Rabbi Captain Sarah Schecter

Lost in the Service?

Image: U.S. Air Force Rabbi, Chaplain, Captain Sarah D. Schechter leads the evening Leil Shabbat service on Friday, Sept. 4, 2009 at Lackland Air Force Base’s Airman Memorial Chapel. Schechter was the first active duty female Rabbi in the Department of Defense. (U.S. Air Force photo/Lance Cheung)

At Mi Shebeirach, about 4,000 people whispered to their neighbor “I don’t know this one”

Rabbi Mike Harvey @Island_Rabbi, November 7, 2015

This is a tweet from Rabbi Mike Harvey, who was attending the Union for Reform Judaism Biennial Convention in Orlando, FL. I loved this tweet because it communicates a great truth about attending services: in any given group, there will be some people who don’t know a particular prayer, or tune, or combination thereof.

The next time you are sitting in a service and you feel badly because you don’t know something, remember that you are not alone. A whole bunch of others in the congregation are lost, too: maybe not 4,000 of them, but plenty.

I have been going to services for a long time, and I have studied the services long and hard. Yet sometimes I will go to a new (to me) synagogue or service and I will be a little lost. I know generally where the service is going, but I may not know the tune that they “always” use at Synagogue Beit Yehudi, or I may not realize that they have a particular custom for a prayer. So I keep my eyes and ears open, and I learn. Occasionally I hope I will never encounter that tune again, but usually it’s nice to learn yet another way to sing Adon Olam.

Often students will come to me and say that they don’t go to services because they feel “stupid” in services. They don’t know the prayers or the tunes, and they are afraid everyone will know that they are new. Here are some thoughts about that:

  1. No one is born knowing how to daven [pray] the service. NO ONE.
  2. The only way to get better at services is to go to services.
  3. It’s perfectly OK to sit quietly and listen.
  4. It’s perfectly OK to hum along.
  5. No one will pay attention to how you pray, unless you sing very loudly off key or cross yourself.
  6. You have a right to be there, even if you never learn how to say anything in Hebrew.
  7. You have a right to be there, period.

So next time you are feeling lost in a service, think about Rabbi Harvey’s cogent observation. He was in a crowd of dedicated Reform Jews, and a huge number of them were unsure of themselves for a moment. Maybe it was a new tune. Maybe it was an experimental way of saying the Mi Shebeirach for the Sick. I have no idea. But I am so, so glad that he tweeted about it, because I get to pass that golden tweet along to you!

For more about the synagogue service and how to get the most out of a service without understanding any Hebrew, check out these articles:

What Goes On in a Jewish Service? (Especially for Beginners) 

Dancing with the Rabbis An article about the movements you see people make in the service.

What Vestments Do Rabbis Wear? You will see unusual clothing on some people. Here’s a guide to that.

What is a Machzor? It’s the prayer book for High Holy Days. Read this if your first service will be a High Holy Day service.

Kissing the Torah: Idolatry? The procession with the Torah involves people kissing and touching the Torah scroll as it passes. If you are curious about that practice, this article explores it.

What’s a Chumash? What’s a Siddur? An article about the books we use in the service.


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Rabbi Ruth Adar is a teaching rabbi in San Leandro, CA. She has many hats: rabbi, granny, and ham radio operator K6RAV. She blogs at http://coffeeshoprabbi.com/ and teaches at Jewish Gateways in Albany, CA.

16 thoughts on “Lost in the Service?”

  1. It’s so so so true!!! When I first started going to services, I felt so conspicuous and out of place just being in a temple (there was a huge amount of courage required just to leave my car and enter!). Then not knowing the songs (and the worst is when lines get repeated randomly, with no heads up), or the Hebrew, and just generally feeling lost. But just by showing up, you learn the songs, you learn the service, and you come to a place of peace. Then in a new temple, they do some things differently, but it’s easier to roll with it when the whole is familiar.

    This service, which caused so much anxiety and angst at first, now is my weekly spiritual yoga, my time to shed the troubles of the week and relax. It gets better!

  2. Is it wrong to use English or the English transliteration of B’rakhot v’ Tehillim ? It feels like I’m cheating when I SHOULD be reading and/or speaking Ivrit.

    1. Chazal (the sages of old) are agreed that prayers are acceptable in languages other than Hebrew. I find it more helpful to think of transliteration as a tool that helps some people access Hebrew. No shame to use it, in my opinion.

  3. My husband was comforted by my reading this to him. He often feels out of place and the tweet with 4000 lost souls resonated. Thanks for sharing this.

  4. Ha! When I started going to services 4 years ago, I thought everyone was reading Hebrew. Not liking to be left out, I learned to read it (thanks to Rabbi Google). And to chant torah. And haftarah. Suddenly I was considered the expert! Still learning…

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