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Sunday, June 12, 2011

The Unfriendliest Shul in the World

I've traveled to well over 50 countries around the world, as well as 49 of the 50 US states.  And I've visited synagogues in nearly every place I've ever visited as an adult.

With the possible exception of one or two places in the metro New York area that are known as gathering places for young singles and transients, I have never, EVER, walked into a synagogue and been completely ignored... much less actively made to feel unwelcome. 

Until recently, that is.

When my parents made aliyah several years ago, they bought a lovely apartment in the heart of Jerusalem's trendy German Colony. The neighborhood was a perfect fit for them, with plenty of shopping, restaurants and public transportation... and it is one of the few areas of Jerusalem that is relatively flat.

Since they moved into their apartment, we have stayed with them on numerous occassions. And there have also been plenty of times when they were abroad that we've availed ourselves of their place for a family Jerusalem weekend get-away.

One of the things I was initially quite pleased about was that, on the same street as their apartment building, there is a convenient synagogue (called by the name of the street) where we would be able to pray when visiting over a shabbat or holiday.

I didn't realize at the time that we had stumbled upon a likely candidate for the title 'Unfriendliest Shul in the world', in the heart of Jerusalem, of all places!

The first time we were at my parent's place for shabbat, the kids and I went to this shul for Friday night 'davening' (prayers). Not wanting to inadvertantly sit in anyone's regular seat, I timed our arrival to the synagogue so we wouldn't get there too early.

When we walked in, I was a little surprised that nobody in the already crowded sanctuary said hello to us. Not only that, when we started looking around in the back for available seats, nobody offered assistance or even said 'Shabbat Shalom' to us.

Each time I made a tentative move towards a group of empty seats, someone would make a 'tsk tsk' noise, or wave us off with a "that's someone's seat" in brusque Hebrew.

We finally ended up standing in the back while several of the empty seats we had attempted to take remained unoccupied. At the conclusion of the service, nobody greeted us, or in any way acknowledged that there were strangers in their midst. It was a truly surreal experience.

From Australia to Hong Kong to Honolulu, I had never experienced a shul where people didn't say hello, inquire who you were visiting, or where you were visiting from.

In fact, in most places, it would be uncommon for a stranger not to be asked if they had a place for the Shabbat meals... and if not, an invitation would be extended.

Not ony have I been the recipent of countless such invitations... but as an adult, I have had the privilege of extending many such offers of hospitality.

This is such a common practice that many of my friends have stories of their father bringing home unexpected guests from shul on Shabbat, and their unprepared mother conveying a pre-agreed code to everyone at the table to let the guest serve him/herself first, and for everyone else to fill up on side dishes... just in case there wasn't enough of the main course to go around!

Yet here we were in Jerusalem - the epicenter of Judaism - and not only had we not been welcomed, but it seems we had been actively snubbed!

The next morning I decided to take the family to a different synagogue a few blocks from my parent's place, and was pleased that many people greeted us warmly, and we were offered seats as soon as we arrived.

Not only that... once the service was concluded, we were personally invited to the 'kiddish' (a small reception with refreshments) by someone sitting near us.

The next time we visited my parents I was tempted not to go back to the shul that was on (and named for) their street. But it was so convenient that I decided that our previous experience must have been an unlucky fluke. Surely it couldn't have been as unfriendly as I'd remembered.

As it turns out, it was worse than I'd recalled.

Not only did nobody offer so much as the smallest greeting, but when 15 minutes into the service we finally sat down in what seemed to be empty seats, we were almost immediately un-apologetically nudged out of them by the late arrival of the seat's regular occupants.

And once again, the service ended with everyone around us warmly greeting one another... but acting as though we were not there.

The following morning we attended the other synagogue and were again struck by the warm welcome we received. This has been repeated each and every time we have stayed at my parent's place.

You may be wondering why we would continue to subject ourselves to such rude treatment... and I'm not sure I have an answer for you.  I think it is mostly out of a desire not to keep my parents waiting on Friday night for the extra few minutes it would take to get home from the more distant shul.

But I think there is also something in my nature that wants desperately for someone - anyone - in this shul to prove me wrong... to show me that I had judged them unfairly.

This past weekend we spent shabbat at my parents after more than six months of not having done so. As always, I took the kids up the street to the convenient-but-unfriendly shul.

Apparently I had misjudged the time that the service was to begin, because we were among the first to arrive.  Not wanting to sit in anyone's seat, we hung back and took our time selecting a 'siddur' (prayer book) and making as if were were admiring the architectural accents of the sanctuary.

When the place had mostly filled up (with nobody having so much as said 'Shabbat Shalom' to us), I grabbed the boys' hands and guided them towards three empty seats on the side of the shul.  As we settled into the seats, I glanced up at the Shul's Rabbi in his seat of honor next to the 'Aron Kodesh' (the ark where the Torah scrolls are kept).

I know it isn't very nice to admit, but as I looked at this fine specimen of a Rabbi - with his big black hat, regal white beard and fine black frock coat - I couldn't help wondering what kind of personal example he was giving to his congregants through his leadership that would cause them to act so callously towards strangers.

I couldn't help racalling that the true sin for which Sodom and Gemorah had ultimately been destroyed had not been their licentious behavior.  These cities had been considered beyond redemption, and worthy of complete destruction, because of their lack of hospitality to strangers! 

No sooner had I finished forming this uncharitable thought, the Rabbi looked up from the book he had been perusing and glanced in my direction. Upon seeing us, he immediately got up from his seat and began walking towards where we were seated.

I instantly felt ashamed for what I had been thinking. Certainly he couldn't be held responsible for his congregant's rudeness. After all, here he was coming straight over to welcome us.

When he reached the spot where we were seated, I got up and extended my hand to reciprocate the anticipated 'sabbath greeting'. But instead of taking my extended hand, the Rabbi said (in Hebrew) "You might be more comfortable sitting somewhere else. I think these are someone's seats".

I was floored!

But instead of simply walking away I decided I'd return the rudeness... just a little bit.

So I smiled and said, "we're just visiting and don't know who sits where. Perhaps you could suggest seats that don't belong to anyone."

He glanced around and pointed to two empty seats that had prayer books placed in front of them.  I smiled, tilted my head and said, "Excuse me Rabbi. But there are three of us and you've pointed out only two seats. And not only that, but someone seems to have placed their 'siddurim' there to hold the seats".

The Rabbi just shrugged and said, "Perhaps you're right. In any event, you may as well stay in these seats. Maybe the regular occupants aren't here this week or davened at the early minyan."

With that he turned on his heel and returned to his seat without having even said 'Shabbat Shalom'.

Posted by David Bogner on June 12, 2011 | Permalink


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Friends of mine who made aliya about 20 years ago started their own shul in their living room because of the unfriendliness of the local shul. The name of their shul? "The Friendly Minyan." And they were.

Posted by: Rahel | Jun 12, 2011 2:18:30 PM

I've been to shuls where we've been left to flounder by the congregation, but in each one, at least the rabbi has greeted us and asked if we were visiting.

I'm embarrassed for that rabbi. And that congregation. And for all of us.

Posted by: Alissa | Jun 12, 2011 2:22:10 PM

So what you're saying is that this shul will not be an alternate recipient for the Midsummer's Night Dream Ride?

Posted by: Noa | Jun 12, 2011 2:26:41 PM

I don't know...I lived in Jerusalem and I found the lack of greeting from anyone to be pretty common (ok..i'm a woman....so the men, least of all the rabbi weren't going to come greet me). Now I've moved to the Israeli suburbs (married with kids)....and in the closest shul (made up entirely of anglos) nobody makes much effort to greet let alone offer meals. I hate to be cyncial, but your experiences of frienliness seem to be the exception! (lucky for you!)

It could be us (maybe we smell)...but since we never had problems socializing before....i don't know....

Posted by: LG | Jun 12, 2011 2:42:34 PM

There's a shul in Yad Eliyahu, Tel-Aviv that's also a contender. We lived there and davened there for 6 months; no one ever said hi, shabbat shalom or anything for the entire 6 months I davened there.

Posted by: Jameel | Jun 12, 2011 2:46:34 PM

ever been to London?

Posted by: Yisrael Medad | Jun 12, 2011 2:48:05 PM

ever been to London?

Posted by: Yisrael Medad | Jun 12, 2011 2:48:43 PM

Occasionally we have access to a car. When we offer someone in the Gush or at the trempiada at Gilo a ride to Neve Daniel, we often hear the exasperated response: "Why is it only Neve Daniel people who offer rides?" (Disclaimer: When people are frustrated, they forget that it really isn't just ND people...) We always tell them that our yishuv rabbi, Rav Matanya Ben-Shachar, has stated that we have an obligation to help people without cars whenever we can. So it is probably true that a very large percentage of ND residents offer rides.

Many people in my community in Baltimore have been inspired to make aliyah because of our extraordinary rabbi, Rav Menachem Goldberger. Many of his congregants now live in Israel. This is striking because Rav Goldberger is a bekashe-and-fur-streimel-wearing Hasid; and such encouragement is unusual in the American Hareidi community.

My husband always tells our sons, "World peace begins at the Eastman table."

Bottom line: You are 100% correct. The leader of any community sets the tone for his community.

Posted by: rutimizrachi | Jun 12, 2011 2:50:06 PM

You would be welcome in my house at any time. Just sayin".

Posted by: Yabu | Jun 12, 2011 3:19:32 PM

That's horrible. Whoa.

Posted by: Leah Weiss Caruso | Jun 12, 2011 3:21:28 PM

The unfriendliest shul in world is the sephardi Beit Knesset (http://www.gfn.co.il/images/stories/666/gfn_40.jpg) in Zichron Yaacov. I'm almost too ashamed for them to tell the story.
About 1 year ago I went there with my in-laws because they are more comforable with the Moroccan nusah. We have been there a couple of times before on numerous occasions.
Halfway into the Kabalat Shabat a resident imbecile started yelling at my father in law to stop his chanting because the melody doesn't reflect the customs in this stupid little shit shul.
My bro' was so insulted he imediatly packed up his siddur without saying a word in order to finish the Kabalat Shabat in the Ashkanazi place next door place. I was just too shocked . We just couldn't believe this.
They even have a Rav who was looking around indignant yet smiling stupidly and incapable to say anything. I stayed because it's not really possible to change Shul during one session. I avoided this place ever since and stopped all trumot. We're going to the Yemenite places now with or too the wonderful but far Mul Yayekev. I later asked a couple of people what's wrong with the Sephardi Beit Knesset in Zichron. The consensus is that they just don't want any vistors there. Needless to say the average age there is about 75.

Posted by: Abu Zib | Jun 12, 2011 4:05:44 PM

C'mon, Yael or Hildesheimer?

Posted by: Anon | Jun 12, 2011 4:22:50 PM

Rahel ... admirable, but not the way I want to go. :-)

Alissa ... Me too.

Noa... I won't need to worry about making a donation. I'm not likely to get an 'aliyah' there consdiering I can't usually even get a 'Good Shabbos'. :-)

LG... I think my experience is a statistically significant body of data.

Jameel ... Ouch.

Yisrael Medad ... Yes. WHile you aren't likely to get an aliyah if not dressed properly (according to their standards), they aren't particularly unfriendly.

rutimizrachi ... Sadly, I'm fairly certain that even if the Rabbi were to ever read this... he wouldn't really care.

Yabu ... Likewise

Leah Weiss Caruso ... Yup.

Abu Zib... Not looking to start a contest here... but that really sounds bad.

Anon... If you know your history, it is the one named for a founder of modern orthodoxy in Germany.

Posted by: treppenwitz | Jun 12, 2011 4:32:23 PM

Your experience almost mirrors the one we had in Brooklyn. Except we lived there for almost seven years and never met anyone there and were never greeted or invited - for seven years! I always said, if we fell and were lying across the hallway in the shul, the people would step over us or complain about the nuisance. We eventually went to another shul because this one was so incredibly unfriendly.

Posted by: Michal Vinar | Jun 12, 2011 4:37:00 PM

I can't ever recall a similar experience here. Just goes to show that we can be jackasses just like everyone else!

Posted by: Elisson | Jun 12, 2011 4:45:47 PM

Too bad they don't take after their namesake " He also took a special interest in the welfare of the Jews of Palestine. In 1860, when the missionary society of Palestine provided seventy free dwellings for homeless Jews, Hildesheimer himself built houses in Jerusalem for the free use of Jewish pilgrims and for the poor." (Wikipedia)

Posted by: Chaim Sherman | Jun 12, 2011 5:48:04 PM

When I was at primary (grade) school, a lot of the other pupils were from German/Jewish families. It wasn't long after WWII. so the parents of my schoolmates were refugees.

They also despised everything English. Their children didn't socialise with 'us' after school, they had their own shul, and the mothers acknowledged 'our' mothers with very curt nods. What these mothers didn't realise was that our mothers all spoke Yiddish, and that my mother (and my father) spoke German.

One day my mother listened to a group of German mothers complaining about living in England, and how everything had been so much better 'at home'. My mother, never a shrinking violet, was furious. She immediately joined the group and roundly told them off, reminding them that her family in Poland would have been grateful to have had the opportunity to find themselves in England after the war, rather than Treblinka.

They stopped having conversations of that description, but still only mixed with other German families, their shul was similarly unfriendly, and 60 years on, nothing seems to have changed.

Posted by: chairwoman | Jun 12, 2011 5:58:59 PM

When I began reading this, my thought was to say to speak to the Rav. I see by the end it would not have made a difference. How sad!

Posted by: AF | Jun 12, 2011 7:58:07 PM

This reminds of your story on the airplane where you were kicked in the back by those rude children. Here in Los Angeles, Chabad, we are constantly reminded by our gabbai (Raichik) to smile, say hello and invite people for lunch, even though most of us are already doing it (I'm working on myself!). It's good to be reminded. You, unfortunately, went to shuls I would called "closed shops," they don't want any new people. Find your place, where the people are kind and loving, and venture out only on week days. It's not worth the pain of a ruined Shabbos.

Posted by: nanaloshen | Jun 12, 2011 8:21:08 PM

Ramban's not much further afield - they make a point of being friendly and Rabbi Lau is one of the greatest speakers you could possibly wish to hear.

If you ever fancy a walk up to Armon Hanatziv we're a pretty friendly bunch too....

Posted by: gilly | Jun 12, 2011 9:17:15 PM

are you sure it was a *Jewish* shul? 9.9

Posted by: Wry Mouth | Jun 12, 2011 9:22:29 PM

Hi Bogie,
Always a pleasure to read your blog.
We had a similar experience this past fall while in Rome. We were pretty surprised by the lack of basic hospitality when we were in Shul. We assumed it was because the locals are numb to so many tourists traveling through but nevertheless, it was disappointing.

Posted by: Ely | Jun 12, 2011 9:24:31 PM

UNBELIEVEABLE! To be so rude - shul or no shul. You deserve better.

Posted by: Kiwi Noa | Jun 12, 2011 10:22:08 PM

I was so intrigued by the post about Rabbi Goldberger, that I followed up with google and youtube. There are a number of videos available online, so if you'd like to hear a wonderful Rav Goldberger shiur or niggun, check it out.

Posted by: lynne | Jun 12, 2011 11:03:36 PM

They must be Yankeee fans.

Posted by: Jack | Jun 12, 2011 11:05:59 PM

I have been to a shul where I wasn't very comfortable but it certainly wasn't unfriendly. This is an awful story.

Posted by: Ilana-Davita | Jun 12, 2011 11:51:46 PM

If you ever need a shul in Oakland.....

Posted by: At The Back of the Hill | Jun 13, 2011 2:17:52 AM

whadja expect from a bunch of old yekkes?

Posted by: galitzianer | Jun 13, 2011 3:25:06 AM

Amazing. At our old shul in the "old country", one of the congregants used to say that the only "makom kavua" you have is in the grave! And that's the way we ran things -- anyone could sit anywhere, and I don't believe there was ever a person who wasn't greeted and offered hospitality.

These people you describe should really refresh their studies, starting with Isa 1:10

Posted by: ron | Jun 13, 2011 8:42:44 AM

on our yishuv we have the most amazing gabbai. no way anyone can go by unnoticed and not given attention to if he is around.

Posted by: faith/emuna | Jun 13, 2011 9:29:53 AM

Though there are plenty of sources on the importance of having a makom kavua (permanent spot) for prayer, there is a body of halacha (Jewish law) on that as there is on everything. And one of the rules is that one may not make guests feel unwelcome or uncomfortable in order to keep one's makom kavua.

And the only thing worse than appalling behaviour on the streets is appalling behaviour in shul. Especially in a big city where secular people might be visiting and getting their first impression of how Jews are meant to act. And especially in Jerusalem.

Posted by: Avi | Jun 13, 2011 9:30:52 AM

When hubby and I went to Italy for a vacation, we spent a shabbat in Florence. I was davening in the women's section of the main shul there, and there where hundreds of empty seats, and maybe 10 women. Towards the end of the service, and old Italian woman shuffles in, walks up to me and made it very clear that I was in her seat. No hello, shabbat shalom, just a grunt and a shooing gesture. Maybe if I could have told her that my zayde had rededicated that shul after WWII, she might have let me stay put....

Posted by: Aliza | Jun 13, 2011 2:05:15 PM

As they say dont judge judiasm by ones experience with the jews.

Posted by: Gidon Lyons | Jun 13, 2011 4:05:16 PM

As they say dont judge judiasm by ones experience with the jews.

Posted by: Gidon Lyons | Jun 13, 2011 4:05:17 PM

Wow, you are already tainting my rose-colored aliyah glasses :)

Posted by: SaraK | Jun 13, 2011 5:41:15 PM

Regrettably, I have had similar experiences (of unfriendly shuls) in the USA: Miami and Los Angeles. To offset that, when we made aliyah and expressed interest in joining one shul (in Ra'anana), people from that congregation went out of their way to welcome us.

When I lived in Glasgow (Scotland) I went to Giffnock shul, where there was an unwritten law in place to greet and welcome every new face. (Some were travellers with an optimistic view of what a small community could offer by way of meals and hospitality, but that's another story.) And if those running the service were in any way tardy, the Rabbi would step in and press the flesh. I'm sure there were a few times we blew it, but we tried. However, if in other places there's not the right leadership from the shul's Rabbi, it's maybe too much to expect better of the congregation.

Posted by: Ellis | Jun 13, 2011 10:29:03 PM


Posted by: David Gerecht | Jun 13, 2011 11:13:59 PM

The next time you are coming to this neck of the woods please let me know. I'd love to invite you and your family to my place for a Shabbat meal.

Posted by: Sarah B. | Jun 14, 2011 12:26:28 AM

It's funny how extreme us Yekkes can be, but it can go either way. The shul I grew up in (Zurich, Switzerland), was (and is) as formal and stiff a place as every caricature of a Yekke shul would make it out to be. But .... the president of the shul made it a point to keep his seat in the LAST row of the shul, right near the entrance, so he could make sure that somebody would greet any new face or visitor, and to make equally sure that said visitor got a siddur, tallit, seat (and invitation to Friday night or Shabbat lunch if needed). It is now almost 40 years later, he is not the president anymore, I have moved continents away, but somebody is there still, making sure guests are made to feel welcome (and sometimes it even is the same gentleman doing it ... and he is past his 90th birthday now ...).

Bottom line: it is not being a formal Yekke, or singing-challenged Moroccan ... it is individuals who lead by example, be it good or bad. And it is not always the rabbi either. As long as Sinat Chinam is with us, we will remain condemned to Galut, or anti-religious discourse within Israel, or all of the above.

Posted by: Sal G. | Jun 14, 2011 6:42:30 PM

The people in that shul are not likely to change, though plastering this post on their walls might help. It's not as if they can do anything to you. You know you can get pakeshvilin printed quickly and cheaply. In any case, thanks for reminding me to be more friendly.

Posted by: Barzilai | Jun 15, 2011 12:11:00 AM

I recently posted this to another list about an experience of mine, under the heading "why I like my neighborhood":

My father's yahrzeit was this past motsaei shabbat and Sunday. For
maariv, I headed for a minyan that meets (for motsaei shabbat maariv
only) under a streetlight on a quiet street corner close to my house.
I don't usually go. It's just a mix of people from the neighborhood. I
happened not to know a single one of them. There were about 10-12 men
and no other women, which I assume is typical. I personally think it's
OK for me to say the kaddish even if no men are saying it, but I was
worried about this unknown crowd, and didn't want to cause a surprise
suddenly at the end by saying it. Also I didn't want to feel on edge
the whole time worrying about this possibility. So as they were
deciding who was going to lead the prayers, I said to the crowd in
general, "is someone saying kaddish, because I want to say kaddish."
They said yes, I overheard one man explaining the situation to another
as "the woman (ha-geveret) wants to say kaddish," and the one who'd
been selected to lead (because he was a mourner) smiled at me as if to
say, everything is OK. And it was.

It didn't occur to me, and I don't think it occurred to any of them,
that I not be allowed to say it at all.

(I can point out some bad things too, at the expense of ruining the
nice story. Not a single one of them said a word to me otherwise, but
what can you expect. It also crossed my mind that if I wasn't wearing
the "marriage signal" of a beret on my head, I might not have been
considered a "geveret" and might have gotten less respect. But that's
hypothetical. And of course it would have been better if I didn't have
to worry about being the only one saying kaddish. But all in all a
nice story, I think.)

My father was not one to make waves, and I hope what I did would have been OK with him.

Neighborhood is Talpiot/Arnona in Jerusalem.

-Aliza Berger (friend of Rahel Jaskow's btw-I think you know her, Treppenwitz)

Posted by: Aliza | Jun 20, 2011 2:53:43 PM

I see this story is from FIVE YEARS AGO. Sadly, I can report that in a large number of Orthodox Synagogues NOTHING HAS CHANGED. Allow me to provide examples of worse than unfriendly experiences I have had recently.
In one of the premiere YOUNG ISRAEL Synagogues in Brooklyn, I went down to the public Shabbos Kiddush, two established members who have been davening there for at least 35 years said to my face as follows: 'I WISH THESE PEOPLE WOULDN'T COME HERE AND EAT OUR FOOD!' Whereupon the second one bellowed out a RESOUNDING "AMEN!" at the top of his lungs. At the very same shul on another Shabbos at their public Shabbos Kiddush, a member who later went on to become THE PRESIDENT OF THIS VERY YOUNG ISRAEL said while looking at me, 'WHERE DO THESE PEOPLE COME FROM?' Dressed in a tie, suit, kippah, etc.. I certainly did not look like I did not belong in a shul that incidently my great uncle helped to establish before these people were even born. On both occasions I was in the Shul for Shabbos because I had to care for my mother with Alzheimers who lives right around the corner. So going to the Young Israel not only did not give me any Chizuk for dealing with this tragedy, but I felt worse after going to the Young Israel.

Posted by: Boris | Jun 17, 2016 8:05:56 PM

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