Image: A paper doll, with an assortment of clothing choices. (Melniklena, Shutterstock)
(For information about Yom Kippur, which is a special exception, see What to Wear on Yom Kippur)
One of the most common searches that brings people to this blog is some version of “what to wear:” what to wear to a bar mitzvah, what to wear to an Orthodox service, what to wear to a Jewish funeral, what to wear to a bris. That’s a difficult question to answer, given that a reader might be anywhere and standards differ depending on where you live. I’m in California, where dress is extremely casual. I grew up in the American South East, where dress tends to be more formal. I’ve lived in Israel, where I have rarely seen a man wearing a tie at any event, no matter how formal, and … well, you get the idea. Given the reach of the Internet, the question is unanswerable as asked.
However, I can offer you some guidelines:
1. What do people wear for business where you live? That is a reasonable guide for most synagogues other than Orthodox synagogues. Wear what you might wear to an important business meeting. If you don’t own such clothing, dress as nicely as you can.
2. Neither men nor women will go wrong covering their heads in a synagogue, but it will not be required in most Reform synagogues. Conservative synagogues are likely to require it for men and recommend it for women. When in doubt, ask ahead or, if you get there and realize everyone else has their head covered, ask an usher for help. Synagogues where head covering is the norm will almost always have some for guests to borrow. At bar and bat mitzvah services, kippot [yarmulkes or skull caps] are often given away as souvenirs with the name of the bar mitzvah and the date inscribed inside.
3. For an event at an Orthodox synagogue, unless you have specific info to the contrary, men and women both should cover all bare skin: no shorts, no short skirts, no tight clothing, either. Generally speaking, when I attend services or events at an Orthodox shul, I wear a knee-length or longer skirt with a top or jacket that covers elbows and collarbones. Men should cover their heads with a kippah (usually there is a supply of them at the door) and it’s a safe bet for women to wear a hat. Yes, you will look like a visitor but that’s fine, you will look like a visitor who cares about the sensibilities of the community. In all synagogues, avoid flashy, gimmicky or revealing clothing choices.
4. Funerals are uniformly the most solemn occasions in any location. Women: dress soberly, with absolutely no “bling” and very little skin on display. Black or a dark color is always a safe choice. If you are going to the cemetery, wear sensible shoes even if they look clunky with your outfit; cemetery grass is thick and spongy. If all your outfits are low-cut or sleeveless, wear a shawl or jacket to cover up. Men: if you have a suit and tie, wear it. If you don’t, come as close as you can.
5. For Bar and Bat Mitzvah services, look at the invitation. If it specifies dress, believe them. If your daughter is insisting that everyone else is wearing miniskirts and strapless bustiers to the bat mitzvah service, phone either the synagogue office or the mother of the bar mitzvah (WELL ahead of the big day) and ask about dress codes. (Note: no one is going to answer the synagogue phone on a Saturday. Call during business hours during the week.) The same applies if your son is adamant about jeans and a tee shirt. These services are solemn events, and going to them dressed like you’re going to a disco or a picnic is disrespectful to the congregation and potentially an embarrassment to the family.
The party afterwards may be a whole different matter, with a separate dress code. Again, if you have questions, call the family well ahead of time.
6. For Rosh HaShanah services, business wear should be appropriate but you may see some people wearing dressier clothing. You may also see some people wearing all white.
7. Your clothing need not be expensive to be appropriate for any synagogue event. Member families at any synagogue are like most families in your community: they come from all income brackets. The main thing is to be clean, tidy, and modest in your dress.