4 Things that Make a Synagogue Uncomfortable for Me


In a conversation with a young person who is Asian and Jewish (yes, halachically Jewish, as in has a Jewish mother) I asked, “Are you comfortable in a synagogue?” The answer was, no, so I asked why. The answer:

1. I didn’t get much Jewish education so I don’t really know what’s going on in a service. It’s not familiar to me.
2. No one looks like me (biracial). I’m an outsider.
3. I don’t go to shul so I am literally a stranger. People looking at me might be thinking who is he or they could be thinking, he’s Asian, why is he even here.
4. I’m a secular Jew and going to synagogue is a religious thing. I feel intrinsically that these are my people but I don’t feel comfortable with all this religion.

How can we, as a community, alter this situation?

1. Publicize services that are less formal – musical services, children’s services, learner’s services. These allow adults to come in with no knowledge and just enjoy.

2. We should hold as an ongoing goal to have a more racially diverse synagogue environment – one that matches the demographics of our larger community. How do we get Jews of color to come in our doors? This one is tough. The best way I’ve found to do this is to face it head on and offer not just one, but several programs about Jews of color. A discussion, a lecture, a film – all should be promoted to the community at large. Jews of color are typically not getting the “usual” Jewish media. To promote our What Color Are Jews? program we took out ads on BART. We treated this as a mainstream topic. Which it is.

3. As a member of a synagogue, just assume that everyone who comes in belongs there. It’s no skin off your nose if you treat someone well who turns out to be a non-Jew, a non-member, a curious Christian visiting. But don’t over do it. Smile, say “Shabbat Shalom” and move on.

4. Publicize the non-religious activities of your synagogue as strenuously as the religious ones. Do you take out an ad to announce your High Holy Day services? Consider taking out an ad to announce a class, lecture, or musical performance at your shul. Make sure you have events that someone brand new to the environment can join in without worrying that there will be prayers or Hebrew that is unfamiliar. Remember that a synagogue is “a house of prayer, a house of study and a house of assembly.” Assemble for a wine tasting, bagel bake off, a film, a book discussion and invite the community.