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7 Things You Should Know About Synagogue Etiquette

7 Things You Should Know About Synagogue Etiquette

woman holding small child wearing a yarmulke in her lap during worship services

Engaging with a synagogue community can be enriching and rewarding. No matter what draws you in – worship, music, relationships, learning, or something else – a spiritual home is a place like none other. Whether you’re a member or a visitor, familiarity with synagogue etiquette will help you get the most from your experience. Here are seven points of etiquette to keep in mind.

1. Skullcaps and Prayer Shawls

It is customary – but not required – to wear a skullcap (kippah in Hebrew; yarmulke in Yiddish) as a sign of respect in the sanctuary, even if you don’t wear one in your day-to-day life. Kippot (plural of kippah) often are available near the sanctuary entrance, and can be worn by both men and women. Wearing a tallit (prayer shawl) is an individual decision, but in some congregations, people called to the bimah (pulpit) for an honor during services are requested to don one.

2. Cell Phones

Always turn off (or silence) your cell phone before entering the sanctuary and refrain from using it – for talking, texting, or taking photos. As tempting as it may be to snap a picture of the bat mitzvah or the bride and groom, it is not appropriate to use a cell phone during worship services because it distracts from the kavanah (spiritual intentions) necessary for prayer and destroys the holiness that is present. If you absolutely must use a cell phone, leave the service to do so. Using a cell phone anywhere in an Orthodox synagogue on Shabbat or a holiday violates the strict interpretation of halachah (Jewish law) in the Orthodox community.

3. Sitting and Standing

Displayed above the ark in many congregations is the Hebrew phrase: Da lifnei mi atah omed, meaning “Know before whom you stand” and refers, of course, to God. When the Torah or the ark is open (and at other times during services), it is appropriate to stand as a sign of respect. Those who are not able to stand should sit taller in their chairs. If you return to the sanctuary during a peak moment in the service – when the Torah or the ark is open or the Torah is being carried through the sanctuary – wait to return to your seat so as not to distract others during a pivotal portion of the service.

4. The Mourner’s Kaddish

Customs around the Mourner’s Kaddish vary from community to community. In some congregations, everyone stands during the Kaddish; in others, only mourners or those observing a yahrzeit (anniversary of a death) stand; in still others, mourners and those observing a yahrzeit stand first, followed by the rest of the congregation. Some communities offer opportunities to recite aloud the names of those being remembered; in others, worshippers, including visitors, must call ahead to arrange for a loved one’s name to be read aloud after which, it is appropriate to make a donation to the congregation.

5. Socializing

In many congregations, a gathering after services offers light food and drink together with time to socialize with others. On Friday evenings, this gathering is an oneg Shabbat (joy of Shabbat) and on Saturdays, it is a Kiddush. If you don’t know others, it is always appropriate to introduce yourself at these gatherings. If you do know others, make it a point to welcome those who are visiting or new, and introduce them to fellow worshippers.

6. Community Support

Synagogue community members support each other in times of joy and sorrow, which means attending b’nai mitzvah services, even if you don’t know the family. When we celebrate and support young people’s achievements as a community, we help sustain the Jewish people. It also means supporting members who are ill or recovering, often by providing meals. Such a gesture will be appreciated and long remembered by the recipients. The same is true when a community member dies.

When feasible, attend the funeral or shiva (the seven-day period of mourning), or help ensure a minyan (the prayer quorum of 10 individuals) so mourners can recite Kaddish, a meaningful show of support and caring for fellow congregants. It also is customary to make a small donation to the synagogue in memory of the deceased. Again, it’s not necessary to know the deceased or the mourners. Demonstrating generosity of spirit and support is what matters and is what temple members do for one another.

7. Membership and Finances

Synagogue membership is a foundation of Jewish life, supporting Jews’ ongoing engagement with Jewish living, learning, celebrating, culture, and – most important – one another. Membership enables the Jewish people to thrive, and is especially important in an era when people often don’t know their neighbors. Most congregations support themselves with dues, fees, voluntary offerings, and fundraising. Some are experimenting with voluntary contributions only. In either case, support for synagogues requires generosity of resources. In addition to dues or financial contributions, it is customary, as a thank you, to make extra donations of charity to the synagogue at the time of a yahrzeit or when a clergy member officiates at a life cycle or other special event for a family.

Although synagogue customs and cultures vary from place to place, being part of a sacred community offers opportunities to elevate our souls, build relationships, and celebrate Jewish life – all of which are extremely valuable in today’s world.

Rabbi Denise L. Eger is the founding rabbi of Congregation Kol Ami in West Hollywood, CA, and the immediate past president of the Central Conference of American Rabbis. She blogs at Walking Humbly, Seeking Justice, Living With Hope and tweets as @deniseeger.

Rabbi Denise L. Eger
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