A Night At The Synagogue

In my early 20s, I attended a bar mitzvah and to be honest, I don’t have much memory of it. I attended as a date of someone who turned out to not be a great guy, and the whole experience was so foreign and overwhelming to me that no joke, my only memory of it is bunch of loud kids in ill-fitting fancy clothes running around everywhere. So when we were invited to attend a bar mitzvah last night for the son of a close friend of ours, we accepted, and I fully expected it to be the same experience as it was for me back in 1993 (minus the not great guy date part.)

We left our house with plenty of time to get there but of course traffic was slow and I was worried we’d be late. Wil had Waze on his phone navigating us to the location as I drove us down the freeway and on to side streets, into an unfamiliar part of the city. “In 200 feet, turn left. Then, your destination will be on your right in 400 feet” Waze announced. I made the turn, and we drove a little bit when we suddenly hear, “You have reached your destination. Your destination is on the right.” What? I didn’t see it anywhere and then apparently drove right past it. “Make a legal u-turn” Waze commanded. “Gah! I don’t see an address!” I make the u-turn and Wil points to a man at a driveway now on the left, who is verifying the visitors and opening the gate across the parking lot driveway to let them in. I pull up, give him our names and the event we’re attending, he waves us through, and I park my car in the lot. We get out of the car and walk up to the entrance, where we are stopped by a man at a podium who confirms our names on a guest list, and then another man opens the door for us and directs us up to the sanctuary where the ceremony was being be held. We took our seats just as the ceremony began.

I am personally not a religious person (I had my share of religion in the form of being required to attend a Baptist church for five years with my parents when I was a teenager) but religions/beliefs do fascinate me and since I’m older and more patient than I was the last time I attended a bar mitzvah, I was actually excited and intrigued by being there. (Since I am not Jewish, please forgive me if I mess up the names of things or just plain don’t know what things are called as I describe the experience.) A man stood at the front of the room (I’m guessing he’s a Rabbi) and spoke about the history of this ceremony. He also spoke fondly of the young man we were there to celebrate (I’m keeping names out of this to protect privacy.) There was a woman up there with him as well, who mostly did singing throughout the ceremony (Also a Rabbi? I don’t know what her title would be, sorry.) The young man and his parents were called up to the front, where a garment was placed around the young man’s shoulders; a garment decorated by his family with symbols of his name origin and the person he has grown to be. It was all quite beautiful to see his parents up there describing the symbolism and meaning behind it all. His parents sat down and the man and woman leading the ceremony held open a book (Torah?) as the young man did a sort of singing chant in Hebrew (I know I’m doing a terrible job describing the details. Apologies for that.)

The Rabbi asked everyone to take a seat and then went on to talk about Judaism and the people of Israel who have been part of it for thousands of years. When the Rabbi said “The heart of Judaism is kindness and empathy” my eyes suddenly filled with tears as my mind replayed our arrival into the synagogue and sitting down in this sanctuary.

The last time I was in a synagogue, there was just this big parking lot in front of a building that we pulled straight into, but the one we went to last night wasn’t immediately visible from the street because the driveways to enter and exit the parking lot were blocked by solid, tall, security gates and that man at the entrance checking each car that came in was dressed in a black uniform with security patches on each shoulder. At the building entrance, the two men checking everyone in were wearing the same uniform, but up close like we were, I realized they were also wearing full torso bullet-proof vests. I looked around this sanctuary we were seated in as the Rabbi talked about kindness and empathy, and thought of the people who have attended regular services in sanctuaries much like this one, and how they have been gunned down just for their beliefs; their beliefs which stem from kindness and empathy. I shook off those images and the horror these people have faced and focused back on the ceremony at hand, as a type of scroll was brought out and passages were read from it in Hebrew. I didn’t understand the words but the delivery of it was beautiful.

Near the end of the ceremony, the parents of this young man got back up in the front of the room and spoke such sweet words about him that I don’t think there was a dry eye in the place. When it was over, we all went out into the building courtyard for appetizers and drinks and then into a big hall where there was music, dancing, dinner, and of course all kinds of fun things to do for the 50 or so kids who were there to support their friend on this joyous occasion. His parents put together a video montage of his life thus far and it was so sweet to see the love this young man has been surrounded by. When the video ended, some of this young man’s friends lined up on the dance floor at a microphone to share their love of him. Each one talked about how kind he is, how supportive and loving he is, and how they can always count on him to just listen when they needed someone to talk to. I was so impressed, not only by their willingness to share so publicly, but also how much they appreciated him and how in touch they are with their feelings. I don’t ever remember being that way at that age so it was truly admirable to watch (and yes, I got teary-eyed again.)

As the night came to an end (for us and our old and tired) we collected our things and said our goodbyes to old friends and new ones. I darted out to use the restroom real quick before we got on the road and saw two doors that had the same sign: “All Gender Restroom” and marveled how the adults are showing these kids how important it is to be inclusive of everyone, everywhere. I went back into the hall to tell Wil I was ready to leave, and we watched for a moment as those kids out on the dance floor held hands and jumped around to the music with their friends (who aren’t all Jewish, I think some of his friends were from school) who don’t all have the same color skin or hair texture, who are all different shapes and sizes, and they just don’t care about any of that. These kids are growing up in a society where they are surrounded by hate and fear and violence and yet here they are, showing the world that at the heart of it all, kindness and empathy is all that matters.

15 thoughts on “A Night At The Synagogue

  1. Anne, Bill forwarded this to me…so beautifully written. I’m grateful that you felt all that we were trying to convey during the service and that you and Will were there to celebrate with us.
    Much love,

    1. You both have raised such a wonderful human. Thank you for including us in this beautiful ceremony and celebration!

  2. I’m not one for organized religion, but I’d like to think that religion practiced with kindness, humility, and concern for all can be a source of strength and community. The sort of extreme actions and hate being focused at religions and sometimes by religions is wrong. Let us all be both free and tolerant in our beliefs. I think any God would rather we be community than combatants.

  3. My religious upbringing was… different… and I’ve never been one for religious beliefs at all, but when I remember learning about the genesis of the Christian era and how much that early sense of a sort of universal Christian morality and the idea of being responsible for the well being of others was taken directly from Judaism and the Ancient Jewish community. I actually know several people who converted to Judaism for this exact reason.
    Judaism itself is kind of an insular faith , and I think a lot of people have chosen to interpret that as being exclusionary, and have used that as an excuse to be hateful (though the actual origins of anti-Semitism are lengthy and complex and obnoxious, google “Adversus Judaeos” if you wanted a general idea). But Judaism itself really is a warm and fascinating religion with a lot of very rich history and tradition. It’s also a belief system that’s easy to admire because their idea ofgoodness is based on what you do rather than what you believe. It is very sad to know that Jewish congregations feel the need for guards, especially when it’s so unsurprising that your experience was so positive.
    Anyway, Mazel tov to your friends’ boy! May his children be bar mitzvahed in an unguarded synagogue.

    1. Christianity is unusual in that converting others to follow your beliefs is a core tenet. Judaism is does not actively convert, you have to really really want to become Jewish to be allowed to convert. This leads to the perception among Christians that we are insular, because we are not trying to prove our religion is better than others. An old proverb attributed to a rabbi is that all religions are different mountains reaching the same sky, it’s all the same god/s being worshiped .

      1. Absolutely, I hope I didn’t cause offense with my terminology. Christianity is a missionary faith with conversion as part of its core mission (though I should say I’m not a Christian and my exposure to that faith is primarily academic), I don’t think we have a word for “faith that minds its own business,” which is what I meant.
        Your proverb about the mountain is very similar to something someone told me about the Hindu philosophy that there is only one mountain, but there are many different paths.

        1. Oh, no offense whatsover. I do tend to get offended at the whole concept of missionary work, or those seeking to convert others, because at it’s core is a fundamental lack of respect for the beliefs of others. Want to educate someone who asks? Sure. Find some aspects of another’s religion problematic? Examine yourself first, but OK, I can get behind some of that. Fully desiring someone else give up their beliefs, culture, and society because you believe yours are better? Fuck off to that.

  4. Hi Anne. Jewish fellow here. A little info for you: the woman with the Rabbi would have been the cantor and the scroll was the Torah. The book they read from was probably a prayer book with the blessings for the Torah. Cheers!

    1. And just to share more details, the garment is a prayer shawl also known as a talis (or talit), which those of bar/bat mitzvah age are to wear when at a service where the Torah is read

  5. I’ve now been to a few Bat Mitzvahs, and each time I’ve left feeling like there is hope. I don’t know why, but I’ll take it.

  6. This is wonderful, Anne! I’m glad you had such a lovely experience.

    I recently attended an event put on by the Hindu American Foundation. It was their annual gala and fundraiser, but they had a keynote speaker there who talked about “Hinduism and Star Wars.” Thus my invite. I went in costume and took pictures with many very excited Hindu people. I do that type of thing a lot. But I truly wanted to go to this event to learn about a religion I know hardly anything about. And learn I did. First, I learned about generosity, as we were invited to share in a traditional meal. And I learned about persecution and violence and history I didn’t know. I learned about pluralism and the idea that their are many roads to enlightenment. I walked away from that event with a deeper understanding of a religion and of the notion of peaceful coexistence. I was encouraged that maybe, just maybe, we are getting better. (I actually firmly believe this and have for ages – we are better, but we just have a long way still to go.) I’m glad to see your experience showed this too. Thank you for sharing.

  7. It sounds like you had a very good time. I enjoyed your story of this very old and revered jewish tradition. By the way, the woman who sang was probably the Cantor.

    It would be so lovely if humans could celebrate each other instead of hating one another. 🌿

  8. That was lovely. I don’t know much about Judaism either. I’ve portrayed a Hasidic one once, and photobombed several Jewish actors at an event. Oi vey!

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