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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


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Beautifully and sensitively put. Thanks for sharing the story and the gentle reminder behind it.

Posted by: Jane | Sep 21, 2020 1:53:03 PM

Jane... Thanks for slogging through the whole thing. ;-)

Posted by: treppenwitz | Sep 21, 2020 4:44:35 PM

Nailed it. Painfully accurate. Thank you for posting.

Posted by: Leah Weiss Caruso | Sep 21, 2020 6:12:03 PM

Without even understanding the joke, I know wouldn't have fallen for it because I read "You’ll pick up the silver crown I’ll point out to you, put it on" and immediately replied "yeah, that'd be a hard no."

My church is big on outreach to the lost and/or questioning flock -- which is how they ended up with me -- and they have a public policy of: come in jeans, come in shorts, come hungover if necessary, just get here. Very different from how I was raised, but better, I think.

Posted by: Tanya | Sep 21, 2020 6:14:39 PM

I'm thirty years into observance and I still shy away from any synagogue choreography ... don't like being "seen" and very unsure that I'll get it right.

"Without a word, he turned around and walked out of the synagogue... and has not been back since."

Jeez, this rings true. Awed at your self-control towards the "someone" ... I suspect I'd have made myself forever unwelcome in that congregation.

At the Midwest Conservative congregation where I first had a solid relationship with a community, there were often raised eyebrows and tutting when kids would return from summer camp at Ramah or Herzl and come to shul dressed (ever-so-slightly) casually. To his great credit, that attitude drove the rabbi nuts and he was quick to tamp it down.

Posted by: Andy Levy-Stevenson | Sep 22, 2020 9:30:42 AM

Leah Weiss Caruso... I'm sure in your position, you've seen worse.

Tanya ... Every club has rules and traditions, and the more veteran members of the club assume an air of superiority due to their familiarity with the rules and traditions. What many forget is that religion is not supposed to be an exclusive club. It is meant to be a framework that helps us form and manage society in a beneficial way. Excluding people - by accident or design - is contrary to the reason for the club!

Andy Levy-Stevenson... 'synagogue choreography', love it. You have a way with words, my friend.

Posted by: treppenwitz | Sep 30, 2020 9:26:59 AM

Words of wisdom the Christian Church needs to hear too. In my teen years, we had a 14 year old friend who was in trouble with her parents. One night, she fled her home, and ended up at our house. She was distraught and crying. My sisters and I embraced her and sat down with her. We called her parents to ask permission for her to spend the night. Her parents trusted us, so they agreed. When my dad got home, he saw the way she was dressed, and immediately sent her home. We were crushed, to say the least. And we never did see her in church again. It has been more than 50 years, and the sorrow I feel when I think of her makes me want to go back and stand up to my dad, as frightened as I was of him. But if you knew my dad... grown men were afraid of my dad.

Posted by: Dina | Nov 3, 2020 6:35:24 PM

This hits home, almost to a tee. I became more observant in 2003 and was fortunate to travel to Israel for the first time in 2004 on a scholarship to learn with Aish Hatorah. I even met Noah Weinberg z"l, who was a sweet and gentle soul, and spent two weeks completely immersed in observant Jewish life in Ramat Eshkol with the amazing Rebbetzin Devorah Eisenbach, one of the purest hearts one could ever know. Every Shabbos I lit candles, I eschewed treyf (and still mostly do, though nowhere near to the extent I previously went), and davened with earnest kavanah. And yet, with my own blue jeans, tee shirts, and Dr. Martens, I still felt like a square peg trying to squeeze through a round hole, particularly after people with whom I was trying to be "friends" (possibly too hard) in my post-Aish life were sort of nudging me along a path of tzniut that just didn't feel right to me. Me in a skirt? Stop it. I tried a few times, but it made me feel as though I was wearing a Ronald McDonald clown suit to shul. I didn't and still don't show off a whole lot of skin, so I assumed I was already being modest, but eventually, I just grew resentful of the pressure, the looks, the judgment, and gave up on shul and observance altogether. If I could have gotten married in jeans I would have. It's only been this past month that I have been having conversations with myself to resume candle-lighting, 17 or so years after I first gave it up. Apparently it takes a lot longer to pick up the pieces of a broken complex than it does a broken glass.

Posted by: Erica | May 17, 2021 11:31:10 PM

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