Showing up for Shabbat: a non-Jew goes to shul

03 November 2018

I went to my first Shabbat service today. I’ve been wanting to go for a while. After a Church of England schooling & a Muslim upbringing, my curiosity extended to the other Abrahamic faith of which I’d had little exposure. Finally, having come across Chief Rabbi Sacks on the BBC, I decided to learn a little bit more. That was 2 years ago.

Attendng a Sabbath service at a synaoguge today was not intentional. I first saw a mention of #ShowUpForShabbat #SolidarityShabbat via the Board of Deputies & the JLC during the Pittsburgh commemoration service in London. I had seen on social media one of the aftermath of attacks on mosques or synagogues: Muslims or Jews creating a fence around so that the other could pray. I wanted to extend this kindness to a community now in pain.

I was apprehensive about showing up. The Jewish community here in the South West is small. I was concious that Muslim and Jewish communities rarely interact. Would I be encroaching? Would they welcome me, a visibly different brown South Asian with a Muslim upbringing and name? Does being a petite woman instead of a man with a beard make me disarming? Is that in and of itself a problem and how does that perception extend to my two brothers?

Additionally, last week’s Torah portion was Parashat Vayera, which is about visiting strangers. The timing of it struck me. Last week, a stranger walked into a shul to commit devastating violence. This week, let me be the stranger who walks into a shul but to stand shoulder-to-shoulder with them. The motivation of service, support and solidarity was enough to put aside concerns with the self.

The only problem was that I didn’t know any practising Jews in Bristol. Well, I knew of one. By coincidence, I had met the Bristol University Rabbi/chaplain, Rabbi Alex Tsykin, who is also a Rabbi at the local shul/synagogue, a week earlier at an interfaith event some friends had organised on the topic of charity where he gave a short speech before leaving. I really wanted to speak to him, but lacked courage. He was the only Jewish educator/religious figure I had come across and I desparately wanted to learn more, but also ask questions. Just as he started to walk out, I jumped out of my seat to ask if it would be OK to contact him about Judaism. He said sure.

I wasn’t sure if he was being a typical Brit — polite, but ultimately insincere. He may not have meant it, but I did, so I got in touch: may I show up for Shabbat and/or guard your synagogue? Sure. Only he wouldn’t be in the country. I had no one whose shadow I could walk in. It would be like turning up at a party where you knew no one. For all the security I, a 4'10" woman, wanted to offer, I needed some security of my own.

I had no idea what to do next. Do I just turn up unexpectedly? Isn’t that what caused trouble just a week earlier? I knew synagogues in London had CST guarding synagogues, but I hadn’t seen any here. While I trusted that his permission was enough, I made a new plan: show up early enough to catch the other Rabbis and/or congregants as they enter the shul at 10am and introduce myself.

Great plan! Except I’m a student who can reliably be expected to sleep in on the weekend and I was a few minutes late standing beside a locked gate on an empty street. I note that unlike South Asians, Jews are prompt and on time. However, I would soon discover Jewish Mean Time and that it was one of the many religious and cultural similarities we’d have.

The gate is closed, but there’s a buzzer. Am I allowed to buzz or would that be terribly rude and intrusive while there’s a service going on? I pace outside the gate and watching for people while in a mild panic. It occurs to me that loitering at the gate of a synagogue ever so suspiciously might be alarming if not for my small stature. I spot an older chap crossing the road and walking determinedly towards the shul while taking a kippah out of his pocket. He opens the gate & we exchange a brisk ‘Hello!’ Just like that, I felt at ease and we entered together.

Amid a short itroduction and an explanation of intentions, we both pointed out at the same time that I’m not Jewish. He welcomes me in anyway. My purpose was to address the elephant in the room, while his was more practical: to explain how things work in a Synagogue. He tells me to head upstairs to the women’s section, adding that there probably won’t be any women. I’m alarmed — could the community here be that small? I expected lots of students, families, & young people in a city full of them.

He adds that it’s a long service entirely in Hebrew, so if I do wish to leave at any point, please could I close the gate for their safety. Otherwise, there’s kiddush after. Of course, I say, but how long is long? It depends. Oh! He didn’t expeect me to make it to the end, but I did — the whole three hours!

The gent wasn’t exaggerating. For around an hour, I was the only woman there. The rest, fewer than ten, were men. It occurs to me that this may be the last generation at this shul. I’d heard Rabbi Sacks express concern enough times to now, it seems, passively adopt it as if it were my own.

Two men seem to be leading the procession with another four men spread among the pews to the side. When I first arrived, they caught up on news followed by jovial banter, as only one can in a small community that sees each other regularly, before starting the service.

It’s while I was leaning over trying to see down at the bimah or pulipt and noticed the faces staring back that that I wondered how I had the nerve to do this. Almost immediately, the men had noticed my presence. While they glanced up, a couple wore an inquisitive expression while others wore one of surprise. I’m not sure if it’s because I’m a stranger, a brown person, or because I’m a woman. All three are an unusual sight here no doubt. One man looks up repeatedly as if to politely avoid staring. Another glances for a little bit longer than the others. Is it appropriate to wave to acknowledge this disturbance that I’ve caused? I don’t know, so I smile at him for as long as I can before it starts to become weird and possibly creepy.

The two Rabbis yell page numbers, which was unexpected before I finally realised that just because they’re reading from a book doesn’t mean they’re reading it in a linear order. Intermittently, the Rabbis went quiet & I’d get lost, which gave me an ipportunity to flick through the siddur or prayer book and read the translations. I wish I had a translation to follow while learning to read the classical Arabic of the Quran as a child; maybe I’d have questioned less (unlikely) and observed more (possibly) if I knew what it meant in my own language.

During the service, I’m thinking to myself, ‘Hashem chose me for a Muslim family because I can’t hit a single note’. The Rabbis — one from Aish, the other from Chabad — sing or recite a beautiful melody. I only understand bits of the service, but I’m struck by how poetic & majestic the language is in the Rabbi Sacks siddur, as well as the sound of the Hebrew singing filling the cavernous space. It’s a lovely way to start the weekend.

An hour in and a lady called Helen turns up & says Shabbat Shalom, which gives me unexpected joy. It makes me feel less like a stranger or Peeping Tom. We natter about our lives, we ask each other very frank questions, & seek each others’ opinions: it’s the kind of curious, earnest and well-intentioned first conversation I wish I could have with strangers in place of being asked “where are you from? No, where are you REALLY from?” It’s respectful from the outset. It doesn’t just seek to highlight my differences and thus make me feel othered, but to build a bridge to bring us together. She asks: ‘Can I go to a mosque as a (non-Muslim) woman?’ An emphatic yes! ‘Why aren’t there any women here?’ It’s not required. Where did you grow up? What brought you to Bristol? How many siblings do you have? How similar are Islam and Judaism? Quite, it seems.

Helen, a retired teacher (and proud of her former student and local boy done good Sajid Javid), and I declare ourselves new best friends. Soon after, a woman turns up with two infant sons, as do two female students, but they leave before the service ends. Another lady arrives to prepare the kiddush.

A couple more male members of the community arrive, as do three young male students — fifteen in all. Finally, A MINYAN! The feeling in the synagogue is palpably different — celebratory — and I’m happy that they get to open the Ark. I’m not sure why I’m particularly invested in this; I don’t even know what an Ark is, but I know that Noah sailed on it and Indiana Jones was looking for it (although I never watched the film to find out what it was).

Later, a student called David goes to the bimah (pulpit) to leyn (read the Torah) and is patiently helped by rabbis. It’s apparent that this is significant and it’s lovely to see everyone encouraging him.

There’s a moment in the service when they slow down and pause to commemorate the dead with a mourner’s kaddish (prayer). Hearing the Hebrew names of a congregant’s parent feels intimate. It’s not something an outsider might ever have heard unless finding oneself in the private world of a synagogue and Jewish communal life. The men mention a much-loved Israeli congregant who passed away from cance for whom the whole community turned up and filled what was today an empty shul. I picture this bulding — one that has served as the heart of a community for decades — brimming with life.

At the end of the service, the gentleman who welcomed me into the shul gave thanks to the rabbis, the student who did the leyning, &… me! It’s unexpected, thoughtful and incredibly touching. I don’t know why I am being thank when I feel it is he — they — who should be thanked for extending their trust by welcoming me into their space . He’s also wearing a technicolour tallit (prayer shawl) & kippah (skullcap) like Joseph, which brightened up an otherwise dreary day.

KIDDUSH TIME! Let me get my excitement out of the way: I HAD KUGEL! It was yummy and I really need a Jewish mother to adopt me. I chatted with some congregants while others hovered to listen out of curiosity. An elderly chap called Arnold patiently waits in line… to speak to me(!) curious about my story and how I found it. Although I went to show support for Jewish students, the lack of any didn’t hamper my experience. The ‘elders’ explain: students, here, at shul on a Saturday morning? Pah. They too like their weekend lie-ins.

More Shabbat Shaloms & thanks are exchanged, but there’s not enough time ot speak to everyone. We lament the inability to exchange contact details due to the ‘no pens or phones’ rule for the Sabbath, but I promise I’ll be back. I’m not sure how to deliver a thank you card without breaking the ‘no carrying’ rule and disrespecting Shabbat and the shul, but maybe I can exploit my non-Jewishness for a small exception?

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The experience of attending Park Row Synagogue in Bristol and meeting the local Jewish community, Jewish students, as well as Rabbi Alex Tsykin and his wife, Rebbetzin Ahuva, was transformative. In Alex and Ahuva, I found two intelligent, educated, and open minded people and I couldn’t think of better first teachers. To date, I haven’t yet found a Rabbi/Rebbetzin to fill their boots.

I made a ‘Thank You’ card, printed out Rabbi Sacks’ commentary on Parsha Vayera to put inside, and finally made it out of bed in time for the service three weeks later. It was the first time I would see or speak to the congregants again, but I discovered that they had already heard about my twitter thread.

The private act of attending the synagogue was out of respect and support for them, while inadvertently being a learning, development and enrichment opportunity for me. I had made a conscious decision not to name the shul or individuals out of respect for their safety and anonymity, but also not to tell them about my tweets. I didn’t want their act of welcoming me to their private and scared space, or my intentions and sincerity seem have even the appearance of being for internet notoriety. I also hoped to continue attending the shul, doing some formal learning, and wanted to maintain an organic relationship with the community.

The public act of sharing my experience on Twitter, while it was still Shabbat and thus shomer Shabbat Jews were offline, was for the sake of non-Jews. I wanted to break down any barriers by sharing a personal experience and interaction, as well as revealing what a service at a synagogue is like — it’s not the kind of thing one can usually turn up to and experience or see on BBC on a Saturday morning.

Rabbi Alex was there with his children and we had our first proper conversation, which ended with an invitation to join his family and students at his home for Shabbatsgiving lunch. I gladly accepted, but promised to stay behind at the behest of two congregants in order to have a cup of tea and chat — I dont know how I emembered his address, but I made it there on my own. Some students were curious — a new face, a brown one — and on introducing myself, I discoverd that they too had come across my thread and thought it heartwarming. It would be the first of many Shabbat meals.

So it was that I became an honourary Jew in Bristol. I had been invited back to shabbat dinners every week, and although excellent cooks, I didn’t just return for food. In the coming year, I experienced most of the Jewish calendar including Chanukkah and Purim — a series of firsts which I shared with this community of students and locals. I went to a Holocaust Memorial Day service at Bristol Town hall with Helen and was invited to join her at the synagogue for an event held by the three Rebbetzins wher I learnt to bake challah.

I went to Alex and Ahuva’s Lunch and Learns and shiurim (lessons) to learn more about Torah. It was exactly what I hoped for when I first approached Rabbi Alex. Through it, I learnt more about history, ethics, philosophy and the development of religion (and sadly have not found their equals to continue teaching me). They left for abroad and I left for London, but I carried on learning whereever I could.

Their willingness to answer any questions — mine being rudimentary - was enriching and challenged my own thinking. Having struggled with Islam, I found two educators who helped me to understand some of the foundations, while exemplifying the kind of religious education that I knew could exist but hadn’t not seen. I grew to love Judaism and Jewish studies and was excited about how more there is to learn and explore. Maybe one day I’ll learn Gemara!

Maybe most bizarre is that while feeling out of place at Bristol for being different — neither white nor middle class nor belonging to a sizeable community of my own — I felt welcome and at home in theirs and formed friendships.

Finally, my #ShowUpForShabbat was not just because of Pittsburgh or my own personal curiosity. It was also in solidarity with British Jews. It was because I am a left-leaning person appalled by the handling of anti-Semitism in the Labour party. It was because I am a student who knows others don’t feel comfortable being openly Jewish on campus. I’ve been listening quietly, but attentively, unsure of what difference I could make or indeed how and whether it would be welcome. This was so your voice didn’t end up into the ether.

Shabbat Shalom / Shavuot Tov!