When people are united behind something and share a common cause, there is a wonderful energy and power to it. It is the feeling that anything can be accomplished. It happens in school, in sports. It is a wonderful feeling, and sharing it with those around you who feel exactly the same is truly exciting and binds you together as nothing else can.
Yet, when the activity is over, or the game is won, that feeling of unity and brotherhood all but disappears.
But with the Jewish people it is different; for that which binds us is something so powerful and so eternal that we feel an almost unexplainable link to one another because of it.
The Talmud says that when the Jewish people stood at the foot of Mount Sinai, we were one person with one goal: to receive the Torah from God. This shows that when people come together, that unity causes great things to happen.
When we gather together each week at shul, we are making a statement that these are my brothers and sisters; these services are my weekly family reunion.
When we talk to God we want to be all there, to be whole. A Jew being with fellow Jews means that wholeness is much easier to achieve, for the power of what we share is so awesome.
Shul and Prayer
Some people have a hard time relating to the concept of prayer in synagogue. Perhaps you've found yourself in shul, standing while everyone else was sitting, or sitting while everyone else was standing. Even if you were in sync with those around you, why was everyone standing and sitting in the first place?
The structure, the movements, the rituals... it can be pretty confusing. And in many synagogues, worship has evolved into a kind of "spectator sport," with people in the audience watching the "show." There is also a language barrier. For many, Hebrew is as foreign as Greek.
Remember, we go to shul to talk to God. Being with other Jews, singing the songs, hearing the reading of the Torah -- all this helps us to achieve this goal of having an active relationship with our Creator.
The fact is, you can talk to God anytime. He is always there, ready to hear from you. For many, being in shul inspires these words and feelings. For others, it does not.
The right shul should bring out this connection with God.
Search for the right shul; perhaps you just haven't found the one for you yet. Also, remember that going to shul is a good way to connect to community, which is very important for a Jew. And last, but certainly not least, work on talking to God. Whether you are in shul or on your back porch -- take time to talk, in an audible whisper, to the Source of all your blessings.
Recognize Him, thank Him for all that He gives you, and ask for all that you desire.
And if the standing, sitting, Hebrew, and responsive readings are getting you down -- then find someone or some place to teach you the basics of being in shul. Sometimes it's just a matter of 1-2-3, and a whole new world can open up before you.
For a detailed breakdown of what goes on in shul, see the book, "To Pray as a Jew" by Rabbi Hayim Halevy Donin.
But to get a quick feel, here's the schedule of a typical Shabbat morning service:
9:00-9:30 a.m. -- Morning Blessings and Pesukei De'zimrah. There are separate blessings to thank God for our thinking ability, our feet, our clothes, our eyesight, our ability to sit and walk, and even our digestive system.
9:30-9:45 a.m. -- Barchu, blessings from Shema Yisrael, Shema Yisrael itself, and blessings after Shema Yisrael. Shema is the Jewish pledge of allegiance -- proclaiming the unity of God and our acceptance of the Torah's commands.
9:45-10:00 a.m. -- Silent Amidah, where we recognize God as the holy one who protects and saves. We thank Him for the gift of Shabbat, and pray for world peace. People will be standing and perhaps swaying in more introspective prayer. Followed by the leader's repetition aloud.
10:00-10:45 a.m. -- The Torah is taken out, and the Torah portion of the week is read out loud in Hebrew. (The Torah is split into 54 portions, and read in its entirety through the course of the year.) The Torah is then returned to the ark, and the Haftarah portion of the prophets is read.
10:45-11:00 a.m. -- The rabbi speaks.
11:00 a.m. -- Musaf, which is the "additional" silent Amidah, with greater emphasis on the unique nature of Shabbat. This is also repeated aloud by the leader.
11:15 a.m. - Aleinu, closing songs, and shul announcements.
11:30 a.m. -- Kiddush and socializing.
I never went to shul growing up, because my family just didn't belong to one. I knew synagogue existed, and by about 10 years old I had a desire to go. Don't ask me why...
Later, in university, I met a woman in one of my classes who was from a similar background but had become observant. We connected, and she invited me for Shabbat.
For services we went to a downstairs minyan at the Hillel House. Everything was so foreign to me; I didn't know Hebrew, and there seemed to be a whole new etiquette to learn. After a few visits, my friend taught me Hebrew, and I started to catch on to the do's and don't's of the service.
Shul began to give me a feeling of beauty of place. Everyone was together, singing songs.... It was a wonderful atmosphere of community, with a special power in everyone just doing the same thing.
* * *
The Temple that we went to on the High Holidays relied heavily on organ music and choral singing. To me, it felt like a church. I didn't mind having to go, but the whole experience was devoid of meaning; just a lot of ornament and ceremony. The responsive reading, using flowery English prose, was so repetitive.
I believed in God, I just didn't feel that Temple brought me close to Him.
When I grew a little bit older, I actually tried a more traditional synagogue, but I was lost because I didn't understand the Hebrew. Then I discovered a Jewish educational center that followed traditional practices with a lot of clear explanation in English for those of us who were "novices" (which was most of us).
It made Judaism so accessible. There was always enough time to go through everything at my own pace, and it instilled a sense of community. Because it was small and so genuine, it took away any thoughts of being intimidated by atmosphere or ritual.
On Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur, I found myself davening for hours on end, and it seemed like just a half an hour had gone by!
Now, whenever I feel the need, I just talk to God, informally. I thank Him and ask Him to help me understand things. I feel the most important thing is to have an ongoing relationship with God.
* * *
After finishing my master's degree, I took some time off to travel and ended up in Israel.
Someone invited me into one of the rabbinical schools for lunch, and I was hungry, so I went. Afterwards they began davening Mincha, praying the afternoon service. Yikes -- it reminded me of being forced to go to Temple back home when I was a kid, so I quickly got up and left.
Growing up it was the dreaded Junior Minyan. Mom would dress me up in a suit and make me go by myself. My family didn't even go!
By the age of 10, I got smart and began wearing my gym clothes underneath my suit, and went to play basketball in the nearby schoolyard, always keeping one eye open to see when services were getting out. Then I quickly got dressed and went on home, no one the wiser.
So what happened in Israel? Well, the next day I went back for a class and was impressed. So I stayed on and got into the learning, but still never connected with davening in a deep way. For me, it always went too long.
Today, I feel much more connected with Shabbat and the Almighty just by being in the shul atmosphere.
* * *
Growing up we went to shul as a family, and I just loved it -- being with all the people, watching my father daven all day long on the High Holidays... You know, being Jewish.
I remember sitting there thinking about God and feeling close to Him. It was really very meaningful, and I look back at it as being one of the warmest parts of my life.
Today it is much deeper. During the silent Amidah, I take the time to really daven. During the repetition, I cry, as the chazzan's voice lifts me even higher.
The whole experience is now much more real, as I have matured and studied more. God is not only in shul for me now, but a real part of my life.
* * *
As a family we went to shul only on the High Holidays and for bar mitzvahs. But there was a time that I went myself, because our Hebrew school teacher would give us gold stars if we went to shul. I wanted those stars.
Today, I found a much smaller shul that was founded on the premise of learning and understanding, so a lot of the service is explained, and, most important, made relevant to my life today.
Yet it's still sometimes an effort to get up early and go -- just laziness I guess. When I do make it, I really like it and am glad I'm there. I think about Jews all over the world doing exactly the same thing; it links me to thousands of years of unbroken tradition.
When it's a nice day, I love the slow walk home.
* * *
To me, shul is community, and my enjoyment of prayer is directly affected by the people around me. If I identify with them, my davening is much more relaxed and intimate.
It took me awhile to find a congregation that was "just right" -- that attracts people just like me: down-to-earth, genuine, and open to personal growth through Judaism. It's a small place, so everyone is friendly; yet it is a "serious" minyan, so there's no chitchat during the service to distract me.
I think it's important that people try out different places until they find one that suits them best. There's a danger when the first place you try just isn't for you. It's not Judaism that's at fault, just the place you happen to be in -- whether it's the physical layout of the place, the rabbi, the community... whatever.
Adapted from "Friday Night and Beyond" by Lori Palatnik (Jason Aronson Pub.)