore it. He also isn’t a fan of cameras–it pushes the “what’s allowed on shabbat” rules, even for a reform congregation. He also doesn’t ignore camers.

2. Participation. During Bar and Bat mitzvahs, auf rufs, baby namings, and other times people are being honored–we often, like we will on Dec 2, have a lot (sometimes a majority) of folks who aren’t members of our congregation, so don’t know how we do things. Aren’t jewish, so doubly don’t know how we do things. Or aren’t interested in attempting to do how we do things. My rabbi doesn’t ignore it when the congregation becomes like an audience. So pleaes, I implore you, try to participate. Pull out the prayer book, stand up, sit down, hum along with unfamiliar tunes. The rabbi and the cantor will try to help you along with page numbers and instructions, but he will comment if folks are tuned out or only there for, in this case, me. So please try.

3. To kippah or not to kippah, that is the question. Emanuel is a reform congregation, so nobody will be offended if you don’t wear a kippah AKA skullcap AKA yarmulke AKA yamaka (phonetic spelling, calm down.) If you want to wear one, there is a box by the sanctuary door. But if you don’t want to wear one, that is fine too. One rabbi does, one doesn’t.

4. Where to sit, where to sit. Personally, I sit on the left side in the middle. If there are seats way in the back on the floor–don’t sit there. You’ll feel like an outsider, come on up and sit with the congregation. I even have some of my jewish friends who have offered to sit with my non-jewish friends to help you along with the services. So come on up. But not the second row from the front on the right–that is where the ladies sit. 🙂

5. What books do you use? When you walk in, you’ll see a book shelf to your left–don’t bother. There are books at your seats, those are times when we set up extra seats in the back. At your seat, under the chair in front of you, are two books. The smaller one is the Gates of Prayer and the larger one is the Chumash, it contains the Torah portions for the year. They are both navy blue–I don’t know why, I guess someone made a good business selling navy blue books to religious organizations. Both are hebrew style–back to front. Gates of Prayer is the one with the prayers and the service in it, the Chumash is for the Torah reading in the middle of the service if you want to follow along. Don’t worry–both have Hebrew and English.

6. The service. I think my rabbi does an exception job at keeping people up to speed with where we are in the service, calling out page numbers, explaining different prayers, adding meaning and context for saying the prayers. Some are call and response in english and some are in hebrew. When I first started going, I’d read the english translation while everyone else said the hebrew. Don’t worry, anytime you need to stand, he’ll say so and he’ll tell you when you can sit.

7. The basics (lucky for me, Diane taught a great course on the services and I am stealing from her workbook.)

Ningun–we start with a ningun, a song without words. Sometimes it is a familiar tune, sometimes not. Just sing La and follow along.

Candlelighting–in Jewish homes, two (or more) candles are lit to welcome Shabbat. We light two candles to welcome shabbat at the beginning of services. One member (typically a woman) will light the candles and give the blessings (in hebrew.)

Preparing to Pray–after the candlelighting is a time of preparing to pray. Songs and poems that help to create more seperation between the week and shabbat. We might sing L’Chah Dodi or Hinei Mah Tov. With both you’ll hear (sort of) verses and the chorus, so you might not catch the verse, but you might hear a part repeating. Join in if you can.

Sh’ma and Its blessings–This is where the prayer part of services start. There is a call to worship (the Bar’chu), the Ma’ariv Aravim and then the Sh’ma. The Sh’ma is the “mission statement” of judaism. “Hear Oh Israel, Adonai is the Lord, Adonai is One.” Oh, yeah, Adonai is one of the names for God. Something you might find strange is that at our congregation, we say our prayers more egalitarian then they are written. If it says “Lord” you’ll hear people say “Eternal” and if it says “he” either “Adonai” or “you.” I still get confused. From there we keep rolling with prayers and songs in Hebrew–the V’ahavta, sing the Mi Chamochah, and sing another song about shabbat.

Then it is time for the Amida–this one is in the back cover of the prayerbook, transliterated and in english. Why? We say a different version than what is in the prayerbook. We add the names of the matriachs to the names of the patriarachs. So for a couple minutes, you have a chance to follow along with a bit more ease.

Then it is time for the Torah service–and this is where (I think) I get up and do my thing. There will be extra things–I’ll answer the six questions, receive (I think) a blessing from my rabbi, then I’ll take the torah from the ark and say the sh’ma, carry the torah around the sanctuary and give my speech. And probably cry. Bring kleenex to pass me, will you?

During the Torah service a member of the congregation (I think this week my friend Scott is doing it) will give the blessings for reading torah. Then my rabbi will read from the Torah–he doesn’t chant torah like you might have seen before. He reads some in Hebrew and then translates it. It won’t match up with the translation in the Chumash, he’s really doing it as he reads it.

After the Torah reading, we say the Mi Shebeirach–a prayer for healing. The words are in the announcements you were given when you walked in. One of my favorite prayers, it is a chance to add the names of loved ones for the blessing.

After the Torah is returned to the Ark, it is time for the D’Var Torah or the sermon. Kind of turning the words of the Torah. Sometimes he gives a SERMON, but more often he has a conversation with the congregation.

The concluding prayers are the Aleinu, Kiddish (a blessing over wine), and finally the Mourner’s Kaddish. Mourner’s Kaddish is said every week to remember those who have passed in this season in years passed or who have recently passed. The long list of names are those whose anniversaries are on that day.

Then there might be a closing benediction and closing song, followed by a hearty “Shabbat Shalom” to people sitting near you. Then it is oneg time–cookies and punch and (decaf) coffee. Then the post-oneg wine and cheese at my house.

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