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Monday, September 21, 2020

Stumbling Blocks

[This is a difficult topic to write about... and it may cause offense to some]


One of the most significant stumbling blocks standing in the path of someone who is toying with the idea of becoming more religiously observant (or an observant Jew who who lacks an observant up-bringing/education), is embarrassment. Or more correctly, the fear of embarrassment.

You see, when viewed from the outside (i.e. from a Ba’al T’shuvah-eye view), religious communities and their intricate customs and institutions look like a huge minefield filled with endless opportunities to humiliate oneself.

On one of my first trips to a synagogue after my decision to becoming more observant, I was offered an ‘honor’ during the service… which I quickly declined. The following joke perfectly sums up why:

A non-observant Jew walked into a synagogue one Shabbat morning and timidly took a seat near the back. His intention was to watch the goings on without drawing attention to himself. But to his chagrine, the Gabbai (the person coordinating the service), noticed him sitting by himself and walked over to say hello.

“Shalom alechem” said the Gabbai by way of a greeting. “Are you a Cohen or a Levi?” Without a hint of irony, the newcomer shook his head and said, “No, I’m a Lebowitz. Dave Lebowitz.”

Instantly understanding that the newcomer was not familiar with the workings of a synagogue, the Gabbai gracefully ignored the small gaff and said, “Nice to meet you Dave. I’m Avi. We’d like to honor you with taking out the Torah in a few minutes.”

Dave looked thunderstruck. His big plan to sit inconspicuously in the back was quickly going down the drain, so he decided that the best strategy was to level with the Gabbai.

“Look”, he said, “I’m not religious and I have no idea what goes on in a synagogue. I appreciate the offer but I’d really rather just sit and watch this time around.”

Seeing a good deed in his sights, the Gabbai pressed on; “Don’t be silly, there’s nothing to it. I’ll explain everything you have to do. In fact, I’ll be right next to you the whole time so you can’t go wrong.”

Still seeing hesitation in Dave’s eyes, the Gabbai decided that a full explanation might be best.

“Here’s what will happen,” he began. “In a few minutes I’ll signal to you and we’ll walk up to the front of the synagogue together. We’ll climb the stairs and go stand by those velvet curtains. I’ll stay up there the whole time and I’ll show you exactly where to stand. When I nod to you, you’ll pull on the draw string that opens the curtains. Then I’ll point to one of the Torahs inside the ark. Whichever one I indicate will be the one you’ll need to pick up and hand to the guy who’s leading the service. Then you’ll go back inside the ark and see a bunch of silver ornaments. You’ll pick up the silver crown I’ll point out to you, put it on, then go back and close the curtains with the drawstring and then, when everyone else is following the Torah up to the reader’s table, you can go back to your seat. Later in the service when it’s time to put the Torah back, I’ll signal to you again and we’ll do the whole thing again, except in reverse order. Now that doesn’t sound so hard does it?”

Dave though about it for a moment and, despite his fear of committing some sort of inadvertent sacrilege, he reluctantly accepted the Gabbai’s offer.

A few minutes later the Gabbai caught Dave’s eye and motioned for him to make his way up to the front of the shul. He walked up on wooden legs and waited for the Gabbai’s next cue.

As promised, the Gabbai joined him next to the Ark and gave him a subtle nudge towards the spot where he’d be better able to reach the curtain’s drawstring. When the time came, the Gabbai nodded to Dave and watched approvingly as the curtains parted at just the right moment.

A few more moments passed while the congregation sang, during which the Gabbai took the opportunity to catch Dave’s eye and point out one of the seven sifrei Torah; a large one dressed in a deep maroon mantle. On cue, Dave walked up to the indicated Torah, lifted it into his arms and made a smooth hand-off to the Ba’al Tefilah who, by then, was waiting next to him.

The Gabbai again caught Dave’s expectant glance and jutted his chin towards an ornate silver crown that was sitting on a velvet cushion inside the curtains.

“I told you there was nothing to it” he whispered to Dave. And with that the Gabbai turned to make sure the other Gabai’im had cleared off the reading table in preparation for receiving the Torah.

Just then he heard the sound of muffled laughter coming from the congregation and turned around just in time to see Dave – who was following his instructions to the letter – trying to put the Torah’s ornate silver crown on his own head.

Now as improbable as the scenario in that joke may sound to someone who has grown up in an observant community, it is perhaps the perfect example of the kind of nightmares that keep countless not-yet-observant Jews from walking into synagogues and taking those first tentative steps towards ritual observance.

I can tell you from personal experience that reading Hebrew and knowing the songs are the least of a newcomer’s worries. Rather, knowing where and how to stand… when to bow… when to turn around… and even something as simple as when to say ‘Amen‘, are the things over which a novice is likely to lose sleep.

Obviously anyone who visits a synagogue more than a few times will have no trouble picking up the basics… and a gentle nudge from an understanding Gabbai or friend will often do wonders to bolster someone’s confidence. But at every stage of a ba’al tshuvah’s journey through life, there seem to be ever-new pitfalls and fresh ways to feel like an idiot.

For example, I clearly recall showing up in shul on a Shabbat morning during one memorable Sukkot with my Lulav and Etrog… only to note with horror that nobody else had brought theirs. On another occasion I came to synagogue on the morning of Tisha B’Av and had almost completed putting on my T’fillin before I noticed that nobody else was wearing theirs. On yet another Tisha B’Av, I unwittingly accepted a Gabbai’s offer of the last aliyah to the Torah during the afternoon service… not realizing that this also required me to chant the Haftarah for the day (a friend graciously helped me through the blessings and then bailed me out by performing the required reading).

On one particularly cringe-worthy occasion, I remember being invited to sit next to the Rabbi on Shabbat morning in a small synagogue in California. I was so intent on not making any mistakes that I accidentally recited the weekday Shmoneh Esreh – complete with chest pounding ‘Slach Lanu…“.

It is now almost four decades since I started down the path towards religious observance… and I still see people  - [mostly] unwittingly placing stumbling blocks before their fellow Jews.  The following story shows that even well-educated Jews who have been observant all their lives can be pushed out and shamed by thoughtless people:

There is a young man in his mid twenties to whom I'm closely related, who grew up in an observant community and had the benefit of an excellent Jewish education.  But he had always marched to the beat of his own drummer, and in his late teens entered a period where he struggled to find a balance between his deep spiritual connection to Judaism, and his lack of enthusiasm for organized ritual and prayer.

In spite of his dislike for synagogue services, he continued to come with me every week for Shabbat services because he liked sitting next to me, and knew it meant the world to me to be able to share that precious time together.  

One week as we walked towards our seats in the synagogue, someone we passed took a look at his jeans, sandals and t-shirt and asked this spiritual young man disdainfully, "That's how you come to shul?"

Without a word, he turned around and walked out of the synagogue... and has not been back since.  Because of the insensitivity of one person, a tenuous thread was severed, leaving a gaping hole in two people's lives.

So, if you've gotten this far, please look carefully at the people around you in your community; the stranger as well as the people you think you know well  There are people who are feeling unsure of themselves, shaky in their ritual knowledge, unsure of their place/value in the community, and perhaps struggling to define their relationship with their creator.

You may think you are a good, observant Jew... a pillar of your community and stalwart supporter of daily communal life.  But I assure you, if anything I've written above seems unlikely, implausible or unrealistic to you, you have almost certainly turned someone away... perhaps forever.  

The hedonistic, secular world out there welcomes people without judgement and without conditions.  It is our obligation to be at least as accepting, and to ensure we place as few stumbling blocks before our precious people as humanly possible.

Posted by David Bogner on September 21, 2020 | Permalink | Comments (8)