Tuesday, February 21, 2023

What to Expect the 1st Time You Attend Synagogue

So you've been reading books, scrolling social media, reading this blog...and you think you're ready to go to a synagogue service for the first time.

The mechanics and the level of "oh no what have I gotten myself into I am not ready for this" will be different between orthodox and non-orthodox services only because non-orthodox services will be less unfamiliar and more used to clueless newcomers. So for that reason, I suggest going to a non-orthodox service as your first service, even if you eventually intend to convert orthodox. But you'll probably feel that panicked way no matter which kind of service you attend.


Security & Getting in the Door

Of course, this post is going to be focused on the experience in America because that's most of my experience. Attending synagogue outside of Israel, America, Canada, you may find very strict security and may need to request permission from the synagogue to attend. You may be asked to provide a copy of your passport, and the regular procedure may require a letter/email from your current rabbi. Of course, if you're reading this, you don't have a rabbi. Just be honest that you're considering conversion or have Jewish ancestry and would like to visit to see what a service is like. 

They may very well say no you can't visit, so please don't take it personally. That happened to me in several European cities back in 2007. I didn't visit a single synagogue in a year except the one in the town where I lived and taught. It's not about you or converts or anyone specifically. This has long been the situation, and its solely about security. They don't know you from Adam, as they say. (No Jews say that though, in my experience. Is that a Southern or Christian thing?) Remind me to tell you about the time I was almost arrested in Egypt on a study abroad trip for taking photographs of a Cairo synagogue from the street.

 But let's assume you're in America or somewhere similar. Really, all you do is find out the services times and walk in. Individual synagogues may have a different security set up, and you may be approached by a security team member to ask who you are and why you're here. It's not the most welcoming, but I get it. 

However, be aware that security teams are made up of regular people who have prejudices and can sometimes get puffed up with the "police-like" power. A whole lot of people love watching Law & Order. It's not unusual for Jews of Color or guests of color to be interrogated and actively made to feel unwelcome. 

When I complained in a public meeting with a security team who admitted to doing this (and at least one Black Jew being upset enough to leave and never return), both the team and the community in the meeting erupted into a round of "the ends justify the means" and said they did nothing wrong. It was that person's fault for not understanding and being willing to "take one for the team." They were oversensitive! You gotta break some eggs when you make an omelet, amirite?? 

Scared people do and say bad things to people they perceive as outsiders, and that applies across Jewish movements. It can happen in a liberal-seeming reform synagogue that claims to be "welcoming" just as much as the most politically conservative orthodox synagogue. Traditionally, non-orthodox synagogues have been unlikely to have a security team, but that is finally changing due to the rise in antisemitic crimes. But let's be clear - 

  • the ends do NOT justify the means, 
  • bad "policing" actually makes us less safe by wasting resources and alienating community members,
  • "the ends justify the means" is not a Jewish value, 
  • and racism and xenophobia are not Jewish values either. 
36 times (or more, depending on who you ask) we are commanded to love the "ger" - the convert, the outsider, the immigrant are all translations of that word.

Parking & Driving

If you're attending a non-orthodox synagogue, there'll be parking available outside the synagogue. If you're attending an orthodox synagogue, you may arrive to find that the synagogue's parking lot has the entrance blocked. No driving is allowed on Shabbat for orthodox people. Even though you're not Jewish/not orthodox, it's considered polite to park a little bit away from the synagogue and walk a block or so. Basically just not parking right in front of the synagogue and driving off in front of the congregation.

What to Wear

Dress as though you were going to a job interview. You want to make a good impression, and you likely want to dress in a fairly conservative manner the first time you visit a synagogue so that you can get a feel for what's "normal" and "socially acceptable" in that community. Men usually wear a suit and tie, women can wear what they would wear to a job interview. In an orthodox community, women should wear a skirt that reaches the knee or lower. All should wear closed-toe shoes.

All of this is up for grabs after your first visit. Dressing in a very conservative manner will help keep your visit as uneventful as possible.

What to Leave at Home on Shabbat and Holidays

Your phone, your smart watch, and anything else that is electronic and/or makes noises. You know that'll be the time someone calls you and you forgot to turn off the ringer. Or your smart watch decides to ping to remind you to walk 200 more steps to meet your goal! Leave them at home or in the car.


If you're male, you may want to grab a headcovering/kippah/yarmulke from a basket near the door to put on your head. This basket is going to be present in almost all synagogues of every kind. If this is a non-orthodox syngagogue, women may take one as well.

You may find a second basket with lacy headcoverings for women that look like lace doilies if you also had a grandmother or greatgrandmother who covered her house in doilies (is that a Southern thing too??). In no synagogue will headcovering be "mandatory" for women.

Beside both baskets, you might find hair pins to help you secure your headcovering of choice. (It's okay to take them to the bathroom to put them on with a mirror.)

Get Your Books

 Next you'll probably grab a prayerbook (siddur), but some synagogues will have them at the seats. It's always okay to ask any random person "Where do I find the prayerbooks/siddurs?" It's not always obvious, especially in orthodox synagogues. This is not a question that will out you as being in a synagogue for the first time because all of us have to ask this from time to time, but it will out you as a visitor to this synagogue.

 If there will be a reading from the Torah, you'll also want to grab a Chumash. They'll be stored beside the siddurim/prayerbooks. They're usually much bigger and thicker. This will apply on Monday and Thursday mornings, and Saturday mornings and afternoon (mincha service). There are other times when we read the Torah like the holidays, but if you realize mid-service that you forgot to grab a Chumash, it's perfectly fine and normal to walk back to grab one. It happens to all of us sometimes.


What If I Have to Go to the Bathroom?

 You can come and go as you need to, like to the bathroom. 

Usually, it's good manners to stay seated and not enter or leave the sanctuary during the Rabbi's Speech. But you'll see people do it, and if you have a bathroom or child emergency, don't worry about it. You may find people stationed at the doors who won't you go back into the sanctuary until after the speech is over. Why of all things this is the "good manners" hill that so many synagogues choose to die on is beyond me. I'd rather they appointed enforcers to make people be quiet during davening, but that's just me. I can barely think in English when other people are talking, without having to think in both English and Hebrew and the ambient noise of other people davening.


How Will I Follow Along?

You probably won't, let's be honest. And that's okay. A siddur is extremely complicated, more like a "Choose Your Own Adventure" book than a prayerbook you might be used to. "If A, turn to page X. If B, turn to page Y." There might be a page number board on the wall in the front of the sanctuary, or maybe a person announces page numbers. If you're in an orthodox synagogue (except most Chabad), it's probable there will be no announcement of page numbers at all.

So just sit and stand with the congregation and read some of the prayers that you think they may be doing. For instance, maybe they only announce a page number 2 or 3 times during the whole service. You can turn to that page and spend time working through that section, following the instructions you read.

It's also perfectly normal and okay to ask any random person, "Excuse me, what page are we on?" Most people are very happy to help, and they may volunteer page numbers as we jump around through the service. (But you might be surprised how many times you hear, "I have no idea either.")

 It's okay to pray in your own words and your own way at any time.

Then What?

That's pretty much it. Just sit and stand as everyone else does, and eventually the service will be over.

After the Service

Celebrate - you made it!

There may or may not be a "kiddush" (after Shabbat morning services) or "oneg Shabbat" (seems to be a reform Friday night thing) or other social gathering after the service. 

Most services end by people just turning around and going home. Maybe you'll be approached by someone who noticed you're new, maybe not. If there's a social gathering, you're welcome to stay and socialize!


  1. Hi Kochava, I hope this question isn't too weird for me to ask because I admire you and your blog a lot. I started off my conversion journey Reform, but at some point realized I wanted to convert Orthodox. However I'm... not really geographically close to an Orthodox community 😅. My communication with the Reform rabbi I was working with tapered off because of personal things in her life and I'm not sure of it being wise for me to continue participating with the local Reform community if I don't intend to convert Reform. I previously told most of the people in my life I was a conversion student, would it still be weird if I said that? Is there a better way I should put it?

    1. Hah, not a weird question at all! Answering on one foot: yes, I would stay involved in Jewish life where you are now while also working toward moving. And yes, I would continue to “count” you as a conversion student. You’re still converting - it’s just a meandering path, like most of ours. Do the best you can with the resources you have right now and work towards the future!

      As for your relationship with the rabbi and community, I would be vague and noncommittal about your goals. Right now you’re in a space in between, and you’re not sure which direction(s) to go. So it’s okay to be honest about that. If they ask if you want to move forward, you can say you need more time/are still thinking through things/whatever. That sounds like it would be true for you to say, based on what you say here. After all, maybe you end up not able to move - what will you do then? Until you have concrete plans, I wouldn’t make any big changes. Take it slow, give it time.

  2. Anonymous I am in a similar situation except there is absolutely NO Jewish community near me. I want to say the closest conservative synagogue is 2 hours from me. I have taken in intro to Judaism with them, however, I am interested in an Orthodox community. I have no choice but to move. Initially my plan was to move the 2 hours to this community, but after more reading and thinking about what would be best for me and my family (I have two young children) I feel it would be best for me to stay in my state, but move 6 hours away. So the planning has begun and I hope to me moved by Rosh Hashanah this year if all the things come together, if not it will happen when it does lol. All that to say that things change as we learn and grow. I consider myself still in the conversion process. All the best on your journey.