When I entered a synagogue for the first time

Hello people of the Universe !

Check my precedent post, I explained why I wanted to enter a synagogue! In the meantime, my friend called the president of the Israeli association and he proposed us to come on Wednesday, 16th at 6.30pm, just before the service. We went and I have a lot to tell about what I saw there and what happened exactly!

 The day before, my friends and I were working on the observation grid for our socio-psychological research with our teacher when a girl jumped into the conversation. She had heard we wanted to observe women’s behaviors and participation to the service and she was afraid we couldn’t make it. She said it would be complicated for us to attend a service and she asked where we were going. In a sudden, all the words I had pronounced since the beginning went through my mind. It was clear she was Jewish and I wondered if I had said anything wrong or disrespectful (yes, it seems we only care about what we say when people can hear us…). Obviously, she was interested in our work, she even said it was pretty nice and she explained what we could expect from that immersion. She has been very helpful and sweet.

Something impressed me to be honest. She stopped working on her own observation and sat with us to explain that next Thursday would be the celebration of Purim. She took time to describe what would happen and encouraged us to go (there will be kids all dressed up and challah, of course I want to go!). It impressed me because I think faith is personal. You barely share with strangers about your habbits, your traditions or your spiritual beliefs. I feel grateful she was open to dialogue and even eager to speak sincerely of her community. I still feel a bit confused because it is not the same to read about Judaism or speak about it with people online as sitting with a real Jew made of bones and flesh and listening or asking questions to her. It is kind of a challenge, in fact. For example, I like speaking about Judaism because I believe it is all about questioning yourself, but when you are in front of someone who could tell you “no, what you are talking about is not exactly the truth”, “you didn’t understand the meaning of the Hebrew word” or “what, you don’t know that?”, you feel a bit insecure. But believe me, curiosity wins.

 When D-day arrived, the three of us braved the wind to reach the entrance of the building made of bricks. We didn’t know to which synagogue we were going so we presented ourselves to the security guard and asked to see the president. Let me tell you that what happened next is unfortunately the truth. After passing the two soldiers who guarded the entrance (I was very less impressed that time, we do get used to everything), we opened a first glass door that led to an airlock. We spoke to the agent through a pane and he let us in. I can’t tell you how many questions he asked then but I felt like I was doing something wrong even if we were welcomed. We explained our work and honestly, he seemed interested and asked for more details. As normally as before, he asked if we carried blunt objects with us, as well as our ID cards to photocopy them. I can now tell that my face is in the register of a synagogue (it is a way to feel accepted, you know, like “don’t be afraid of me, I am a good person! Check your register, I am at page 82”). To be honest, the agent wasn’t really feeling comfortable, he couldn’t stop saying “I have to ask, I hope you understand”. He seemed sad to do it — and I do understand, it is so sad to reach that point for safety. I couldn’t help wondering when he would ask for my digital prints and family record book to be sure I was a muggle, though.

Everything was going perfectly fine until we understood the president won’t show up. The security guard couldn’t let us go to the service without the president so he made us wait for the rabbi. Oh, I forgot to say that we went to an Orthodox synagogue and the Jewish student had warned us: we will recognize the rabbi very, very easily because of his resemblance to Rabbi Jacob (a bit of popular French culture!). I had in a head a perfect portrait of that man  (so, so stereotypical haha) and got surprised when he entered.

The rabbi was young. Not like he was young for a typical rabbi which would mean he was around 60, but young like he could be my 30-year-old brother. Long brown beard, black coat and hat, no doubt he was the one we were waiting for. While the agent explained why we were here, I was looking at him like I would look at a CEO… until he got his rose gold iPhone 6+ out and started talking to us as if we were equal and knew each other for a long time. I didn’t expect him to look down on us, not at all, but I thought he would have that deep voice all spiritual people seem to have (I take people for walking clichés, right?), or he would put some distance between us as 1) we didn’t know each other, 2) we were 19, 3) we didn’t have the same background regarding religion, 4) we went through two damn soldiers, an airlock and two security guards supposed to protect him and his community from strangers. Instead of that, he talked to us as if we were his guests whereas I was still wondering if the next test would be to beat a cave-troll. Amazing. I love him. More than that, he was really sweet. He immediately said we could attend the service and seemed sorry that we were there on a Wednesday instead of a Friday for shabbat! Sweet, I told you.

So then, we went upstairs. We arrived in front of a big door made of vanished wood and stopped. Imagine, you are in a religious place and have to follow specific rules you don’t know… You really are afraid of doing something wrong. Moreover, you have to push a door that, you perfectly know it, won’t lead you to Narnia but to a group of women praying and you don’t want to interrupt everything. Fortunately, a woman encouraged us to enter.

Isn’t it beautiful? <3

 During the office, we were sitting in the bleachers, at the very right, in those elegant red chairs. It is the place dedicated to women. It is impressive, you have a view over all men reunited. What I noticed is the difference between men and women, which is present in every single moment of the service. Well, women don’t seem to participate in anything. I precise again that we were in an Orthodox synagogue so it may be different from one place to another.

The women we met knew each other. They sat like family, they talked together while men recited in Hebrew the holy text. They went in and out, used their phones, slept and took off their shoes to be comfortable (grandmas are the funniest). There were also those moments, very special, when they stopped talking and several stood up in silence, sometimes leaning over repeatedly like a pendulum swinging.

I didn’t have much time to listen to what men were saying (only them were really involved in the service and they spoke Hebrew) because I was too concentrate on writing what women were doing. The research we do is based on precision and every movement must be timed and described: it doesn’t let you immerse in the religious atmosphere. The only point of comparison I have is church and well, people don’t act in a synagogue like they do in a church. Just the fact that men spoke at the same time but without saying the exact same words is different.

What I mostly liked was the speech of a man who came up on stage, even if I didn’t catch everything he said. He started questioning a part of a holy text, he recounted the Jewish history in Egypt and spoke about Purim and Hanukkah. I liked how he could question himself, question the text, question people, propose an answer, and finish by asking more questions. Isn’t that amazing? Nobody has answers, everybody has questions.

 I didn’t realize when it finished, I just heard the sudden silent. Women went out and we followed them. People were gathering around tables full of food and drinks while we got out. Let me tell you I want to go back in soon.

Spiritually yours,




2 thoughts on “When I entered a synagogue for the first time

  1. This was so interesting and different to what I imagined. I’ve only attended Shabbat services on Friday/Saturdays in a liberal congregation so the main differences that stood out were

    1. We all sit together
    2. Women often lead the services (Yass!)
    3. Everyone prays, and women are counted towards a minyan
    4. There’s singing (for example, l’chah dodi on Friday nights)

    Other than that it sounds similar. For example, the service is mostly (maybe 75%) in Hebrew where I go as well, but there’s some in English, not sure why.

    The part about ladies taking off their shoes and sleeping was surprising and funny, lol.

    Are you going back for Purim? It’s next Wednesday night! It seems to be a big thing here! There’s the reading of the story of Esther and lots of noise and dressing up. :) From my understanding, the next big thing until the two passover seders next month (April).


    • Oh, women lead? That’s amazing! They seem very passive here… But it might be because it was a Wednesday, I don’t know.
      Do you understand Hebrew?
      I don’t know if we can come for Purim, my friend will call tomorrow. :)


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