MK Bezalel Smotrich suggested not so long ago that his political rival, Naftali Bennett, was no longer welcome in the synagogue. Unfortunately, this highlights the fact that there are too many Jews who think it is their right to say who does or does not belong in the synagogue. This mindset has a strong negative impact on Jewish affiliation and Jewish life. Too often I have met people who had had a negative experience in a synagogue and decided to stop going. I can’t blame them. When they tell me this, I share my personal synagogue stories and what I learned from them. Sometimes I laugh looking back; sometimes the pain is still real. These stories remind me of what we need to do to make our synagogues more welcoming.
One Shabbat, I came early to services in a synagogue with just over 100 seats. I sat down on one of the many empty seats. Two other men entered the sanctuary; there were a total of three people in this synagogue intended for 100 people. One of the men approached me and said, “Sorry, but you’re sitting in someone else’s seat.” I got to my feet and stood, looking at the synagogue at three percent capacity, not knowing which of the many empty seats I could take without being pulled from the empty chair. This man was not the rabbi or the president, nor did he kick me out of a seat that was his.
Still, it wasn’t as bad as when I was in Cleveland, in a synagogue I was visiting, and I was effectively in someone else’s shoes. More than half an hour into the services and the synagogue was full; like everyone else in the synagogue, I stood in the middle of the Silent Amidah, a time when no one is allowed to speak or walk. Rather, it is a solemn moment of meditative prayer. Someone rushed up to me – while I was obviously in the middle of my prayers – and whispered out loud to me, “Please move. It’s my place.”
Yet nothing matches the trauma of the time I prayed in Jerusalem’s Sha’arei Chesed neighborhood on Shabbat morning. Being a bit of a dreamer, I was sitting and reading something during the service. I was so engrossed in what I was reading that I didn’t notice everyone stood up and started praying for the welfare of the State of Israel. Before I had time to notice this, an older man saw me and mistakenly assumed that I was sitting and reading rather than participating due to anti-Zionist or non-Zionist sentiment. He raised his voice and shouted at me in front of the whole synagogue: “Get up now! Looking up from what I was reading, not fully understanding what was going on or how we got here, I froze in my place and didn’t get up, causing him to scream and scold more. At this point you could barely hear the chazan (prayer leader) and everyone was staring at me. When the prayer was over, I got up and left with flushed cheeks and an embarrassed expression.
Finally, as a very proficient person in Sephardic Nusach, I have often led Sephardic and Mizrachi synagogues in Israel as a chazan. I even had the chance to do it in the famous Ades Aleppo Synagogue in Jerusalem. When I stood in a synagogue in New York, I thought I would do the same. When someone asked if there was anyone who could be a chazan, as is often done before services, I offered to volunteer; the person who asked knew that I was Ashkenazi and told me that he thought the halakha was that the chazan should pray in a Sephardic way. I told him I would do that. He then told me that he thought the silent Amidah should also be done in the Sephardic way; I told him I could do it too. He then told me a fictitious halakha that he thought was not enough, making it clear that he would not let someone who was not Sephardic lead.
Although I hate to make the comparison, I’ve learned that synagogues are, in some ways, like the New York City subway. They are a public place in which we share space with mostly lovely and kind people. Occasionally there will be people who aren’t as nice, who might even be mentally ill or have a personality disorder – or just people who’ve had a bad day and are looking to pick on someone. If you are the subject of someone’s malice or bad behavior, remember that this is a semi-public space where all kinds of people can share a space with you. One person’s behavior does not necessarily reflect anyone else’s opinion and certainly not the religion’s opinion of you.
Despite all of the above and many other unfortunate stories, which are the natural result of having prayed in hundreds of synagogues, I still look forward to my next visit to the synagogue. For every negative experience or clueless individual I have encountered in them, I have had many kind and positive ones – devotees who have invited me for Shabbat and Yom Tov meals, welcomed me into their communities , greeted me with a smile, gave me their seat when there was no other, and so many other acts of welcoming kindness.
Yet for all the kindness there is in synagogue life, Mr. Smotrich’s comments about banning Bennett and members of his party from the synagogue reflect a misconception that some members of our community have . There are those who, although they are not rabbis, presidents, board members or in a position to make the decision, there are those among us who feel empowered to decide who does not belong. They can choose who to kick out of a seat, who not to let in, who to scold and who to alienate. This vocal minority is the reason why too many people feel unwelcome in the synagogue, have had overwhelming experiences, and do not feel at home in the synagogue. Our responsibility as a community is to ensure that our synagogues are welcoming and a home for all, regardless of politics and disagreements.
The writer is an eleventh generation rabbi, teacher and author. He has written Sacred Days on the Jewish Holidays, Poupko on the Parsha and hundreds of articles published in five languages. He is a member of the executive committee of the Rabbinical Council of America.